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Humans need to help other species face climate change, scientists say

Shifting climate conditions can put humans, animals and even plants on the move. Take trees: As the climate warms, familiar trees such as the yellow poplar are expected to expand northward in search of cooler temperatures.

Some of those changes occur without prompting. But as human-caused climate change rages, a new study suggests, humans need to get more involved in helping other species survive — and scientists need fresh ideas to make that happen.

Writing in Biological Conservation, environmental scientists surveyed 30 years’ of research on how to best manage biodiversity as climate change accelerates. Despite massive gains in knowledge and better tools, they write, climate adaptation recommendations have remained conservative.

It will take different approaches to protect Earth’s biodiversity, the researchers write. Scientists have long recommended that conservationists, for example, stem the growth of invasive species to preserve diverse life-forms; they also recommend policymakers increase protected areas or prioritize rare species for protection. Many of these recommendations, however, are vague or biased toward certain regions of the globe, they say.

But the team points out the benefits of riskier, newer strategies such as protecting places that species can use as refuges from climate change’s most extreme effects or actively helping species migrate to more habitable places.

As climate change quickens, says Erika Zavaleta, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and one of the paper’s co-authors, animals and plants have a harder time moving to those refuge spots.

“We need to assist the adaptive responses of the natural world if we don’t want to lose both the species and the amenities they provide for people,” she says in a statement. “We depend on natural ecosystems, and helping them adapt is not separate from helping people and communities adapt to climate change.”

Zavaleta is doing just that in a pilot program aimed at banking oak seedlings in the hopes of planting them in climate refuge areas and helping repopulate areas ravaged by wildfire.

The idea of assisting a species’ migration has long raised debates about the potential unintended consequences of transplanting animals and plants to new habitats. But the concept could be worth trying, the scientists suggest. They point to research that shows the strategy could be much more effective than previously thought.

The tactic still carries risk, which the researchers acknowledge — and they honor the necessity of more conservative approaches. But, they write, the intensity of the climate crisis requires “aggressive” innovation. Though traditional strategies have their benefits, they write, they “can come with risks of declining effectiveness, lost opportunity costs and unintended consequences that must be weighed against the risks of more novel approaches.”


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