How will climate change affect our work?

on 12 Mar 2013 

As Melbournians swelter through the longest run of above 30º days on record, it’s timely to consider how climate change may affect the way we work to conserve biodiversity. Clair D and I recently participated in a workshop convened by Trust for Nature and led by Michael Dunlop from CSIRO called “Contributing to a sustainable future for Australia’s biodiversity under climate change: Conservation goals for dynamic management of ecosystems”. The workshop brought together people from the Trust, Parks Victoria, the Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victorian Environmental Assessment Council and Central Vic Biolinks, and showcased recent research from CSIRO that indicate that:

1. Ecological change will be widespread and potentially very significant
By 2070, most places in Australia will be ecologically more different from their current conditions than they are similar. This will also lead to ‘novel’ environments – combinations of species assemblages that currently do not exist anywhere. Novel environments are most likely to occur through the north of Australia (see dark purple areas on the map). Changes in southern Australia will also be profound but will likely resemble ecosystems that currently exist in northern or central Australia. In general, there will be a decline in heavily forested areas, and an increase in open woodlands, chenopod shrublands and grassland

2. Biodiversity will be affected by climate change in many different ways
Species may use different parts of the landscape within their existing geographical range, or they may shift where they occur completely. For many species, the greatest challenge will be living with a bunch of new species (eg. new competitors or predators) that are likely to move into an area as a result of climate change. There will also be changes to ecological processes (eg. fire and flooding regimes, rates of evaporation and transpiration) and changes in vegetation structure and composition, which will affect the type, functioning and health of ecosystems.

3. There will be much spatial variation in ecological change
The impacts of climate change will vary considerably across landscapes due to environmental variation along broad climatic gradients and local variation in topography and soils.

There was much discussion about the implications of these findings, and how societal values shape biodiversity planning and conservation. From our perspective, the most salient points were:

(i) the magnitude of ecosystem change associated with climate change is likely to be much greater than that associated with management interventions or current climatic fluctuations – therefore, manage for a “preferred future state” rather than the current state;

(ii) incorporate uncertainty into conservation objectives and management strategies – we don’t know exactly what the preferred future state will look like but we know what we don’t want, so manage to prevent undesirable future states; and

(iii) conservation objectives should focus on attributes that are dynamic rather than static – for example, the existence of a species rather than measures of abundance and distribution, or ecosystem health rather than ecosystem composition, structure or function.

A key message was that ecosystem variation and representativeness remains critical to the reserve system: what is a representative reserve system now will still be representative under future climate change projections. Moreover, the best way to buffer climate change impacts and allow species to adapt to new climatic conditions is to include as many different ecosystem types as possible in reserves, and manage them to reduce other environmental stresses. So, the overarching message is to "keep doing what we are doing but do more of it" but with perhaps a little more climate-savvy objectives and planning.

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