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Minimizing the cost of keeping options open for conservation in a changing climate

June 1, 2014

Policy documents advocate that managers should keep their options open while planning to protect coastal ecosystems from climate-change impacts. However, the actual costs and benefits of maintaining flexibility remain largely unexplored, and alternative approaches for decision making under uncertainty may lead to better joint outcomes for conservation and other societal goals. For example, keeping options open for coastal ecosystems incurs opportunity costs for developers. We devised a decision framework that integrates these costs and benefits with probabilistic forecasts for the extent of sea-level rise to find a balance between coastal ecosystem protection and moderate coastal development. Here, we suggest that instead of keeping their options open managers should incorporate uncertain sea-level rise predictions into a decision-making framework that evaluates the benefits and costs of conservation and development. In our example, based on plausible scenarios for sea-level rise and assuming a risk-neutral decision maker, we found that substantial development could be accommodated with negligible loss of environmental assets. Characterization of the Pareto efficiency of conservation and development outcomes provides valuable insight into the intensity of trade-offs between development and conservation. However, additional work is required to improve understanding of the consequences of alternative spatial plans and the value judgments and risk preferences of decision makers and stakeholders.