Reassessing Conservation Goals in a Changing Climate

Climate change poses a hierarchy of significant challenges for conservation policy. First, the sheer scale of climate change calls for conservation efforts to be vastly stepped up. Second, the pace and extent of expected climate change will probably undermine the effectiveness of traditional conservation tools focused on protecting designated areas from human intrusion. The search for novel conservation strategies that will stand up to global shifts in climate highlights a third challenge: New conditions and new tools require a reassessment of our conservation goals. This third challenge has so far not been the subject of much debate, but merits closer and more systematic attention. The debate may be uncomfortable, but avoiding it complicates the tasks of prioritizing conservation efforts and choosing conservation tools. More important, the failure to explicitly identify conservation goals that acknowledge climate change is likely to lead to failure to achieve those goals.

The threat of climate change to conservation policy is daunting. Climate change is altering habitats on a grand scale. Species around the world are shifting their ranges to accommodate warming trends. Under any reasonable projection of greenhouse gas emissions, the rate of change will accelerate in coming decades. For species with small populations or specialized habitat requirements, climate change poses special challenges. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declined to list it as endangered or threatened, the American pika remains an excellent example. The pika, a heat-sensitive mammal that is native to the mountaintops of the American West, can only move so far uphill and cannot migrate to higher or more northerly mountains because it cannot survive the intervening low-elevation habitat.

Unfortunately, the magnitude of impending climate change also worsens the prospects for species whose conservation status is not currently directly tied to climatic limitations. For example, the Florida torreya is an endangered conifer found only in a handful of stands along a 35-mile stretch of the Apalachicola River in Florida and Georgia. These populations are currently threatened by an outbreak of a thus-far unidentified disease. Species such as torreya, currently threatened by multiple stresses such as disease, invasive species, and human development, are common throughout the world. Climate change will make their conservation more difficult.

Overall, climatic shifts will place at risk many more species, communities, and systems than are currently protected. The magnitude and details of the extinction threat are uncertain, but that uncertainty is itself a challenge to conservation efforts, because conservation planning and implementation are long-term efforts. There is little doubt that future demands will strain the resources available for conservation, which have long been stretched thin.

Inadequate conventional tools

Our dominant conservation strategy, the designation of reserves, is mismatched to a world that is increasingly dynamic. The reserve strategy rests on the assumption that nature can be protected in sanctuaries walled off from human effects. But no reserve is immune to changes in atmospheric composition, temperature, and rainfall. Furthermore, no reserve manager has or is likely to be given authority to control the entire spectrum of activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions. In a changing climate, reserves may become inhospitable to the resources they are intended to protect. For example, preserves designed to conserve Florida torreya may, even now, not be adequate to protect and promote the growth of existing populations, which are declining. Large climate shifts could further undermine their effectiveness. Similarly, mountain reserves will do little to save pika populations, because no reserve can hold back the changing climate.

What proportion of the world’s species will find themselves limited by existing conservation strategies? Estimates of climate-driven extinction range as high as one-third of all species, including plants, vertebrates, invertebrates, fungi, and microbes. In addition to species extinctions, climate change threatens genetic diversity within species, as well as the ecosystem functions performed by species and ecological communities, such as providing fresh water and controlling pest populations. Currently, we do not have the ecological knowledge to forecast the magnitude of these effects accurately. However, static reserve systems will probably not be able to accommodate the biotic shifts projected to occur in coming decades.

The expectation that current reserves will prove ineffective has spurred the development of more exotic and novel conservation tools. Ex-situ conservation efforts aimed at preserving rare species and genotypes that have been lost in the wild are enjoying new popularity. New strategies have also been proposed, notably including managed relocation, defined as the deliberate relocation of species, genotypes, or ecological communities to new locations where they have a greater chance of persisting under emerging climate conditions. The Torreya Guardians, a grassroots conservation group, has introduced torreya to forests in North Carolina, far north of the species’ historical range. They argue that northern climates are superior for the growth of torreya and for its resistance to disease. Opponents of managed relocation respond that the deliberate introduction of non-native species, even for conservation purposes, courts the disastrous consequences associated with invasive species. It is still in the early stages, but a robust dialogue has been sparked about the appropriate use of these new tools.

