Will climate change leave threatened species behind?

A Cornelia Dean article explores a theme that concerns many primatologists, indeed anyone who studies threatened animals: When you confine a small set of animals to a tiny patch of forest, they can't move when their patch starts to degrade. Climate change will certainly pose such a threat over the long term -- today's climate being vastly different from the Pleistocene -- and many are worried that local climate changes may significantly impact habitat patches within the next 100 years.

This kind of uncertainty is widespread. For example, Dr. Hamilton said that on the Northern California coast, fog has an influence on natural systems. But "none of our climate models can tell us what is going to happen with fog," she said. "So we are facing profound uncertainties about how our coastal ecosystems are going to look."
"It's a real dilemma," said David S. Wilcove, a conservation biologist at Princeton. "What you are trying to do is balance the urgent needs of the present -- the ongoing destruction of habitats that species need now -- with the urgent needs of the future -- places where they may end up if they are able to move in response to changing climate."

Clearly, even though governments and others have been setting aside patches of habitat for 100 years, that is nothing compared to the geological time over which species originated. A true conservation plan will require contingencies for climate change, in some cases extending to relocation plans. But as the article points out, much of the activity of conservationists is mere triage -- trying to stabilize threatened populations. It doesn't help that the natural world can be as unstable as the human world. Species have adapted to natural instability, but being penned in by humans is entirely new.