How Does Climate Change Impact Ecosystems? | Jessica Hellmann for Project Drawdown
So now we're going to hear from Jessica Hellmann. Jessica is one of the world's leading ecologists who thinks about how climate change will affect ecosystems and how we need to kind of anticipate how ecosystems will change in the future. She's a professor and Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
So, Jessica, thanks for joining us today, and I'm really curious to hear your perspective on climate change, especially as we are sitting here in the Upper Midwest. And you're an expert on what's going on in this region and beyond, and so tell me, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the Upper Midwest when it comes to climate change? What are some of the things that worry you the most? Well, first, I have to answer as an ecologist, as a person who studies species and ecosystems the thing I worry most about globally is biodiversity loss. You know, we estimate that as much as a third of biodiversity could be driven to extinction, or certainly impacted locally by climate change. We've done some studies where experts tell us as much as 10% of species could be lost within the within this century in response to climate change. And in this region, the state of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, is the confluence between more southerly forested ecosystems and more northerly boreal forest ecosystems, and also the confluence of the prairie to the west and the forest to the east.
And if you change the climate, and you live at the boundaries of those ecosystems, you're going to see those ecosystems shift and change. So for people who live and work here, they're going to see a lot of on the ground, natural resource and biodiversity change as the climate shifts. Yeah, you raise a really interesting point because, yeah, the Upper Midwest like in Minnesota here, yeah, you're between kind of northern and southern forest and forests and grasslands, all colliding, right in this one state. But also kind of the effects of water too, like, you know, so, the birthplace of the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and just to the west of you, it's pretty arid and just to the east it's very, very wet, so any changes at all here – north, south, east, west – are going to be felt here probably pretty quickly, aren't they? Well, and if you think about the Midwest agriculture, for example, one of the things that farmers across the Midwest have always been concerned about is wanting to get water off of the land, right, this is why we tile drain so much of the Midwest. Before I was in Minnesota, you know, I came from Indiana and you know, vast parts of northern Indiana was covered by one of the most, one of the richest and largest wetlands that you could be found in North America, people came from Europe to hunt in this massive wetland, it was called the Kankakee, along the Kankakee River. It was a huge wetland completely tile drained for agriculture, because agriculture worries a lot about having … you want water when you want it, and you don't want it when you don't want it.
So climate change, a major threat of climate change is that it will make the, we say, the hydrologic system more flashy or more variable, so it will bring heavy rainfall and flooding when you don't want it, and it could also withhold water and cause drought when that's negative. But one of the things I'm kind of excited about that's a twist, if you think about a climate solution, or what we are, what we're going to need to do in order to adapt and to adjust to the changing climate, is there might be reason to think about restoring some of those native wetlands across the Midwest, because in some locations, those wetlands actually recharge the groundwater. So when you have a standing body of water it can penetrate through. It depends very much on the local geology, but that water can percolate and replenish the groundwater, and a lot of agriculture is irrigated from groundwater as well. So sometimes when I'm feeling most hopeful, I think, "We drained those wetlands for agriculture, what if we actually put them back in the name of agriculture under climate change so that we have water to irrigate our crops?" So climate is kind of changing the, our relationship with the land as well in ways to be fearful and to be planful of and to stop – and why it's important to stop climate change, but also maybe giving us some creative ways of thinking about managing our lands differently. Yeah, it's a really interesting point, restoring wetlands, both to, you know, as habitat, also as a way of kind of the shock absorber to flash flood events and things like this too, to kind of soak up the extra water, but also as a way for letting the water sit for a while so it can actually percolate back into the groundwater.
I used to live in California. They were having some of the same problems of year, after year, after year of droughts where people were mining the groundwater down to almost depletion levels, but then we had a few wet years where they kind of let the water sit and start to recharge those kind of aquifers. Yeah, so we can we can manage a little bit of this to kind of help take some of the edges off. One of the things I'm fascinated about your work in particular, is that you look a lot at the intersection of how we can adapt to climate changes that are already here and some that are still going to come, but also to find solutions to avoid the worst climate change that might be out into the future. Kind of prevention and adapting at the same time. And sometimes they have the same toolbox aren’t they? Right. It's interesting, those of us who started working on adaptation, well, now, 12, 13, 14 years ago, especially among
ecologists, it was sort of like, “Shhh, don't mention living with climate change, because we're trying to tackle it." And we said, "No, climate change is here, you have to, you have to make adjustments. We've already released greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We're locked into a certain amount of warming." Talking about it, adapting to climate change, however, does not mean that we're not also talking about mitigation. Stopping climate change. In fact, I like to say, if you want to adapt to climate, it would be helpful to adapt to lesser of it than more of it, so you need to stop emitting greenhouse gases for the hope of successful adaptation.
But there are also some cases where adaptation could and mitigation can be sort of one and the same, or when you're addressing climate change as a problem, you could be achieving some other benefits. So, an example of that is, if you know, there's a lot of momentum around this idea of planting native grassland under solar installations. I mean here in the Midwest, we're expecting to have, you know, rapid expansion. Well, this would be true across the United States, but including in the Midwest, we're planning to expand these sort of what we call utility-scale solar, sort of big, you know, more-than-a-megawatt type scale of solar. And what you choose to do with the land underneath it really matters.
We had a little study that we're still working on publishing that suggested that if you took the land that was likely to go into solar production here in the Midwest, you could use that land to produce more pollinators and pollinator habitat, which would have agricultural benefits. You could also sequester carbon. Our estimate of carbon sequestering it, sequestration in that soils would be like, equivalent... that amount, we said by 2030, the amount of solar that you could, and the landowner, you could restore could store 100 days’ worth of carbon being emitted from your typical coal power plant, just the growth in, in the Midwest and those regions.
So sort of thinking about when you're tackling climate change with a renewable energy technology, what else are you doing, and one of those things you could be doing is actually storing carbon and fighting climate in other ways and having these co-benefits of these restored habitats. It's kind of like that idea of restoring wetlands. The main thing that farming did across the Midwest, I mean, it's wonderful, it produces, it's the breadbasket of the world, but we destroyed native grassland and native prairie habitats, making those habitats, some of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet.
What if in the name of farming electrons, we're actually putting those native prairie habitats back out there on the landscape? It's kind of a, a cool idea. Yeah, that's so cool, that's really, really neat. You know, again, the idea that we're going to need so much more renewable energy, and these kind of larger scale production systems, like solar farms, if you will, wind farms we already have, and, you know, we can decide what to do underneath them. We can farm right up to the wind turbines, we can grow stuff under the solar farms, no problem. And whether that's corn or soybeans or whatever, you could choose to do that, I suppose. Or it could be put into native grasses, you just mow, or, you know, kind of take care of, every so often.
Well, some people are experimenting with livestock production too, under these solar farms. Because it provides some shade, keeps the grass a little cooler, prevents evaporation, so there's a little more moisture in the soil. It's kind of mimicking you know like a savanna, in weird kind of way, you know, I guess. That's right, that's right! That's pretty cool. I love these kind of win-win scenarios where we can find solutions across the board to you know, like a climate problem, but also have other benefits to habitat and biodiversity, water. Why don't you tell us more about that? Well, I was just going to say that, you know, when we talk about climate change, and you and I, those of us who've been working on these issues for decades, we've been around the block a few times and, we know that maybe we've learned that always just, you know, going with the scary scenarios, first, about how catastrophic climate change is, is not necessarily the most winning argument. It's true. You know, the consequences of climate change are likely to be severe – I like to say often, to most people,
“And they're probably much larger than the idea you have in your head,” but that's not really what motivates solutions and people putting new ideas and new technologies into practice. It's really the opportunities that arise from tackling climate change that are going to push us over. In my experience that makes people say, “Oh, okay, well, what can I do to address this, and what benefits will that – will come from tackling that problem?” So, “What is the value that I will add to my farm by including a wind turbine? What is the potential economic value of that?” “How can I reduce my energy expenditures by incorporating solar?” You know, these sort of – it is those benefits.
Or how could we – what are the creative land uses and ecosystem service benefits that we could get from introducing these things? So, it's the positives of what we could achieve is more motivating than the – avoiding the negative. Yeah, that's a really good point. I sometimes like to make the analogy like, as scientists, when we told people first about climate change, we talked only about the problem, we kind of forgot to talk about the solutions.
