Dr Lera Miles has worked on climate change and biodiversity issues since 1997, joining the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre in 2002. Over the past two years, she has concentrated on evaluating the potential positive and negative impacts on biodiversity of climate policy, including biofuel development and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). Recent work includes review of the linkages between protected areas, livelihoods and the REDD discussions. Previously, she has worked on the regional impact of climate change from the Amazon to the Arctic, and on global scale scenario exercises, including as part of the GLOBIO3 global biodiversity modelling consortium.
Relevance of biogeography to your work
Antje Ahrends. I understand that you have a strong background and maintain a keen interest in biogeography. Is this mostly out of personal interest, or is biogeography also highly relevant to your current work in the UNEP-WCMC Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme? If so, how?
Lera Miles. My work at UNEP-WCMC has a strong practical focus, so it is the applied aspects of current research that are most interesting. The Centre’s role of translating biodiversity science into policy relevant information is so wide-ranging that it is useful to keep on top of findings ranging from distribution of and pressures upon carbon in ecosystems through to new methods of modelling climate change impacts on biodiversity. The new research on the relationship between ecosystem service provision and specific measures of biodiversity is particularly interesting for the Centre, as there are still open questions about when biodiversity itself is underpinning ecosystem services.
AA. Do you read biogeographic journals, or otherwise receive information on new findings in the field of biogeography? What are your main sources for this?
LM. I am very grateful for the access to Global Ecology and Biogeography and Journal of Biogeography provided by my IBS membership!
AA. Does UNEP-WCMC collaborate with biogeographic research institutions, or have an interest to do so?
LM. We collaborate with universities depending on the need of current or proposed projects for specific expertise. We perhaps have more interaction with the Cambridge based universities as a result of our location.
The general practicality of incorporating new biogeographic findings in conservation work
AA. Working for UNEP-WCMC, an organisation that provides biodiversity data to policy development and decision making, you will have a particular good insight to the following questions:
The nature of scientific research is to continuously challenge existing paradigms. Does this make it difficult to consider new findings in international conservation policy development given that the decision making process e.g. at conventions is necessarily slow, and that conservation generally needs longer term strategies?
LM. I think that the barrier is as much one of communication and synthesis than a lack of willingness by decision makers to accept new findings. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done a fantastic job in providing a strong degree of consensus for climate change science, and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment offers something similar for the world’s ecosystems. Without this sort of exercise it is difficult for policy makers to choose between contradictory messages emerging from the research community. One of our aims here at UNEP-WCMC is to provide synthesis of the science on policy relevant questions; of course, this often needs strong partnerships with expert researchers.
AA. Existing prioritisation schemes such biodiversity hotspots, Global 200, or Endemic and Important Bird Areas necessarily suffer from data inadequacies, and also reflect the interests and values of the NGOs that generated them. Is there a need for objective reviews of the merits of these schemes, and alternative scenarios? Or do potentially conflicting messages jeopardise the implementation of conservation strategies, confuse decision makers and compromise public support?
LM. Each conservation organisation has specific, if overlapping aims. It is natural that maps of conservation priorities will reflect the priorities that were used to set them! There are so many different conservation values, that it is difficult to conceive of a single indicator that captures each of these in the same map. But it is interesting that all of these maps have been generated by NGOs – for example, I have not seen a map of conservation priorities based on the goals of a funding agency.
We sometimes derive a crude measure of conservation value by overlaying multiple priority schemes and identifying the number of times that each area is categorised as important (e.g. http://www.unep-wcmc.org/mountains/mountainwatchreport/). This offers a rough idea of consensus around conservation priorities, but if the purpose of the map is to plan conservation investment, it seems to me to be critical to choose or produce a map based on the aims of the initiative in question.
The question of data inadequacies is a more challenging one. Not only are maps based on our imperfect present day knowledge, but they do not tend to reflect the changing pressures on biodiversity. Maps of proposed ecological networks meet more of these goals, aiming to enhance connectivity and thus increase resilience to climate change.
AA. Predictive species modelling, biogeographers argue, can help to identify and fill monitoring and data gaps, or allow the prediction of areas that under future climate scenarios will become important refuges. However, it is still uncertain to which degree these models are applicable at a local scale, and there are necessarily a lot of uncertainties associated with the predictions. How relevant are these models to international conservation policy and strategy development? Are you at UNEP-WCMC working with such biogeographic tools?
LM. I am always dubious about claims to predict the future! We certainly have worked on projections of future changes to biodiversity under different scenarios, such as those in Global Biodiversity Outlook and Global Environment Outlook. Sometimes we have worked with individual species models, such as for Arctic birds; sometimes with the GLOBIO3 model of mean original species abundance. My feeling is that these models are able to indicate the potential range of outcomes, but that there are far too many sources of uncertainty to be able to predict outcomes for individual locations. Yet protected area managers and people working on landscape to national scale conservation plans want to know what to expect over the next fifty years or so. The more that we can communicate a plausible range of outcomes at a scale relevant to these needs, the more useful these approaches will be.
Communication between biogeographers and conservation practitioners
AA. Do you think that biogeographers communicate adequately the applicability of their research findings to conservationists? And vice versa, do conservationists adequately communicate their information needs to biogeographers?
LM. I think that a lot of conservationists would struggle to define ‘biogeography’, even if their work is closely related!