Given that we are bound to lose a significant number of species to climate change over the coming decades - whether or not we seriously cut greenhouse gas emissions - should we try helping the most vulnerable ones by relocating them? That question, as can be expected, has sparked a vigorous round of debate between those scientists who believe we should help endangered species move to colder climates and those who think we should let nature take its course.
Jay Malcolm and Mark Schwartz, professors at the University of Toronto and the University of California at Davis, respectively, argue that in light of the IPCC's latest estimates on the effects of elevated temperatures on species extinction and a recent study published in Nature - which concluded that up to two-thirds of all species could be forced to move to survive by 2050 - scientists have a responsibility to help susceptible species adapt. "Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the diversity of species on Earth. The magnitude of impending climate-driven extinctions requires immediate action," said Malcolm. As such, he and Schwartz have supported the notion of helping species at risk by moving them to "new environments where they may thrive," which have tended to be cooler, northern environments.
Hogwash, says Josef Reichholf, the Munich State Zoo biologist: "Changes in the climate are normal for animals and plants, and they have always had to adjust to them . . . Many species benefit from climate change." He points to cranes and bald eagles, both considered to be endangered or threatened, as species that would benefit from migrating to warmer climates. He also cites the example of elk and wild boar, which have been able to expand their range as once rare foods have become more plentiful.
While some scientists are leery of the idea of humans moving around species, they are concerned about the potential effects of landscape fragmentation on the free movement of species. Whether it be negotiating higher altitudes or rocky paths, scientists such as Volker Hammen, of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, are warning that climate change could thus threaten more than half of all European plant species.
Though there is still much unease over the concept, the tide seems to be slightly shifting in favor of resettlement or what is known as "assisted migration" - albeit only as a last resort. Even Schwartz rails against "cowboy environmentalists" who are already trying to take action into their own hands by moving species around.
Many are still dead set against the proposals - citing concerns over the introduction of new species into unfamiliar habitats, setting the stage for a potential takeover by an aggressive invasive species. A compromise solution seems to be establishing more wild animal corridors - a plan that would not directly involve humans in the movement of species but that would help by giving them the means to migrate on their own.