The Loom

Head For the Cool

i-567f9637a0d21247bda6b6643d91cf1d-sun.jpgThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about to release its newest edition of its report on global warming. In this AP report, one of the scientists who co-authored part of the IPCC study promises that it will contain much more than a smoking gun. It will contain “a batallion of intergalactic smoking missiles.”

The IPCC has been strengthening its conclusions about human responsibility for the rise in global temperatures for a few years now. One thing that apparently will set this new edition apart will be a section that looks at the impact global warming is having on nature–plants blooming earlier, species moving towards the poles, and so on. (Here’s a sneak preview of sorts from Camille Parmesan at the University of Texas [pdf])

Global warming now raises a new, difficult question for conservation biologists. It may be shrinking the ranges of many species, pushing already endangered species towards extinction. In theory, at least, some species might thrive if they could somehow move far enough to find their old climate in a new habitat. But in some cases, they may not be able to get there unless people move them. Should we?

As I report in today’s New York Times I met some conservation biologists who are asking this question. In a time when global warming can trigger staggeringly fierce reactions, they have been surprisingly candid about their mixed feelings and the complexity of the debate they are trying to grapple with. Which is worse: the risk of creating a new invasive species through assisted migration, or just watching a species become exinct? The scientists have a paper coming out soon in Conservation Biology, but it’s not on the journal web site yet. Along with my own article, you can also check out Douglas Fox’s news article in the January issue of Conservation in Practice.


  1. #1 outeast
    January 23, 2007

    Annoyingly, the Parmesan article (?) is subscription only; the .pdf link is dead.

  2. #2 Carl Zimmer
    January 23, 2007

    I just tried the pdf link and it worked for me.

  3. #3 outeast
    January 23, 2007

    Working for me now, too – guess it was just a glitch (imagine that!). Thanks!

    PS How’s the book coming along? Is there a publication date yet? Just finished rereading PR… again. Lookin forward to the next one.

  4. #4 Carl Zimmer
    January 23, 2007

    No pub date yet, but early 2008 I imagine. Thanks for asking. I’ll post news as it comes…

  5. #5 David B. Benson
    January 23, 2007

    IMHO biodiversity is important. Important enough that human effort ought to go into maintaining (even increasing) a wide variety of species in every locality possible.

    Except of course, the squirrels here. These are not native. Locally we need more squirrel-eaters, whatever those are. 🙂

  6. #6 Connie
    January 28, 2007

    Yo, Carl. Connie Barlow here. I’m the citizen naturalist who started the “Torreya Guardians” movement to save Torreya taxifolia, and also the webmaster of our website, Doug Fox interviewed me for the Conservation magazine cover article in assisted migration. Glad to see you took it up in Science Times to get it to a broader audience. An important distinction: professional paid scientists can and should spend a lot of time debating and developing specs, but ultimately it will be citizens who care (and who gladly seek advice from the experts) who take action, and who don’t need any funding in order to move ahead. Check us out.

  7. #7 Tony Pires
    January 29, 2007

    @ David B. Benson

    That would be cats. 🙂

  8. #8 Stephen
    February 1, 2007

    I’m with Shell Oil on this one. Last fall, their president said that “the science of global warming is mature”, and something to the effect that it’s time to get on with business.

    I think we should try moving animals and plants. For one thing, it will show us just how difficult it will be to colonize other planets in the galaxy. Remember that Biosphere II failed.

  9. #9 Sugarbear
    February 2, 2007

    There are three things we can be certain of:
    1. Global warming is occurring.
    2. Increases in greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.
    3. Human activity contributes to an increase in greenhouse gases.

    While each of these statements is true in its own right, the implied conclusion that decreasing the level of greenhouse gases will lead to a significant reduction of global warming is not supported by the evidence. One important question has been overlooked: What percentage of the global warming that we observe is due to an increase in greenhouse gases and what percentage is due to other factors, such as normal fluctuations in solar activity? All of it? Half of it? One percent of it?
    If most of the global warming we are seeing is due to fluctuations in solar activity over which we have no control and if only a small percentage of the global warming is due to an increase in greenhouse gases, then efforts to reduce greenhouse gases will have little or no effect on the earth’s climate.
    Historical data inform us that there have been fluctuations in earth’s climate repeatedly in past centuries from the medieval warm period spanning the 10th to the 14th century and the “little ice age” from the 16th to the 19th century. These fluctuations have been linked to sunspot activity and solar output and have nothing to do with greenhouse gases.
    Absent better data, I’m inclined to the opinion that global warming is not related in a significant way to the emission of greenhouse gases and that these “the sky is falling!” scenarios are mostly political rather than scientific in nature.

  10. #10 Carl Zimmer
    February 2, 2007

    Sugarbear: Climate scientists are pretty much agreed that humans responsible for most of the current warming and will heat up the planet as long as we release large amounts of greenhouse gases. See today’s new report from IPCC:

  11. #11 David B. Benson
    February 6, 2007

    I follow RealClimate and occasionally contribute there. In my amateur opinion, all of the current warming is due to human activities.

    According to orbital forcing theory, which matches the last few hundred thousand years quite well, the climate should be very slowly cooling and for the next 50,000 years. At that time, it might be cool enough to tip into another ice age.

    Sunspot activity varies on an 11 year cycle and the variation in solar insolation is extremely small. This is a second or third order effect on climate. No other variations in solar isolation, over periods of centuries, appear to withstand careful scrutiny.

  12. #12 Kim Todd
    February 15, 2007

    This is a fascinating article. It seems so vital to save as many species as we can, but the complexities of this “assisted migration” are mind-boggling. As you mention, animals don’t just need a certain temperature, but food, protection from predators and parasites, and the ability to compete with those already there. The assisted migration of wolves in the Rockies, while an inspiring story of human intervention, is mainly successful because the wolves did much of the migrating themselves into an environment where they lived less than 100 years ago.
    Anyway, thanks for the piece and I look forward to reading more about it.

  13. #13 Juergen Botz
    February 20, 2007

    We have to realize that we’re already desperate… and one consequence of our desparation must be “biodiversity at all costs”.

    The truth is that humans have been heavily affecting their environment since long before even what we today call “agriculture”. According to something I read just recently maybe the entire biome of the Amazon basin for example, is actually mostly the result of human “gardening” (i.e. pre-agricultural horticulture). And some of this interference has probably been reducing biodiversity for just as long… but until recently not terribly significantly.

    Now we’re in an entirely different situation… today our interference is causing the 6th great extinction. We have to accept that by our very existence we dramatically alter our environment, more so than other species, and go ahead and start doing so willfully, keeping as our only overriding goal to preserve as much biodiversity as we can through the progression of this great extinction. In other words, to hell with caution, try everything that might preserve biodiversity even if some of those actions are sure to be giant disasters. Because giant disasters are guaranteed either way.


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