A review of climate change impacts on ecosystem services

Most of us worry about climate change in one way or another, but not many of us explicitly consider its impact on ecosystem services. Integrating climate change into assessments of ecosystem services is vital if we are to avoid poor management decisions. For example, coastal land-use zoning that ignores the effects of sea-level rise could lead to a long-term decline in ecosystem services (services such as flood protection provided by coastal wetlands). To add to the challenge, climate change doesn’t impact ecosystem services in isolation, it interacts with other local or global stresses on the environment. For instance, a logged forest could become more susceptible to erosion if climate change leads to increases in the intensity of rainfall.

So, what are the impacts of climate change on ecosystem services, how is this being assessed, and what other drivers are being included? We systematically reviewed the scientific literature quantify these impacts and identify important gaps (Runting et al. 2017). There are many studies of individual cases of climate-change impacts on ecosystem services, but our review provides the first quantitative synthesis on this topic. Here is what we found:

A regional bias: First up, most of the papers that were identified in our review came from the USA or Europe, so there is a clear need for more studies beyond these regions, particularly in South America, Asia and Oceania. This is particularly important as these regions generally have a lower capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change.


The number of studies of the impacts of climate change on ecosystem services by nation. Each study could span more than one nation. The USA and Europe dominate the academic literature.


Mostly negative, some positive impacts: While climate change generally has a negative impact on ecosystem services, the news isn’t all bad (59% of the analyses reviewed showed negative impacts, 24% mixed, 13% positive, and 4% neutral). For instance, as temperature and the concentration of carbon-dioxide increases, carbon storage is increasing in some places, particularly higher latitudes.

Interactions exacerbate negatives: Climate change interacts with other stressors on the environment, such as land use change. Where a stressor in addition to climate change was included, 62% of analyses were negative. Therefore, it is important that we do not consider climate change in isolation when making management decisions. Other research from the Rhodes’ Lab found similar results for biodiversity (Mantyka-Pringle et al. 2012, Mantyka-Pringle et al. 2015).

Uneven attention to uncertainty: Some degree of uncertainty was usually incorporated in the assessments (71%), but this was usually surrounding the magnitude of climate change and other drivers, with very little attention given to the uncertainties associated with how ecosystem services are modelled, or the mechanisms by which the services were impacted by climate change. Relatively few studies (29%) integrated any kind of decision making (management actions, policies or other interventions), and even fewer studies aimed to make decisions that were robust to uncertainty.

The proportion of studies that incorporated drivers in addition to climate change, uncertainty or decision making in addition to climate change.

These results tell us that if management or policy decisions are to ensure the continued provision of ecosystem services, then an integrated approach is needed. Such an approach must include multiple threatening processes and account for multiple sources of uncertainty. This is definitely not an easy undertaking, but ignoring these complications could misrepresent the true impacts of climate change, and result in poor outcomes for climate adaptation decisions.

Check out the details in Decision Point and Global Change Biology.

Journal article citation: Runting RK, BA Bryan, LE Dee, FJF Maseyk, L Mandle, P Hamel, KA Wilson, K Yetka, HP Possingham & JR Rhodes (2017). Incorporating climate change into ecosystem service assessments and decisions: a review. Global Change Biology 23:28-41. dx.doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13457

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