Nobel Peace Prize Winner Speaks at MU

The 7th Annual School of Science Dean’s Seminar featured Plymouth University professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Camille Parmesan, who spoke about the responses of wild plants and animals to man-made climate change on Oct. 7. Held in Wilson auditorium, the seminar welcomed students, faculty, and community members to engage in the presentation.

Dr. Steven Bachrach, Dean of the School of Science, was excited to invite Parmesan to be the keynote speaker of the evening. He said, “Dr. Parmesan is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the biological impacts of climate change. She is one of the lead authors of the Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the panel the Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the co-author of one of the most cited climate change papers of all time, ‘A Globally Coherent Fingerprint of Climate Change Impacts Across Natural Systems.’ She has published over 50 peer reviewed papers in the field of insect ecology and climate impacts on natural systems.”

Now that the issue of climate change has gained more traction in scientific research, there is more data available to illustrate the effects it has had on species over extended periods of time. One major finding highlighted in Parmesan’s presentation was the tendency of species to move toward higher elevations, where colder climates exist, as their original habitats grow warmer.

One species Parmesan has studied, the Quino checkerspot butterfly (scientific name euphydryas editha quino), has begun to go extinct at lower elevations due to their inability to thrive in these warmer climates and the growing human population which turns their homes into homes for humans. She said the species is “being shoved south by urbanization and shoved north by climate change, leaving a small area for them to live.” Much of the general butterfly population has followed the same pattern as the Quino checkerspot. Parmesan said, “About 65 percent of butterflies, which equates to 57 species, colonized northward across Europe.”

While environmentalists’ work is nowhere near complete, there has been significant progress made in recent years. At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, delegates from around the world came to agree that climate change is a prominent issue and that any change above two degrees Celsius would now be considered dangerous. Parmesan was among the group of observers at the summit who helped influence this decision.

Exemplified by her work on the Copenhagen Accord, Parmesan emphasized that an essential step in managing climate change involves getting people from multiple disciplines to work together. She mentioned that in order to get younger generations to care about climate change, there must be some intervention in their elementary education – which entails getting teachers on board with environmental lesson plans. “If you get the teachers empowered and teaching the 10-year-old kids about their environmental impacts, then the next generation will follow, and so will future generations to come,” said Parmesan.

According to Bachrach, the intent of the event was to help attendees understand the severity of climate change and the urgency with which it needs to be dealt. He said, “Climate change is affecting plants and animals already. Some species will go extinct. Agriculture, conservation and wildlife management strategies must be adjusted to face this reality; however, it is not too late to save most environments, if carbon emissions are curbed very soon. The USA and other countries must collaborate more closely on international conservation management strategies.”

Nicole Sivetz, a sophomore biology and chemistry student who attended the event, was especially influenced by Parmesan’s ability to get people working together. She said, “I think the reason why she’s so successful is her interdisciplinary approach. She gets people from all different fields to work together towards this goal which is what we need if we want to see change happen.”

According to Bachrach climate change is everyone’s responsibility. There are plenty of steps students can take to reduce their individual environmental impacts and do their part to make the planet a better place. He said, “Using a refillable container for drinks saves the energy of producing disposables every day. Driving less and using public transportation more often has a direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Planting native plants in your own gardens helps birds and insects that depend on those plants. There is a lot that the individual citizen can do because the carbon emissions problem is cumulative; therefore, every small reduction helps.”