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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

How Can We Ensure Collective Action?

Leslie Ries

My research focuses on how global change, including climate and land-use, impact biodiversity with a particular focus on butterflies. Grappling with the direct and indirect impacts of climate on populations over continental scales generates major challenges that we are still trying to resolve. In my own field, I think the biggest challenge is leveraging the massive amounts of data to compile as much information as we can to build reliable models that predict climate effects over a range of changing temperatures in habitats that are subjected to various levels of disturbance. Only by looking at our ability to predict population responses under a range of conditions, can we develop the models we need to project into the future. But then, we must confront the fact that as the climate is constantly shifting, we are often predicting into novel “non-analog” climates that may always be just beyond our range of inference. With each year, we collect more data that enables us to make better, more confident predictions about what may happen in the future. It is my hope that the research I produce can be part of the conversation about the potential consequences of different decisions we may make as a society. Further, as we develop conservation plans for individual species (in my case, the focus is on monarch butterflies and Baltimore checkerspots) we can develop those plans for the variability and shifts in the climate that we may experience in the near (or far) future. Hopefully, that will allow us to develop better conservation plans that will not be almost immediately outdated as the temperatures continue to shift ever warmer.

So, is this the most critical research that needs to be done? No. Ultimately, we already know that a warming climate is putting not only biodiversity, but human populations and social stability at risk. Therefore, to me, the most pressing need is to develop the sociological, political, and economic research to understand how to incentivize people to make difficult decisions and implement seemingly painful policies that will help us avoid the worst case scenarios that we read about in the paper almost every day. Luckily for me, I get to leave those questions to the sociologists, economists, and political scientists, while I get to work with butterflies in the field and laboratory (and also in the virtual world of my computer). I think what I do is an essential sliver of this larger conversation, but the most important question remains and will remain: how can we find agreement among so many different stakeholders with so many different viewpoints and take action that will actually save us from what is looking to be a most difficult future?

Leslie Ries is a new professor in the Department of Biology. Her focus is on how global warming and large-scale land-use changes impact biodiversity, with a special focus on butterflies.

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