Reevaluating existing goals

The third challenge of climate change—the challenge to established conservation goals—has not yet received enough sustained attention. Confronting this challenge is essential to effectively dealing with the first two, because the priorities necessary in a resource-constrained world cannot be sensibly set, nor can conservation strategies be selected and evaluated without reference to the underlying goals. Many observers have noticed that climate change will make it difficult to achieve established conservation goals. None, however, has grappled in a concrete way with how those goals might need to be reconsidered. In fact, existing conservation goals are insufficiently examined under current conditions. Climate change simply makes the consequences of continuing to avoid that examination more apparent.

There are, of course, many different conservation goals and many different conservation contexts. Here we focus on public conservation efforts, for which both the goals and the strategies are necessarily open to public debate. Public conservation goals are complex and often surprisingly opaque. It is useful to distinguish between the “why” and the “what” aspects of those goals; that is, between the guiding principles that motivate public conservation efforts and the conservation targets selected.

The principles can be quite abstract. They include maintaining useful resources for present and future generations, providing durable opportunities for nonconsumptive environmental experiences, and protecting elements of nature for their own sake. Frequently, multiple principles motivate political action. The potential for tension between those principles is often ignored.

Conservation policy targets give tangible form to the general motivating principles. They must be concrete and identifiable to make policy implementation and enforcement practicable. Conservation targets are commonly tied to the preservation of existing conditions or elements of nature, or the restoration of conditions thought to have existed at some historical reference point. Examples include the preservation or recovery of viable populations of native species; the preservation of iconic landscapes in what is believed to have been their historical condition; and the maintenance of existing ecosystem services. Targets may serve one or more motivating principles. Species protection, for example, simultaneously preserves useful or potentially useful resources, protects the opportunity for specific experiences, and fulfills ethical obligations to protect species for their own sake.

Climate change complicates the achievement of conventional conservation targets in ways that make it necessary to unpack their relationship to the underlying motivating principles, and to sort out priorities among those principles. Changing climate conditions may, for example, make it impossible to maintain the combination of goals we have come to expect of landscapes designated as reserves: historical continuity, protection of current features, and “naturalness,” in the sense that ecological processes occur with only limited human direction or assistance.

Managed relocation

Proposals for managed relocation bring those tensions sharply into focus. The world is becoming a very different climatic place. It will not be possible to preserve some current species in the wild if the climate envelope they require disappears. Other species may survive only if they are moved to locations to which they have no known historic tie. That in turn may affect the native biota of the receiving location in ways that are difficult to predict.

Conservation targets, therefore, may need to change, or new mechanisms for making tradeoffs between conflicting targets may need to be developed. The prospects are daunting, because if targets such as historical continuity or protecting existing constituents of natural systems are relaxed, new end points are not obvious. In other words, it may appear that there is no viable substitute for current conservation targets. Especially because of the political pressures that can be brought to bear against conservation, reopening discussion on those targets presents real risks for conservation advocates. It is not surprising that the conservation community has not been anxious to debate goals.

But there are also costs to avoiding the goals debate. The issue of managed relocation illustrates the kinds of questions that must be confronted when setting priorities or choosing strategies, and why those questions can’t be answered without a clearer understanding of the principles behind conservation policy.

First, if it is sometimes desirable to move species beyond their historic range, what differentiates “good” translocations from “bad” ones? A 1999 presidential executive order allows the deliberate introduction of exotic species if the benefits are thought to outweigh the harms. Is that the right test for managed relocation? If so, how should harm be evaluated? Should relocation be acceptable if, for example, it affects the abundance of native species at the target site but does not rapidly eliminate any of those species?

Second, if historic conditions are no longer the touchstone, how can we identify desirable end points? Is the goal to help species disperse as they would do on their own without anthropogenic habitat fragmentation or anthropogenic acceleration of the rate of climate change? Is that an appropriate and measurable objective? Are more–culturally defined end points needed in light of the challenges that climate change presents to traditional understandings of naturalness, nativeness, and wilderness? Can such end points be made operational?

Third, how should the effects of managed relocation on receiving communities be distributed? Given resource limitations, it is highly unlikely that a candidate species will be transferred to all potential receiving habitats. Governments will almost certainly have to choose. That raises the possibility that decisions will be made solely on the basis of the political power, or lack thereof, of target communities. Should an environmental justice analysis be an element of conservation decisions? Should such an analysis be applied only to strategies that alter historic conditions, or to conventional preservation strategies as well?

