The conservation and resource management community is now being challenged to take the type of general principles described above and develop climate change adaptation plans that address specific on-the-ground needs. Ensuring that these plans are truly “climate-smart” and do not simply represent relabeled business-as-usual will require that managers go through an explicit process for bringing climate data and ecological understanding to bear on their planning.
Climate change vulnerability assessment represents a key tool for providing adaptation planning efforts with such explicit climate input. Vulnerability assessments can provide two essential types of information needed for
1. Identifying which species or systems are likely to be most strongly affected by projected changes
2. Understanding why they are likely to be vulnerable
Determining which resources are most vulnerable enables managers to better set priorities for conservation action, while understanding why they are vulnerable provides a basis for developing appropriate management and conservation responses.
Figure 1.1 offers an overall framework for adaptation planning, indicating how vulnerability assessments can fit into and support that process. Elements of this framework should look familiar to many conservationists because it draws from a number of existing conservation planning frameworks, such as The Nature Conservancy’s Conservation by Design (TNC 2006) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Strategic Habitat Conservation framework (U.S. FWS 2009a).
Element 1: The framework starts with identifying conservation targets, whether they be species, habitats, ecosystems, or some other unit. Element 2: These conservation targets are then assessed for their vulnerability to climate change in order to determine which are likely to be most at risk and which are more likely to persist. Element 3: Based on an understanding of why the species or systems are regarded as vulnerable to climate change and other stressors, an array of management options can be identified and evaluated based on technical, financial, and legal considerations. Element 4: Selected management strategies can then be implemented, with the activities and outcomes subject to monitoring in order to feed into a regular cycle of evaluation, correction, and revision. Climate change is not occurring in a vacuum, and the elements of the adaptation planning process must also take existing stressors into consideration as well as other relevant factors affecting the system.
This guide focuses on how vulnerability assessment (Element 2) can support conservationists and natural resource managers as we move into a future that does not necessarily have past analogs. For although these assessments must be strongly science based, they are not
simply scientific assessments; rather, they must be viewed as an integral part of a broader adaptation planning and implementation framework.