Imagine you're a doctor and you're going into the waiting room telling your patient like, "Dude, you're really sick, I got nothing else for you, I'm outta here! But you're going to die!" And walked out. That's what we were doing. And now we go back and say, "Wait a minute. Yeah, you know what, you might get very sick. You got something going on now, you could get a lot worse, but guess what, I have solutions. And the solutions aren't going to just prevent the disease, you're going to be richer, you're going to be better looking after we're done with this" or whatever. you know. Isn't that great? Like, it's not just solving the problem, we actually made the system better than it was when we started if we do it right.
Right, and we certainly need that now, because we got a lot – we don't just have environmental problems that we need to address, we have a lot of socioeconomic problems and inequalities and a need for economic innovation and development, and so it's awfully tempting to think about, you know, like a space race or something, we have something that we need to achieve in our collective interests. Of course, the space race was coupled with a worry about national security, but we have this problem, climate change we need to tackle, it's in our collective interest to do so, but let's do it in a way that meets these other societal goals, like job creation, you know. So what we accomplished in the space race is we created this whole set of technologies and assets in addition to sort of meeting our national defense ambitions. We created a research enterprise that we still enjoy today. So, I don't know, that's the thing I'm most hopeful about, is that we'll decide to lean into this problem, because we need to, because as you say, you're sick. But the opportunities that come with it are, are also compelling. And I also think it's critical for those of us who are thinking about solutions, not to just have one size, so you must have wind power, right, but here are a suite of options and you choose among them, and they're context dependent.
So, because sometimes the solution isn't appropriate for a particular location, cost of course is important, it's going to be different in different locations. I think another one of the exciting things we're seeing society grapple with climate change is you actually do see a lot of local innovation and local solutions, so it's kind of like, your doctor says, "You're sick, here are a couple of treatment options, what's going to work for you? What is your insurance going to pay for? What regimen could you stay on?” You’ve got to evaluate the side effects and, and consequences of different courses of action. So I think we're getting better, that we are kind of, we’re, as scientists we are doing a little bit better job, like you say, being the doctor and sort of sticking with you through the treatment, not just telling you what's wrong. Well, hopefully, hopefully. And as you point out, you know, there are no one-size-fits all climate solutions. A lot of people ask me, they've probably asked you to like, "What's the one thing we can do to fix climate change?" I say "Stop thinking there's one thing!" There's hundreds of things, and we need to probably do a little of all of them. And which you you, where you are, it depends on kind
of what your situation is. We can employ a different mix in different places. And I tell people too, I know you thought about this so much in Drawdown, you know what things matter the most. When it comes to individual choices, too, you do want to do what matters the most, and to put your attention on the things that have the greatest impact. But there's also value in doing something, especially if it's something that gets you engaged in the solution, and something that causes you to join forces with other people. One thing I think that I just love about the state of Minnesota is this thing we have called community solar, and I know you know about community solar, Jon, but the idea that the very nature of the regulation or the way that that the policy works is that you can combine – that you can join forces with other people to produce a solar asset that you then share and benefit from.
