How Climate Change Is Turning Plants and Animals into Refugees

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The comma butterfly has moved 137 miles north because of climate change. (Photo: Getty Images)

Regardless of what Rick Perry and the rest of Republican presidential candidate field believe (except for you, Jon Huntsman), climate change is real and it’s happening. The questions for the 98% of climate researchers who accept the consensus on man-made global warming is how fast the climate is changing, and what impact it will have on humanity and the planet.

Here’s one effect of warming scientists are already seeing: plants and animals migrating to cooler climates to escape hotter temperatures. In a study published in the August 18 Science, researchers in Britain and Taiwan found that species are moving in response to global warming up to three times faster than previously believed. Analyzing studies covering over 2,000 responses from plants and animals, the scientists found that on average, species have moved to higher elevations to escape warmer temperatures at 40 ft per decade, and moved to higher latitudes (ie, further away from the equator) at 11 miles per decade.

More from TIME: The New Age of Extinction

As York University conservation biologist Chris Thomas says, climate change is putting plants and animals on the run:

These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the Equator at around 20 cm per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century.

Scientists have seen evidence of species moving to escape higher temperatures before, but the Science analysis goes further, showing that species have moved furthest in the areas where temperatures have risen the most. That’s pretty strong evidence that global warming is a main driver of these shifts. And some species really moved—the comma butterfly has shifted 137 miles north in just two decades.

The bigger question is what this will mean for the animals and plants forced to hit the road. An influential 2004 paper in Nature estimated that up to 1/3 of the world’s plants and animals could be committed to extinction by 2050 because of climate change. But those conclusions have been disputed, and in any case, predicting extinction—and finding the cause—is extremely difficult. Being forced to move doesn’t automatically equal extinction—animals often shift their habitat ranges in response to predators, changing food patterns, even disease.

Video from TIME: Extinction Close Up

But there’s little doubt that wildlife is at serious risk from a number of different  threats—so much so that we may already be living through the sixth great extinction. Simply losing habitat—often thanks to manmade deforestation or development—is the most direct threat to the survival of wildlife, followed by the spread of invasive species, disease and outright hunting. The biggest worry other species on this planet have is us—as our numbers and demands grow, we’re taking up more space and more resources, leaving less of less for everything else.

There could be 9 billion human beings on the planet by 2050—a plant that will almost certainly be warmer, with a less stable climate. If do nothing to help them by that time, wildlife may have nowhere left to run.

Photos from TIME: Madagascar’s Fauna and Flora 

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME