Evaluating risk and resilience — what to do when you can’t save everything

Carol Phua, WWF, takes a hard look at why we need to get smarter about conservation to create real impact for nature & people in a climate-changed future.

Acropora and porites corals at the outer Great Sea Reef in Fiji © Tom Vierus / WWF-US

Conservationists are often optimists by nature. Whatever brought us to this work, we’re here because we believe we can bring about positive change to our world — a world where nature is valued, people are sustained by its bounty, and justice prevails, both socially and environmentally.

But even the most relentless optimist can’t ignore the hard truth: If we don’t address climate change with the urgency that’s needed — mitigating the worst impacts and adapting to those that are already inevitable — most, if not all, of our hard work will lose its momentum and impact over time. Humanity has ignored the smoke for too long. Now our house is on fire. So, what can we save?

A fisherman in his canoe in a shallow coral reef and mangroves © Jürgen Freund / WWF

Preparing for the inevitable

Climate change has been the backdrop against which many conservationists continue to carry out work using tried and tested methods. This global crisis has been here and only accelerating with time, making its presence seen and felt especially by those most vulnerable in society — women and children in developing countries. We’ve known this. But have we really updated our playbook? Do today’s conservation strategies reflect what we know about this changing climate and address the social inequities it brings?

The climate reality we’re facing compels us now, more than ever, to reevaluate the traditional formulas we’ve employed through the years, to take bolder and more calculated risks to create positive and sustainable results where they really matter.

This may mean focusing conservation efforts in places not solely because of their biodiversity value, but primarily because of their potential to survive climate change. This calls for a potentially radical shift in our decision-making process and intervention approaches.

The shallow inner reef sites around the RaviRavi passage © Tom Vierus / WWF-US

What this means to coral reefs

Coral reefs have shown early and clear effects of climate change. If reefs are our “canary in the coalmine,” we are ignoring a lot of dead birds. Bleaching events caused by rising sea temperatures kill corals and devastate fish breeding sites that provide food and livelihoods for millions of people.

When trying to solve the many problems plaguing our ocean, particularly those that affect coral reefs, there’s a natural tendency to protect as much as possible, regardless of climate projections. However, climate models predict that even if we succeed in limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5°C — the goal set in the 2015 Paris Agreement — up to 90% of tropical coral reefs will still be lost by as early as 2050. And if temperatures rise to 2°C or more, less than 1% will survive. This knowledge must inform our choices. So where do we go from here?

Risk and reward

With limited funding and resources to tackle humanity’s biggest environmental challenges, conservation work needs to find ways to maximize return on investment — a typical finance sector approach that we’re now applying to coral reef conservation, especially in light of climate change.

Driven by data on historical and projected ocean warming, vulnerability to damaging cyclones, and larval and fish migration connectivity, we can identify high-return reefs. If we are to prepare for the inevitable, we need to smartly focus on these reefs that are relatively less exposed to a rapidly warming ocean and thus have higher chances of withstanding or recovering from severe global conditions.

Taken together, as a kind of portfolio, these reefs would have a high probability of surviving climate change — if global temperatures are restricted to well below 2°C — while also being able to repopulate neighbouring reefs over time. Almost 70% of these climate-resilient coral reefs are found in seven countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, Cuba, Fiji, Tanzania, Solomon Islands, and Madagascar.

As part of this innovative effort, WWF is leading the Coral Reef Rescue Initiative, a consortium of conservation and development organizations including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Rare, CARE International, Blue Ventures, Vulcan Inc., and the University of Queensland. Together, and in partnership with communities, we are working to safeguard the regeneration potential of these coral reefs through improved protection and management, and the well-being of the millions of reef-dependent people through diversified skills and sustainable economic opportunities.

Coral reef, Turtle Islands, Philippines © Jürgen Freund / WWF

Working smart

On top of our tried and tested methods in traditional seascape protection, we need to break our gaze away from the sea and look more and more in the opposite direction — on land, where equally important decisions are being made. It isn’t just about corals. Our work in this initiative goes way beyond the reefs, to other landscapes and industries that impact these fragile ecosystems either directly or indirectly.

This means recognizing that these communities are part of complex systems with complex drivers and, oftentimes, unexpected threats and disruptions such as pandemics, which compound ecological, social, and economic issues. This prompts us to get smarter about handling uncertainty in management and creating more integrated solutions that build resilience within these systems and not just address the symptoms.

Working smarter means getting to the heart of the problem, with nature-based solutions, together with key players in both the upstream and downstream part of the equation. It’s about people, and how we can empower them for a climate-changed future through sustainable development. This includes securing more public and private investments to allow relevant industries to shift to more sustainable practices, and equipping communities with the necessary tools to address the real and pressing issues they’re facing such as poverty, health, education, gender inequality, and many others — socioeconomic barriers that have hindered communities’ full stewardship of their own resources.

Because we can’t save everything and our window of opportunity is small, we must carefully evaluate conservation strategies based on climate risk and resilience. When we focus on protecting those areas with the highest potential to rebound and restore, we can build a future in which people and nature thrive. This is the true value that targeted and holistic conservation brings. And this is why we remain optimists.

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