So that's great from a deploying renewable energy, but that's actually how social change around greenhouse gas emission reduction is going to work. The individual actions are so important, but it's really the societal change at scale that's going to affect the big thing. So if you're doing individual things but you're joining others in public policy change, or deploying renewable assets, or regional planning or urban, you know, any of these kinds of collective efforts ultimately end up being more important, but it's often individual actions that cause people to kind of start spinning that wheel and to get involved in that. Some of the most important public policy that needs to be done is about setting those incentives, so that individuals do act collectively, because the incentive is in place for many, many, many, many people to choose environmentally friendly, or mitigation friendly options, because, again, it still may be an individual process, like, where is your energy consumption coming from, but it has to be done at scale, in order for that to, to work. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of one off, you know, those of us who are a little out there on the fringe trying to do our individual part, but it doesn't really add up to enough. So that's why we need the collective action as well. Yeah, that's something I always thought about too, because you could be really virtuous from an environmental point of view by yourself, you know, you could go eat, you know, tofu by candlelight in a cave somewhere all by yourself, but you didn't really accomplish much, you just changed one person's behavior. But if we work together and all change a little bit,
and find out that, hey, this was actually good for us, and we're happier, we're better off, we're more equitable, we're more just when we're done, we can catalyze much bigger things much more quickly, that way. Right. I agree. Cool. Well, so I want to shift gears a little bit in terms of your experience in working in this part of the world on,
like, kind of reaching out to folks about climate solutions, you know, talking about climate change. There's this kind of, you know, belief out there that it's, you know, hyperpolarized when, in fact but it kind of isn't actually, is it? In the real world a lot of people are kind of in the middle and most people actually are, and when you talk about solutions and kind of common-sense things, suddenly all that kind of melts away. Doesn't it, isn't that your experience? That's right. I, you know, you and I, I mean, we've talked about, I'm sure you've talked to hundreds, thousands of people about this idea and that is I say, there is nothing partisan about climate change or climate solutions. And one
of my greatest hopes is that when we get beyond climate denial, when we say wow, we have something that we actually need to work on, then all of the possible strategies can be put on the table, whether you're a tax-and-spend liberal or you're a market incentives, you know, fiscal conservative, because all techniques from a public policy point of view are important, and we have a goal that we need to get to and that is greenhouse gas emission reduction, and we have a suite of technologies that are available, so we need a variety of public policy tools to help sort of most efficiently deploy those technologies. So I think it's just deeply disappointing from my point of view as a scientist, that there is an idea out there that climate change is sort of a liberal, or that there are certain kinds of tools that are more effective than others. It's actually not true, there are so many, very well studied, very market-driven strategies that sort of lean more fiscally conservative, that could be really effective in addressing these, at bringing about that positive change that we're talking about.
Yeah, that's a really good point, because, you know, you know, a more ideal world than we sometimes have. We should be arguing about how to implement climate solutions not whether to, but how. Is it more, we should spend more money and collect more taxes? Or no, let's let markets solve it and get out of the way of business. Whatever, you know, as long as we're doing the right thing we can argue, and maybe that's good to argue, like, what's the best way to solve a problem, because we don’t, we don’t really know. Sometimes we have to try things out, or maybe they can complement each other, but instead, this whole conversation got hijacked by a few special interests – we have to kind of acknowledge that – who said we're going to just pretend it didn't even, that climate change is some kind of hippie liberal meta – you know, conspiracy, which is kind of nuts. I mean you think a bunch of scientists could pull off a conspiracy like this? Yeah. Well, and if it is, then you know, cancer is a conspiracy too, right, or all the other unfortunate things that
have a scientific basis – the pandemic. Yeah, it's kind of weird how a small minority of special interests can kind of hijack the rest of us and pretend it's a big conspiracy, when, I don't know, we need to kind of overcome that and get to common sense a little more. I also like to say to, like, students for example, or public audiences, that there are tremendous, very exciting, very fun, high stakes fights that we could be having both about climate and climate science and about climate solutions once we decide to stop fighting about whether or not climate change is a real thing. Then, when you – or I say, climate scientists love to argue there is so much debate there. It's just not about whether or not CO2 is a greenhouse gas, right? It's about how hurricanes form and intensify and the relative role, or of warming waters versus atmospheric processes or, you know, all kinds of really – Among ecologists, you know, what are the species that are most sensitive to climate change? And what are the strategies that could be used to help those biodiversity and climate change? I mean, really interesting, important scientific debate.
And – but we can't have a lot of that debate and we can't have that debate in the public, when we're still having this other squabble about, you know, is it true or not? And I think that's, I think that's very, very disappointing. So, my hope for us as a country is that we can argue about the things that will, that are, that move us forward instead of arguing about the issues, you know, the existence of the issues themselves. Yeah, you know, that's a really funny point. I like that, it's like sometimes people don't want us to move forward on climate change. "So you don't even want to have the debate, that's un-American." I'm like, "No, we'd love to have a 21st century debate about the science and issues of the 21st century, you want to have a debate about the 18th century." We don't argue about gravity or not, or if the Earth is round, or well, I guess a few people do, but we don't have to argue that anymore. We know.
