Watson Intact EcosystemsWith climate change now posing a clear and present danger all around the planet, scientists are calling for more intelligence in the decisions we make about how we adapt, especially in relation to our ecosystems.

In many cases, leaving these ecosystems intact would be the smartest and most cost-effective insurance policy we could have. That's the message in a paper just published in Nature Climate Change by two CEED researchers Tara Martin and James Watson.

The paper discusses how adaptation strategies that have negative impacts on natural systems may come back to sting us in the long-term. On the other hand, strategies that maintain the ecological integrity of our ecosystems hold real potential to soften the many blows that come with climate change.

"In response to climate change, many local communities around the world are rapidly adjusting their livelihood practices to cope with climate change, sometimes with catastrophic implications for nature," says CSIRO's Dr Tara Martin.

The scientists cite as examples conservation reserves being used as drought relief to feed livestock, while forests in the Congo Basin in Africa are being cleared for agriculture in response to drought, and coral reefs are being destroyed to build sea walls from the low-lying islands in Melanesia.

"These are just a few of the human responses to climate change that, if left unchallenged, may leave us worse off in the future due to their impacts on nature," says Martin. "And yet, functioning and intact forests, grasslands, wetlands and coral reefs represent our greatest protection against floods and storms."

The paper states that intact native forests have been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of floods, while coral reefs can reduce wave energy by an average of 97 per cent, providing a more cost-effective defence from storm surges than engineered structures. Likewise, coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and tidal marshes are proving to be a more cost-effective and ecologically sound alternative to buffering storms than conventional coastal engineering solutions.

Co-author and CEED Associate Dr James Watson said that with more than 100 million people per year at risk from increasing floods and tropical cyclones, it's critical that we avoid ill-conceived adaptation measures that destroy the ecosystems which offer our most effective and inexpensive line of defence.

"The cost of adaptation to climate change could reach $100 billion per year in the coming decades," says Watson, who is a lead scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the University of Queensland. "But this is nothing when we consider the environmental and economic fallout from not using nature to help us cope with climate change. Fortunately some adaptation strategies are being developed that do not destroy nature, some of which are even ecosystem-based. The protection and restoration of mangrove forests is a prime example."

The researchers also propose a possible mechanism for funding such intelligent adaptation strategies, namely eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.

"A recent report by the International Monetary Fund estimates global energy subsidies for 2015 cost around $US5.3 trillion per year," says Watson. "Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies would slash global carbon emission by 20 per cent and raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion. That's well over the funds needed for intelligent policy and action on climate adaptation."

More info: Tara Martin This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or James Watson This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reference: Martin TG & JEM Watson (2016). Intact ecosystems provide best defence against climate change. Nature Climate Change 6: 122–124. doi:10.1038/nclimate2918  http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v6/n2/full/nclimate2918.html 

Image: Building protective sea walls using coral reef that has been blasted is now a common practice in some of the islands off northern Papua New Guinea. Investing in the integrity of the coral reefs and surrounding mangroves is likely a must more cost-effective defence against the coming impacts of climate change. (Photo by James Watson)