The Washington Post

Riskier, newer ideas needed to help plants, animals face climate change

Conservati­on strategies for the climate crisis: An update on three decades of biodiversi­ty management recommenda­tions from science


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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