Say you’re a conservation scientist and you’ve been working for years—perhaps decades—to protect specific species and habitats from the traditional evils: development, poaching, pollution, invasives, etc.

Along comes a new threat: climate change. Is all your work for naught? What’s the best way to include this new threat into your existing conservation strategies? And how do you take into account the uncertainties of climate change, such as how high temperatures and sea levels will rise?

A team of Nature Conservancy scientists and outside researchers set about answering these questions in a new article published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation. They assessed 5 possible methods for incorporating climate change into existing or new conservation plans—everything from focusing on a diversity of landscapes (but not species) to making sure that habitats are linked so species can migrate (known as “connectivity”) to embracing strategies aimed at mitigating climate change’s impacts (like REDD).

And the winner is…

(You didn’t really think it would be that simple, did you?)

It turns out every option has trade-offs and assumptions. For instance, while protecting “climate refugia” (the term for those areas least likely to undergo rapid change) is one option with many positives—these areas often have high species richness already—it relies heavily on projecting future climate conditions…which can be a dicey business when you’re talking hyperlocal.

But while there isn’t a clear winner, all of the methods provide solutions that would be good for biodiversity regardless of future climates.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge in implementing climate adaptation strategies is dealing with various kinds of uncertainty,” says Craig Groves, lead author of the study and director of the Conservancy’s methods and learning team. “All 5 of the approaches we outline are fairly robust to these uncertainties, making them ‘no regret’ approaches.”

Groves and his coauthors conclude that regardless of methodology, it’s imperative for conservationists to start planning for climate change adaptation.

“The conservation community has collectively spent billions of dollars in recent decades to conserve biodiversity at real places on the ground and in the water—and we stand to lose a lot on our investment if we don’t start accommodating climate change,” warns Groves.

Download a PDF of the report here.

(Image: Researchers study transplanted staghorn corals, which have been hit hard by coral bleaching due to climate change. Image source: Tim Calver.)

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