Transforming conservation in a changing climate

Conservation investments are at risk of failing as the climate changes. The good news is that conservation practitioners are experimenting with novel approaches to conservation that embrace the realities of this pressing global challenge.

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Billions of dollars support nature conservation every year; yet estimates indicate that investments fall short of what is actually needed. With limited financial resources, it is critical that every investment delivers the expected outcomes. That requires ensuring conservation actions are effective in the face of a changing climate.

As conservation scientists studying the ecological impacts of climate change, our team at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) became concerned that some philanthropic investments in forest protection, coastal marsh restoration, and grassland rehabilitation could literally go up in smoke with more severe wildfires, be drowned by rising seas, or wilt during longer and hotter droughts projected with climate change. 

In response, we partnered with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in 2011 to create the Climate Adaptation Fund, a new grantmaking program that supports implementation of innovative approaches to conservation designed to be more robust to future climate conditions.

Between 2011 and 2019, we invested more than $19 million USD in over 100 climate-informed conservation projects across the United States. As we embarked on our 10th year of grantmaking in 2020, we stepped back to examine our portfolio of funded projects and assess how the conservation field has adjusted to the realities of climate change. 

Volunteers restore an abandoned agricultural field in a key wildlife corridor that connects neighboring mountain ranges in California, providing wildlife with options for movement and refuge from the impacts of a changing climate (Credit: The Nature Conservancy).

There have been intensifying calls in the academic literature for conservation practitioners to take a more transformative approach to climate adaptation. Such transformation includes strategies once deemed unthinkable, such as the translocation of plants and animals to new areas projected to be suitable in the future. 

The justification for this shift hinges on the understanding that climate change will drive significant ecological transformations, and thus—in the words of the Borg aliens from Star Trek—“resistance is futile.” We were curious about the extent to which practitioners, supported by our Fund, were heeding this call for more future-looking adaptation approaches.

So we partnered with researchers at the University of British Columbia to develop and apply a framework for characterizing the types of projects we have funded. The novel scale we created, termed the R-R-T for Resistance-Resilience-Transformation, ranges from active resistance to accelerated transformation. It offers a progressive classification system, representing increasing acceptance of changes in ecosystem structure and function. 

When we characterized the 100+ climate adaptation projects in our portfolio using this new scale, we found an increasing trend towards transformation over the past decade. This suggests that perceptions about the acceptance of novel interventions in principle are beginning to be expressed in practice.

Transformational projects range from ones that passively allow changes to happen to those that actively intervene in shaping an ecosystem’s future. Passive transformation includes projects like one led by The Nature Conservancy that restored a key tract of abandoned agricultural land to allow wildlife to move among neighboring mountain ranges, as needed, to seek suitable climate and habitat conditions as they shift across the landscape. 

Accelerated transformation projects, in contrast, involve more extreme interventions. For example, Pacific Rim Conservation is rescuing seabirds from low-lying atolls inundated by rising seas and storm surges—moving the birds to newly-established habitat on higher ground.

As the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are threatened by sea level rise, Pacific Rim Conservation is translocating Black-footed Albatrosses, Bonin Petrels, and Tristam’s Storm Petrels to safer habitats at higher elevation on the main Hawaiian Islands (Credit L. Young).

This is not to say that all conservation projects should adopt transformative strategies; there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to climate change adaptation for conservation. Precautionary “low risk” actions aimed at resistance and resilience, such as protecting intact ecosystems, remain valuable. 

The growing rate and magnitude of climate change demands that we seriously consider when and where transformative actions may be necessary. The good news is that more practitioners are embracing this reality and demonstrating innovative approaches to cope with this pressing global challenge.  



Molly Cross

Climate Change Adaptation Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Society

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