A framework for climate change adaptation indicators for the natural environment

Author(s): Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Antãod, L.H., Batese, R.E., Bowgen, K.M., Bradshaw, C.D., Duffield, S.J., Ffoulkes, C., Franco, A.M.A., Geschkek, J., Gregory, R.D., Harley, M.J., Hodgson, J.A., Jenkins, R.L.M., Kapos, V., Maltby, K.M., Watts, O., Willis, S.G., Morecroft, M.D.

Published: March 2022   Pages: 10pp

Journal: Ecological Indicators Volume: 136

Article No.: 108690

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1016/j.ecolind.2022.108690

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Climate change ‘adaptations’ describe any actions which address the impacts of our changing climate. These adaptations can be focussed on human populations and infrastructure, with measures such as flood defence or the development of drought-tolerant crops, or on the natural environment, through special management of habitats and species.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, which was published this week,  emphasises the growing need to consider how we should adapt to climate change, but there has been virtually no evaluation of adaptation measures for the natural environment. A new collaborative publication led by BTO aims to identify some of the key challenges of monitoring climate change adaptation, and to combat these with a framework for measuring adaptation success. This framework can be used by conservation organisations, governments and other decision-makers to learn from our current adaptation measures and improve the effectiveness of future action. 

The challenge of measuring adaptation success

The challenge of measuring adaptation success

The first challenge of measuring adaptation success is its very definition. Different stakeholders may disagree about what constitutes ‘success’, and actions which are considered successful now may not be sufficient in the future given the increasing severity of climate change. 

The second challenge is in attributing changes in the natural environment to a particular cause, whether that is climate change or adaptation measures in conservation work. Ecological systems are highly complex and it is not always possible to pin down a single driver for the changes we see. 

Finally, measuring the success of climate change adaptation requires long-term and large-scale monitoring. This can be challenging to fund, but as we know at BTO, citizen science data can be a  crucial resource when tracking climate change impacts

Using an indicator framework to measure adaptation success 

Developing indicators for adaptation allows us to track success at different stages of climate change adaptation. 

At the earliest stage, we can track ‘enabling conditions’ like resources for conservation and the existence of monitoring schemes. . These indicators are not ultimate objectives of adaptation, but pave the way for further action. They also capture the most rapid changes which occur as a result of new adaptation policies.

We can then begin to track ‘activity measures’, which describe the extent of resulting adaptation actions such as habitat creation or species management. These actions typically aim to manage the natural world in a way that allows species and ecosystems to persist in a changing climate. Assessing the ecological responses to these activities shows us whether we are on the right track in terms of the adaptation strategies we have put in place. 

‘Results-based’ indicators then measure adaptation success in the context of climate change. Successful adaptation actions will alter species’ responses to climate change, either by reducing negative impacts such as preventing extinctions of cold-adapted species, or promoting positive responses such as the range expansion of habitat specialists of conservation concern. Ultimately, successful climate change adaptation is about species’ persistence, building and maintaining ecological integrity and the provision of ecosystem service in a changing climate. 

The authors hope that this paper will stimulate the development of much-needed indicators, improve the evidence base for successful climate change adaptation, and inform more successful conservation action in the face of climate change in the future. 


Impacts of climate change on natural and human systems will become increasingly severe as the magnitude of climate change increases. Climate change adaptation interventions to address current and projected impacts are thus paramount. Yet, evidence on their effectiveness remains limited, highlighting the need for appropriate ecological indicators to measure progress of climate change adaptation for the natural environment. We outline conceptual, analytical, and practical challenges in developing such indicators, before proposing a framework with three process-based and two results-based indicator types to track progress in adapting to climate change. We emphasize the importance of dynamic assessment and modification over time, as new adaptation targets are set and/or as intervention actions are monitored and evaluated. Our framework and proposed indicators are flexible and widely applicable across species, habitats, and monitoring programmes, and could be accommodated within existing national or international frameworks to enable the evaluation of both large-scale policy instruments and local management interventions. We conclude by suggesting further work required to develop these indicators fully, and hope this will stimulate the use of ecological indicators to evaluate the effectiveness of policy interventions for the adaptation of the natural environment across the globe.


This paper came from a two-day workshop on adaptation indicators organised by the British Ecological Society’s (BES) Climate Change Special Interest Group with the BTO, Climate Resilience, the Committee on Climate Change, Natural England and the RSPB. We are grateful to the BES for financial support for the workshop. L.H.A. acknowledges funding from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation. We also thank two reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.
Scottish mountain scenes. Andy Wilson / BTO
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