This was one of my (Simon) favourite talks from the Maxwell Knight Symposium and we’re very grateful to Paul Pearce-Kelly for allowing us to share his slides on the FFON website.

The Frightened Face of Nature
Paul Pearce-Kelly, ZSL



If Maxwell Knight were writing his prescient Frightened Face of Nature today he would no doubt be alerting us to the profound threat that human caused climate change presents to the natural world and humanity alike. Knight’s security profession (where evaluating threat severity is an essential requirement), would, I think, make him especially interested in the robustness of our threat assessments and their usefulness to policy makers.  A look at how the climate change threat to corals is being included in formal threat assessments (such as Red Listing) provides an insight into the challenges of ensuring climate change is sufficiently incorporated.

Anyone who is interested in evaluating climate change threat has ready access to an extensive scientific literature, technical reports and expert opinion on both the science of climate change and it’s implications for biodiversity and human wellbeing. The most authoritative outputs (in terms of reconciled academic and political consensus) are those of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which produces regular impact assessments against a range of emission trajectory scenarios. However, in keeping with its policy neutral remit, IPCC does not quantify what constitutes ‘dangerous climate change’ which is considered a non-scientific value judgement for policymakers to determine. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to identify the many and diverse dangerous impacts detailed in the IPCC reports.

The most recent IPCC 1.5C report highlights the severe threat to warm water corals under current global average temperature increase conditions and shows the increasing threat under 1.5C and higher temperature scenarios.  However, these IPCC, and wider scientific publications, are currently largely failing to be sufficiently included in mainstream biodiversity threat assessments such as the IUCN Red List of species and World Heritage site assessment (including the Great Barrier Reef). The consequence of this inadequate incorporation is a significant underestimation of the threats that coral and many other species are facing. This in turn is compromising conservation policy effectiveness because policy makers are not being presented with realistic threat evaluations.

The reason for this lack of incorporation is predominately a combination of technical difficulties and the fact that most assessments are rarely updated. For example the last time warm water reef building corals were evaluated under the Red List assessment process was over 10 years ago and consequently fail to reflect our current threat realities. If adequately incorporated, our current understanding of climate change threats to corals would greatly increase the formal threat status of almost every coral species. Robust coral assessments would also highlight the risks of impact response inertia, non-linear response, viability thresholds and the socioeconomic implications of such system-level biodiversity impacts.

The positive news is that we now have much enhanced information on climate change impacts and also improved ways to incorporate this information into the threat assessment process. If threat assessments can be revised much more frequently than is currently the case they should be better placed to incorporate the best available science and, in turn, inform the development of effective conservation policy.

The full presentation can be downloaded here Revised Paul Pearce-Kelly BHS Frightened Face of Nature presentation