HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: A letter from sabbatical

Director’s Almanac: A letter from sabbatical

I’m often asked: What does an environment institute director do? My standard response is three basic things – in equal parts.

First, I’m an administrator; I oversee a complex and ambitious unit, and I connect it with dozens of other units across the University of Minnesota. Second, I’m an ambassador; I represent University goals and interests – on education, knowledge sharing, and outreach about sustainability – in a wide variety of settings. And lastly, I’m a professor: a researcher, a teacher, a mentor, and a collaborator in specific areas of environment and sustainability that I know best. But, as anyone who wears many hats knows (and that’s all of us), balance is always a challenge.

And that’s why it’s important for someone in a role like mine to step back from time to time, to give undivided attention to thinking, reading, and writing. That’s what I’ve been doing this fall. Specifically, I’m diving deep into climate change risk and adaptation, the area where I’ve built a scholarly reputation and still have much to contribute. 

Thinking about adaptation often involves a different mindset than thinking about mitigation, which is often at the center of public discourse about climate change. But the challenge of adaptation is equally pressing: Even as we strive to mitigate, we’ll also need to adapt in every community and nation, in all habitats and ecosystems, and every sector of society.

This means the world has a nearly boundless need for deep thinking and careful strategizing about how to adapt to a changing climate. To make positive change, we need to be thoughtful about the specific climate challenges and risks we face, of the various tactics that are available, and of hang-ups, conflicts, and tradeoffs among those challenges and tactics that might be hidden from view.

Academics like me who have been working in the field of adaptation have useful ideas about these things, but we cannot make true progress on the ground without public awareness and engagement to help build a healthy, resilient future. We need attention to adaptation, ways of talking about and evaluating it, and a shared set of goals and objectives across wide swaths of the public – like we do for mitigation – if we hope to make progress on adaptation policy and action.

So, in a book designed to be accessible to a broad, public audience, I’m writing about adaptation, with a focus on biodiversity conservation and nature-based solutions that can serve human communities, two areas that I believe can make big waves in filling the need for adaptation, for the future of our planet and humanity.

The book has a working title: Saving Nature, Saving Ourselves: Creatively Conserving and Using Natural Resources as Humanity Adapts to Climate Change. It’s a play on the notion of “saving,” a common trope in conservation. My goal is to “save” biodiversity and healthy ecosystems and enable human thriving through adaptation, at least as much as possible given the considerable impacts of climate change. But “saving” does not mean going back to how things were before; the truth is we can’t because of changing conditions. Adaptation means building a different future, one of hope and innovation but also grief, loss, and difficult decisions. 

My goal is to help readers understand and appreciate adaptation, so that they can add adaptation to their understanding of climate change and nature conservation. I want to draw them into several challenges and opportunities of climate change adaptation, take them on tour of various adaptation tools and considerations, and give them a look at adaptation actions from the obvious to the sci-fi.

“Saving nature” requires that we reduce, as much as we can, the effects of climate change on species, ecosystems, and biodiversity. Strategies for doing this range from traditional approaches familiar to conservation biologists to new, more controversial techniques that challenge established views about human intervention in natural systems. A surprising feature of climate change is that it makes restoration – historically a central tenet of conservation – technically impossible, opening the dialogue on conservation outcomes in entirely new ways.

Climate change also introduces some dilemmas to conservation biology that are new to conservation practitioners. This is because adaptation actions are likely to have side effects that may undermine other conservation objectives, and this potential conflict makes it more difficult to reach decisions about which conservation strategy is best. 

“Saving ourselves” is about reintroducing nature and its services and benefits into the realm of humans. I argue that climate change provides a unique opportunity — and an obligation — to expand the use of natural solutions in the human environment, to reduce climate risks to human lives and livelihoods. This can happen in the city, along the coast, and on farms, toward protecting human structures, public health, and sustaining food production. In each of these settings, I argue that we should not overlook nature-based solutions and that we must avoid adaptation solutions that make climate change worse (such as fossil fuel-based air conditioning) and introduce new vulnerabilities (such as breaching sea walls built just a bit higher).

My hope is to cultivate responsibility for action among readers. Adaptation is a contact sport — it requires us to take action and that action includes the reader. 

If I’m successful with this book project, my readers will see pathways of engagement, action, and advocacy around adaptation that make sense for nature enthusiasts, climate protectors, and community members. They will see reasons to engage and deploy their own agency in adaptation practice and decisions about adaptation. Time will tell if the masses are mobilized (!), but at a minimum, this is something I have to say – and I want to say – for those who want to listen and engage. 

In planetary prosperity, 

Jessica

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