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Ecological–economic optimization of biodiversity conservation under climate change

Nature Climate Change volume 1, pages 355359 (2011) | Download Citation


Substantial investment in climate change research has led to dire predictions of the impacts and risks to biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fourth assessment report1 cites 28,586 studies demonstrating significant biological changes in terrestrial systems2. Already high extinction rates, driven primarily by habitat loss, are predicted to increase under climate change3,4,5,6. Yet there is little specific advice or precedent in the literature to guide climate adaptation investment for conserving biodiversity within realistic economic constraints7. Here we present a systematic ecological and economic analysis of a climate adaptation problem in one of the world’s most species-rich and threatened ecosystems: the South African fynbos. We discover a counterintuitive optimal investment strategy that switches twice between options as the available adaptation budget increases. We demonstrate that optimal investment is nonlinearly dependent on available resources, making the choice of how much to invest as important as determining where to invest and what actions to take. Our study emphasizes the importance of a sound analytical framework for prioritizing adaptation investments4. Integrating ecological predictions in an economic decision framework will help support complex choices between adaptation options under severe uncertainty. Our prioritization method can be applied at any scale to minimize species loss and to evaluate the robustness of decisions to uncertainty about key assumptions.

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This work was funded by the Commonwealth Environment Research Facility; Applied Environmental Decision Analysis and by the Australian Research Council (LP0989537, FF0668778). M.C. was supported by the EU project RESPONSES. We thank M. Bode and W. Morris for assistance in modelling the fire management efficiency curves, G. Forsyth for evaluation of the fire, habitat and weed management cost estimates, and L. Rumpff for help with Fig. 1.

Author information


  1. School of Botany, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • Brendan A. Wintle
    •  & Tracey J. Regan
  2. School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, RMIT University, Victoria 3001, Australia

    • Sarah A. Bekessy
  3. NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, Hurstville, New South Wales 2220, Australia

    • David A. Keith
  4. Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • David A. Keith
  5. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Stellenbosch 7599, South Africa

    • Brian W. van Wilgen
  6. Metapopulation Research Group, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, Helsinki FI-00014, Finland

    • Mar Cabeza
  7. Institute of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Potsdam, 14476 Potsdam-Golm, Germany

    • Boris Schröder
  8. Leibniz-Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, D-15374 Müncheberg, Germany

    • Boris Schröder
  9. Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos da Universidade do Porto, 4485-661 Vairão, Portugal

    • Silvia B. Carvalho
  10. Department of Biology and Biotechnology, Sapienza University of Rome, 00185 Rome, Italy

    • Alessandra Falcucci
    • , Luigi Maiorano
    • , Carlo Rondinini
    •  & Luigi Boitani
  11. Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Biophore Building, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Luigi Maiorano
  12. The Ecology Centre, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Hugh P. Possingham


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B.A.W., S.A.B., D.A.K., and H.P.P. designed the research. B.A.W., D.A.K., and B.W.v.W. performed the analysis. B.A.W., S.A.B, M.C., B.S., S.B.C., L.B., A.F., L.M., C.R., T.J.R., and H.P.P. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brendan A. Wintle.

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