Brave Thinkers

Illustration by Quickhoney

Name: Camille Parmesan
Job: Professor, University of Texas at Austin
Why she’s brave: She’s devising new ways to save endangered species from climate change.
Quote: “Anybody who is empathetic to other forms of life needs to be worried. Do you want there to be bears in the Rockies, dolphins in Monterey Bay?”


Parmesan spent the first half of the 1990s tracking the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly—an unlikely basis, perhaps, for a revolution in conservation biology. She found that the butterfly—which is sensitive to temperature—had declined in lower-latitude areas, but was coping in Canada. It was also doing far better at higher altitudes than at lower ones. In a landmark 2006 article in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, Parmesan presented evidence from nearly a thousand ecological studies she had reviewed showing that the butterfly’s shifting habitat was not an aberration: plants and animals were moving northward and up to higher altitudes; those species that could not move, like the polar bear, were in declining health or dying out. By 2050, according to one estimate, nearly 40 percent of the species on Earth could face extinction because of climate change. Parmesan and some of her colleagues are now considering a radical solution: humans stepping in to move imperiled species far out of harm’s way. Potential drawbacks abound: species may not adapt well to their new environment, or they may adapt all too well, and ravage a fragile ecosystem. And that’s not even considering the logistical or financial barriers. But the solution is not without precedent: throughout history, flora and fauna have changed their habitat to adjust to climate fluctuations, and humans have helped them in some cases before. If the gray wolf can flourish again in Yellowstone, why not tigers in Africa?

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