Fourth, who should make these choices, and through what processes? Decisions about who decides are particularly complex and uncertain, given the prevailing piecemeal nature of natural resource governance. For the many migrations and translocations that are likely to cross political borders, a host of local, state, federal, multinational, and international authorities with different and often incompatible objectives may be implicated. This is true regardless of whether the primary threat to species survival is climate change, overhunting, habitat loss, the spread of disease, or a synergistic combination of anthropogenic threats and rapid environmental change. For example, some conservationists recently proposed relocating the Iberian lynx, an endangered species that scientists fear will become the first large cat to go extinct within the past 2,000 years. Translocations are proposed from its rapidly shrinking and fragmenting habitat in Spain to what is viewed as a more suitable range in Scotland. Yet the current international system of fragmented and generally uncoordinated authority was not designed to manage broad shifts in climatic and environmental conditions—or to facilitate such long-term, active management of landscape-scale movements of vegetation and wildlife across different jurisdictions.

In addition, what roles should scientists, regulators, direct stakeholders, and the public play in untangling and resolving these difficult tradeoffs? Making a historic baseline the target limits management discretion to some extent, at least if the baseline is reasonably clear. By limiting discretion, a historic baseline keeps the decisions about tradeoffs in the hands of the public. Removing the constraint of historical continuity gives unelected regulators more discretion, so that decisions become more technocratic. At the same time, those decisions may become less scientific, if unconstrained regulators decide to use cost/benefit analysis or tools other than science to make those choices.

We do not pretend to have the answers to these difficult questions. We believe they should be the subject of broad discussion involving, at least, conservation scientists (who can help society understand the biological consequences of different choices), lawyers and resource managers (who can help ensure that policy targets can be put into effect), ethicists (who can help clarify the motivations for conservation and their relationship to choices of targets and tools), and the public (who will inevitably be affected by both conservation outcomes and the costs of implementing conservation programs). Such a discussion is needed now, before resource managers implement potentially irreversible strategies with poorly understood consequences.

One way to begin the discussion might be through the creation of an interdisciplinary advisory group that could provide a forum for a “deliberative community” of the sort recommended by Ben Minteer and Jim Collins of Arizona State University in a December 6, 2005, article in Conservation Biology. Such a committee could develop a set of principles and a broad domestic policy framework under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, or perhaps in a parallel effort at the international level, under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In any case, the composition of the group is more important than the conveyor, because the group would be asked to deal with the inherently interdisciplinary tasks of exploring the challenges that climate change poses to conservation principles and targets, identifying potential conflicts, and suggesting frameworks for evaluating tradeoffs and choosing among options. Although decisions on these questions ultimately require value choices that are the province of democratically accountable authorities, such an interdisciplinary advisory group could provide valuable guidance and help put the issues on the political agenda.

Although humans have long claimed a stewardship role in the management of the world’s natural resources, the precise contours of that role are called into question by climate change. Managed relocation and similar interventionist strategies to conserve species signal a shift to a far more activist and hands-on approach to conservation. That shift may make many environmental scientists and conservation professionals uncomfortable. Indeed, the heavy human hand required for such efforts, creating the possibility of destructive meddling in ecological systems, opens it up to charges of managerial arrogance, especially by those who place a premium on ecological integrity as a policy goal. Such criticisms of aggressive anthropocentrism and technological dominance have become a mainstay of contemporary preservationist thought. Yet the emerging effects of climate change on natural systems make clear that substantial human intervention has already occurred, and the ecological and human costs of failing to intervene to sustain and promote ecological health and function may be immense.

Ultimately, then, climate change forces us to decide whether we want to be curators seeking to restore and maintain resources for their historical significance; gardeners trying to maximize aesthetic or recreational values; farmers attempting to maximize economic yield; or trustees attempting to actively manage and protect wild species from harm even if that sometimes requires moving them to a more hospitable place.

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Cite this Article

Camacho, Alejandro E., Holly Doremus, Jason S. McLachlan, and Ben A. Minteer. “Reassessing Conservation Goals in a Changing Climate.” Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 4 (Summer 2010).

Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Summer 2010