Climate change must not blow conservation off course

One of the paths that our lab meetings seem to inevitably, and unintentionally, follow is to end up discussing whether science research consistently focuses on topics that we think are the most important. Conservation is a tough science to be in. The discipline exists because something is wrong and needs fixing, however recent emphasis on global climate change suggests problems like these have already reached a point that is irreversible, so it has developed more into a task of planning and mitigation.

A recent paper in Nature argues this point. Although climate change will continue to be the most important theme in the foreseeable future of conservation science, it must be noted that topics that have received more interest historically, such as deforestation and habitat fragmentation, have not lessened their threat to species extinctions.

Tingley et. al. warn although climate change is receiving an awful lot of research attention at present, in most  cases of biodiversity conservation it is not the most urgent threat. We know so little about how species will respond to climate change that modelling its effects on species based on arbitrary metrics (e.g. kilometres/year climate change velocity) may prove ineffectual.

In fact, the authors point out, the closer we look at species’ responses to our warming planet, the more surprises we uncover. Despite a 1-2C mean temperature increase in nearly one hundred years, only half of the birds in California’s Sierra Nevada responded by moving to higher elevations as one may have predicted. Closer to home in Florida, rapid evolution of thermal physiology (1, 2) have allowed species to persist in areas that previous ecological data suggest they wouldn’t have been able to.

Finding a way of combining the multiple axes of biodiversity threats remains one of conservation science’s biggest challenges. No one aspect will dictate the success of species in the future. Various methods exist to help conservationists to factor climate change uncertainties into their priority-setting, but as yet there is no consensus on how the future threat of climate change should be compared to ongoing and more certain threats, such as land-use change.

However, this itself presents a moral dilemma; why save species from immediate threats when their long-term survival is in question? I view this as short-sighted. Although our success with some species may be limited, what we do know from millennia of science is that theory builds on theory. It is likely that the state of the world’s ecosystem is ever going to plateau but instead continue on its negative trajectory. Although the success of individual species conservation efforts may be hard few and far between, the applications for these methods, and interpretations from their results, will continue to help conservation efforts in the future.


– James Stroud

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