Nature cannot keep pace with climate change and needs our help to adapt. Currently, climate change adaptation actions are lagging behind mitigation measures but as those adaptation actions for nature become more widespread, it’s increasingly important to know how well these are working. A new paper provides a practical step forward.   

The UK Climate Change Committee notes a widening adaptation gap – the actions we’re taking, such as coastal realignments, developing new wetlands, increasing the heterogeneity of nature sites, are nevertheless falling behind the increasing need for these measures, even compared to the scale of these actions five years ago.

Construction work at RSPB Medmerry, a reserve at the forefront of highlighting how to manage coastal change. (c) RSPB (rspb-images.com)

Globally also, the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports that whilst many adaptation plans have been developed there is limited evidence about the extent of adaptation measures in place, and virtually no scientific evidence of the value of the adaptation actions that are being undertaken.  Yet the more we delay effective adaptation action the more difficult and expensive it becomes to successfully help nature along the pathway of climate change.

The latest research 

A new paper published in the journal Ecological Indicators, with a team including the BTO, Natural England and the RSPB, proposes a new framework for assessing adaptation. In essence, the framework consists of three process-based and two results-based indicator types to track progress in adapting to climate change.  

The process-based indicators assess the key stages of getting adaptation underway, culminating with practical action on the ground delivering ecological change.  The first stage assesses the ‘enabling conditions’ that provide the framework for adaptation action. Getting these in place is particularly significant for climate change adaptation as a largely new aspect being introduced into the management of the natural environment. 

The indicator sequence then moves onto the second stage, assessing that the required actions are being delivered, and then thirdly, that they have achieved the expected result short-term result – for example, if an action to create a new area of habitat has been colonised as expected.     

Two results-focused indicators then assess the effectiveness of these actions for climate change adaptation.  The first stage starts to identify whether the actions have had the desired adaptation impact – so for example, has the colonisation of new habitat contributed to achieving a species distribution shift, or has increasing connectivity between sites boosted metapopulation size? Ultimately, success will be measured by maintaining healthy species populations and habitats in a changing climate, which our final stage of ‘impact measures’ will track over longer time scales. 

Fig. 1. Framework to track adaptation of the natural environment to climate change. The steps required for adaptation actions are outlined in light blue, with the different scales of responses in dark blue. These are monitored and evaluated (dashed arrows) to give a series of process-based indicator types (light orange) and results-based indicator types (dark orange). Depending upon progress with different indicators, various feedback loops (dotted arrows) may initiate additional adaptation actions, starting the process again.

Challenges in assessments 

As well as exploring examples of this indicator framework, the paper also discusses some of the conceptual, analytical and practical challenges in assessing adaptation success.  Vital at the outset, is to define and agree what successful adaptation seeks to achieve.  This may cover several different aspects – for example, should the focus be on retaining a species threatened at the southern edge of its range, or securing population growth in its core range, or facilitating range expansion at the northern, leading edge of its range?  And adaptation aims will develop and change over time as climate impacts increase, new adaptation needs are defined, and indeed as intervention actions are monitored and evaluated.  

There’s the important aspect of attribution. Nature is often subject to several pressures and vulnerabilities, of which climate change may be just one, alongside poor-quality habitat, pollution, disturbance and many more.  What are the key (non-climate) pressures for the nature interest, and how much does climate change contribute, both now and in the coming years? How do climate adaptation activities stack up alongside the other conservation actions?  

And of course, the long running issue of effective monitoring along all five stages of the framework. We probably need more attention to the early, empowering aspects, we’ll need more resource in the field, and to look at both a project and strategic assessment of the outcome impacts of adaptation actions. There is considerable potential for citizen science monitoring schemes to play an important part here. Well-designed schemes, like the Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey, run by the BTO in partnership with and supported by RSPB and JNCC, and other similar schemes, provide long-term large-scale data that have already provided evidence to inform adaptation.

Hope for the future 

All this is achievable and within grasp.  As we develop nature conservation to align with the trajectory of climate change, we’ll learn more about what we need from adaptation, how it’s best delivered, and how conservation actions can address an increasingly dynamic world.  This indicator framework provides a sound basis to assess adaptation actions for our climate changing world, widely applicable across species, habitats and monitoring programmes.  

We hope it will be useful as the UK National Adaptation Programmes are now being developed to take our four countries UK into the next, and for nature a critical, phase of adaptation, and for ensuring successful alignment of nature conservation with the trajectory of climate change. 

For the paper in Ecological Indicators: A framework for climate change adaptation indicators for the natural environment

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