Climate-ready conservation objectives: A scoping study

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Michael Dunlop
Hannah Parris
Paul Ryan
Frederieke Kroon
CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship
Interface NRM

This project developed a ‘climate ready’ approach to managing biodiversity to accommodate many ecological changes, remain relevant over time and conserve multiple dimensions that are valued by society.


Anticipated future climate change is very likely to have a wide range of different types of ecological impact on biodiversity across the whole of Australia. There is a high degree of confidence that these changes will be significant, affecting almost all species, ecosystems and landscapes. However, because of the complexity of ecological systems and the multiple ways climate change will affect them, the details of the future change are less certain for any given species or location. The nature of the changes means that the multiple ways biodiversity is experienced, used and valued by society will be affected in different ways. 

The likely changes present a significant challenge to any societal aspiration to preserve biodiversity in its current state, for example, to maintain a species in its current abundance and distribution. Preserving biodiversity ‘as is’ may have been feasible in a stationary climate (one that is variable but not changing), but this will not be possible with the widespread, pervasive and large ecological changes anticipated under significant levels of climate change. This makes the impacts of climate change quite unlike other threats to biodiversity, and they challenge, fundamentally, what it actually means to conserve biodiversity under climate change: what should the objectives of biodiversity conservation be under climate change? And what are the barriers to recalibrating conservation objectives?

Based on key insights from the scientific literature on climate change and biodiversity, the project developed three adaptation propositions about managing biodiversity:

  1. Conservation strategies accommodate large amounts of ecological change and the likelihood of significant climate change–induced loss in biodiversity. 
  2. Strategies remain relevant and feasible under a range of possible future trajectories of ecological change.
  3. Strategies seek to conserve the multiple different dimensions of biodiversity that are experienced and valued by society. 

Together these propositions summarise the challenge of future climate change for biodiversity conservation, and define a new way of framing conservation we called the ‘climate ready’ approach. In the near term, conservation strategies may be able to include some consideration of these propositions. However, under significant levels of climate change many of the current approaches to conservation will become increasingly difficult and ineffective (e.g. maintaining community types in their current locations). This challenge is fundamentally different from that posed by other threats to biodiversity, and the climate-ready approach is akin to a paradigm shift in conservation.

The project used a review of 26 conservation strategy documents (spanning scales from international to local) and four case studies with conservation agencies to test and refine the climate-ready approach. The project found the approach to be robust and highly relevant; in the majority of situations, if adopted, it would lead to significant changes in the objectives and priorities of conservation. There were also many ‘green shoots’ of elements of the new approach in existing conservation practice. However, the project found there are currently substantial barriers to fully adopting a climate-ready approach. These include the need for: 

  • further development of ecological characterisation of ecosystem health and human activities in landscapes
  • much better understanding of how society values different aspects of biodiversity, including ecosystems and landscapes
  • development of policy tools to codify and implement new ecologically robust and socially endorsed objectives. 

Please cite this report as: 
Dunlop M, Parris, H, Ryan, P & Kroon, F 2013, Climate-ready conservation objectives: A scoping study, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 102 pp

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