Much of the ecological literature on climate change has focused on the ways in which ecosystems globally are responding to anthropogenic climate change or could respond to future changes in the climate system. Ecologists have long recognized that the ways ecosystems and species are managed from local to global scales, will constrain or expand adaptive capacity of species and systems and significantly influence the balance of greenhouse gas emissions and removals. Less consideration has been given to the ways in which ecosystems and natural resource management constrain human capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This review of literature, policy and practice highlight the role of ecosystems in assisting human communities, particularly impoverished communities, to adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Ecosystems have a critical role in helping humans communities adapt to changes in climate variability, extremes, and the indirect effects of climate change, especially in poorer rural communities, where citizens are more highly dependant on climate for daily survival. For instance, vegetation cover has been shown to reduce temperature extremes, including heat waves, increases soil water holding capacity and infiltration, potentially reducing likelihood of flooding events, and can buffer the impacts of coastal storms. Ecosystem services may be inherently more adaptive than built infrastructure, but are limited in the pressures that these multiply stressed and increasingly fragmented systems can absorb. Similarly, ecosystem management, such as forest and peatland protection, afforestation, and conservation agriculture are the main mechanisms through which poor communities can participate in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Development practitioners are increasingly experimenting with and leveraging natural resource management practices to both mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Finally, concepts of resilience, drawn from ecology and other fields, have been instrumental in framing climate change adaptation policies and practices.