Let's go arguing about the stuff we don't know about like, what's the best possible policy to solve climate change? Or what's the best business case to address it? Or whatever. We may not know all that yet. We should find that out, but we don't have to argue about greenhouse gases, ‘cause as you and I know, a lot of people don't, the first science kind of looking at climate change issues, really, was in the 1800s. In the 1830s, then Eunice Foote in the 1850s and other people. like, we've known about this stuff for almost 200 years! Right. Right. I mean, what a greenhouse gas is, is really just a fundamental chemistry observation. Yeah.
Now making specific predictions about how climate will manifest in your backyard, that's a lot harder, but that the climate is changing and why, that's actually quite easy. Yeah, we've kind of known the physics of that stuff for almost two centuries. The basics, anyway. You know, if you – I think also, and now here, I'm straying, Jon, pretty far from my area of expertise, which is sort of climate impacts and climate solutions, but if you look at speaking as a citizen and looking around our country and a bunch of the divisions that we face, including some political divisions, I mean, my great hope is that we could, in problem-solving around climate, actually could be a way to bring us together, because when I think that those kinds of fruitful debates and the fact that there is something to contribute on both sides of the aisle, if you will, to that solution, There, there's – then there's utility, like, if you will, there's some value in the diversity of political perspective and political tools that can be used in policy solutions. Versus in the moment, we feel like we're segregated from one another, and you choose one way or the other. But, in fact, good public policy should draw on great ideas across the political spectrum. So tackling a common problem would be a great way, I think, to remind ourselves that political variety can be helpful, not something that we're trying to squash.
Yeah, that's a really good point. Yeah, right now, unfortunately, I think, you know, taking off my scientist hat and just another citizen hat listening, we have people who are making money off of dividing us on purpose – Right! Yeah. – whether it's our media, social media, our politicians, that’s their business model is to have us tear each other apart. But if we remind ourselves like, hey, even if we're a different political party, we live in a different part of the country, we speak a different kind of dialect or whatever, we actually all love our kids, we all want a better future, we have a lot more in common than we're led to believe.
And if we invited each other to join each other in solving some of the biggest problems that make the future better, we can be reminded about how good we really can be. And that's what leadership used to be. Right. And that's what we need to have again. This is one of the, I mean, you know, the University of Minnesota is a public university for this state, so we at our Institute, we like to talk about doing things in Minnesota for the world, the world is very important, but we also have a special obligation to the to the, to the state and the people who live here. What I love about Minnesota is that it has this long track record and it came from Indiana, some of this is in Indiana too, this long track record of people caring about the well-being of Minnesota. What is – what do we need in our state? What is good for our state? And I really hope that that kind of, that mentality, "How will we navigate our way through? How will we create this economic opportunity, and these, say, renewable energy assets that will provide value to our citizens? How will we protect our citizens from the harms of climate change, because we have our duty to our state and that, above all else, is the most important?" And I think there's that rich tradition of having that perspective here. I mean, maybe that's part of what makes
the state kind of purple, if you will, or whether it's, as it swings, has swung in the past from one political party to another, I think it's been able to maintain its emphasis on the interests of the state. And again, I am hopeful that we can remember that as we go forward. Yeah, that's a really good point and – well, one thing too, as we're wrapping up here, is you work at the University of Minnesota, and talk about doing something amazing, the University of Minnesota and other great state universities, the land-grant universities of our country were founded in 1862 under the Morrill Act, during the Civil War, the American government thought to, "Let's create places of higher education that are giving back to their state.” You know, during the middle of the Civil War, we could actually set aside something to say, hey, maybe we should use education to improve the well-being of people in the states around the country. Wow, you know, what a great idea. And you know, almost – 150 years later, we're still reaping the benefits of that.
Yeah, it's a little bit of a, I think, on the one hand, it's a it’s, it’s an extraordinary commitment, right. And we still, we need to remember that that's true. Universities do things for us. They generate economic productivity, they give us ideas, they give us technologies, creativity, and that's what we need to move forward. Of course, the land-grant universities also have a very unpleasant history and that that was all land that was stolen from Native peoples. So at the same time, while we fulfill our land-grant promise, we also need to remember the history and the obligation that comes from that and we have some very important injustices to address and to make sure that we understand as we move forward as well. That our past, like all, is complicated. And the land grants are extraordinary, but they also remind us of the historic burden that we carry as a country.