Conservation Now: Blogging from IUCN 2016

An Investor’s Perspective on Climate Change

The Adirondacks State Park, NY, where boreal wetlands are changing rapidly along with the composition of species that live in them. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

By Darren Long
September 24, 2016

[NOTE: This is the seventh in a series of blogs by WCS staff who attended the IUCN World Conservation Congress that took place September 1–10 in Honolulu, Hawaii]

Recuperated at last from my recent trip to the once-every-four-year Conservation Olympics (known by some as the IUCN World Conservation Congress) in Hawaii and its requisite jet lag, I took some time to reflect on what I saw and heard there.

The issue of climate change was front and center at the Congress, as you might expect on the heels of the historic Paris Climate Agreement signed in April. Even more encouraging, climate was not treated as a stand-alone issue to be dealt with separately from other conservation challenges. Climate change discussions were integrated with talks that I saw focused on wildlife, sustainable development, agriculture, disaster risk reduction, food security, human health, economics, and livelihoods.

A second great leap forward for the conservation narrative is this: woven into the overarching climate change thesis is a growing recognition among scientists and practitioners that conservation is no longer just about protecting charismatic or endangered species for nature’s sake. Today it includes the idea that our natural ecosystems are fundamentally important to sustaining all life on earth — including our own.

Intact and high biodiversity montane cloud forest, eastern Ecuador. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

Ecosystems provide essential services. They regulate our climate; cycle soil nutrients and pollinate our crops; supply clean and plentiful water; buffer our communities from extreme storm events; mitigate disease; and have immeasurable cultural, health, recreational, and aesthetic values for all mankind. There is much discussion of how climate change and our actions on both land and seascapes are impacting nature’s ability to provide a living, breathing, functional planet for all of us.

Conservationists perhaps don’t often think of their work as a series of investments, but essentially that’s what we do. Every day conservation agencies, governments, and nonprofit organizations make strategic decisions on where to best direct their limited budgets in pursuit of the highest impacts. With luck, we will continue to invest in protecting and restoring our ecosystems over the coming decades. But when, where, and how should we invest for maximum return given both the current and expected future impacts of climate change?

Hedge fund investors and venture capitalists seek a financial return on their investment (ROI). Private philanthropic funders, along with agencies that serve the public, seek an ROI that is social and environmental rather than financial. At the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, for example, we make investment decisions designed to address climate change adaptation in innovative new ways that seed future financial support for adaptation work.

Categories of ecosystem services. From the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005.

For the past five years, the Fund has endeavored to catalyze a fundamental shift in how government agencies and nonprofit organizations conduct the business of conservation to consider climate change factors in their investments. But where to invest, given projected climate impacts, can be a complex question.

Our response, with a finite amount of investment capital, has been to focus our resources on those ecosystems that, even despite the projected impacts of climate change, are expected to persist as functional habitat for species well into the future.

Some scientists refer to these places as “climate refuges,” where conditions are expected to change relatively little and will continue to provide suitable resources for many species. Refuge areas are those categorized as highly adaptive, meaning they have both low exposure and low vulnerability to climate change.

Coral reefs off Vamizi island in the northern Mozambique channel escaped the 1998 marine heat wave and mass bleaching event cooled by ocean gyres in the shadow of Madagascar. Credit: Emily Darling/WCS.

Nature Conservancy scientist Marc Anderson has another twist on this strategy that he calls, “Conserving the Stage” — the stage being areas that are expected to remain resilient to climate change based on a landscape’s geologic features. While the species that inhabit those places in the future may not look the same as those that live there today, we can expect that biodiversity will exist there in one form or another.

My WCS colleague James Watson published another study in Current Biology just this month observing that we’ve lost 10 percent of the world’s wilderness areas in the past two decades alone. These large intact areas (generally greater than 10,000 square kilometers) are particularly important as both refuges for wildlife and as some of our most climate-resilient ecological strongholds that will continue to provide many of the ecosystems services that sustain the web of life (if left undamaged, of course). Our current rate of destruction is alarming, unsustainable, unacceptable, and must be curtailed.

From an economic perspective, these remaining vast and intact areas of wilderness are the low-hanging fruit for any conservation investor. In most cases, these wilderness areas will offer sustainable long-term ROI even in a climate-impacted world. One thing we know for sure: it’s much cheaper to protect an intact ecosystem than to pay the cost to put one back together.

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Darren Long directs the Climate Adaptation Fund at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).