We’ve Been Asking the Wrong Questions about Conservation

Expansion of agricultural activities due to changing rainfall in the mountains of Africa’s Albertine Rift and the valleys of the Congo Basin now threatens gorilla habitat there. Credit: A.J. Plumptre/WCS.

By James Watson
July 29, 2013

In looking at how best to protect wildlife from the growing climate change crisis, conservation scientists usually ignore the single most significant impact on fauna and flora: the changes warming drives in the behaviour of its dominant species — humans — and resultant effects on the living world and natural processes. Those effects are already driving many of the climate-related ecological shifts we are witnessing across the globe.

For example, the opening up of the Arctic for oil and gas, mining and transport routes as sea-ice retreats directly impacts polar biodiversity. Expansion of agricultural activities due to changing rainfall in the mountains of Africa’s Albertine Rift and the valleys of the Congo Basin now threatens gorilla habitat there.

Elsewhere, the construction of ineffective seawalls in Papua New Guinea to slow down the impact of sea-level rise has led to the wholesale destruction of some of the most biodiverse and protein-productive coral reefs in the world. Increasing temperatures across the high-altitude Tibetan plateau likewise contribute to a shift in the formerly stable balance between indigenous herders and wildlife, both of which graze the delicate grasslands.

The list is endless but is it not all negative. For example, in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, efforts by local communities to control a growing number of wildfire incidents, associated with a drying climate, are having a positive impact on vulnerable populations of threatened species like jaguar.

In the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, efforts by local communities to control a growing number of wildfire incidents, associated with a drying climate, are having a positive impact on vulnerable populations of threatened species like jaguar. Credit: Ben Schilling ©WCS Guatemala

Nevertheless, it would appear that in their work on climate change, conservation scientists have forgotten a basic tenet of our field: that conservation is fundamentally about people.

A survey of the literature shows that in 2013, more than 6,500 climate-change-related papers have been published in peer-reviewed conservation journals. The vast majority of these examine how and where future temperature and rainfall changes will make species more vulnerable.

While direct threats to species are often less challenging to identify, quantify and predict, indirect threats can often be far more significant and lasting. Nowhere is this more true than with climate change. For example, while hard to perceive on the ground, the risk that a national park will likely become the best place to grow food can be the most relevant threat to species found there.

The misdirection of conservation science when it comes to climate change is not due to a lack of data or a lack of time to undertake relevant research. It is more basic than that. We’ve been asking the wrong questions.

Understanding the ecology of species and their likely responses to climate change is helpful, but understanding how humans are going to be affected by climate and what this impact will be on those species is far more important.

Increasing temperatures across the high-altitude Tibetan plateau are contributing to a shift in the formerly stable balance between indigenous herders and wildlife. Credit: Joel Berger/WCS.

As a conservationist who has spent his career looking at climate change impacts, I have largely stopped worrying about working out how species are going to respond and begun focusing on how human adaptations will affect those species. It is clear to me that this is what our immediate priority should be.

Failure to predict likely human adaptations to climate change commits us to a future of reactive, emergency responses likely to be wholly inadequate to the demands of the coming century. With greater attention to this subject, we can target conservation resources preemptively to meet more effectively and efficiently what many of us believe to be the greatest global challenge of our time.

— — — — — — — — — —
Dr James Watson is an associate professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, global president of the Society for Conservation Biology, and director of science and research initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society.


A version of this article was originally published at The Guardian on July 29, 2013.

WCS Conservation Solutions

By discovering how to save nature, we can inspire everyone to work with us to protect wildlife in the last wild places on Earth.

Wildlife Conservation Society

Written by

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

WCS Conservation Solutions

By discovering how to save nature, we can inspire everyone to work with us to protect wildlife in the last wild places on Earth.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade