Think Globally, But Act Locally When Studying Plants, Animals, Global Warming, Researchers Advise

March 21, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — Global warming is clearly affecting plants and animals, but we should not try to tease apart the specific contribution of greenhouse gas driven climate change to extinctions or declines of species at local scales, biologists from The University of Texas at Austin advise.

Quino checkerspot butterfly
The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly experiences pressures in Southern California from climate change, but also urban development, invasive species and pollution. Photo: Lawrence Gilbert and Michael C. Singer

Camille Parmesan, Michael C. Singer and their coauthors published their commentary online this week in Nature Climate Change.

"Yes, global warming is happening. Yes, it is caused by human activities. And yes, we've clearly shown that species are impacted by global warming on a global scale," says Parmesan, associate professor of integrative biology.

Policy makers have been recently pressing biologists to dissect how much of the changes observed in wild species are due specifically to greenhouse gas driven climate change versus other possible factors, including natural changes in the climate.

However, research funding is limited, and the scientists feel it should be directed more toward studies on species adaptations and conservation of compromised species rather than trying to figure what percent of each species' decline is due to rising greenhouse gases. One reason is that, from the perspective of wildlife, it doesn’t matter what proportion of climate-change impacts are caused by humans.

"A changing climate is a changing climate, irrespective of its cause," write the scientists.

They argue that the focus ought to now be placed on the interactions of climate change with impacts of other human activities, such as air pollution, invasive species, urban sprawl and pressures from agriculture.

"Effects of climate change are everywhere, but they act on top of all these other stresses faced by wild species," says Parmesan. "What we need to do now is to focus on extensive field experiments and observations that try to understand how multiple factors, such as exploitation or habitat fragmentation, interact with a changing climate to directly affect these species."

Take, for example, the Quino checkerspot butterfly in Southern California.

The butterfly became endangered in the 1980s principally because of growth of Los Angeles and San Diego. Only a handful of populations remain in the United States, and they suffer from a complex of factors. A warming and drying climate is shortening the life of host plants, causing caterpillars to starve. The plants themselves are suffering from competition with introduced Mediterranean geraniums, likely encouraged by nutrients in rain falling through polluted air.

"All of these things have been happening, so when we see one of these populations wink out we suspect them all," says Singer, a professor of integrative biology who has been working on this species since the 1960s. "Climate change is definitely part of the context for this butterfly in this system, but it isn't the only driver."

The scientists offer another example in corals. Incidences of coral bleaching have increased since the 1970s due to unusually high ocean temperatures associated with global climate change. Corals can recover from bleaching, but biologists have noted that recovery is worse in areas that have been hit directly by human activities, such as over-fishing, introduced species and water pollution.

For conservation biologists and policy makers, it's critical to understand those local driving forces, so they can make appropriate, and sometimes immediate, interventions. Tackling climate change itself is a problem on a different level.

"Think globally about climate change and how that's going to affect your national park, or your reserve or your endangered species," says Parmesan, "but in terms of action, you've got to think locally about what you need to do in terms of habitat restoration, removing invasive species, assisting species migration, etcetera. Those are things you can and should do something about in the short term."

Parmesan shares a Nobel Prize with the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their 3rd Assessment Report.

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675; Camille Parmesan, 512-232-1860; Michael C. Singer, 512-471-4506.

21 Comments to "Think Globally, But Act Locally When Studying Plants, Animals, Global Warming, Researchers Advise"

1.  Jake said on March 22, 2011

"Yes, global warming is happening. Yes, it is caused by human activities." I wish my department could prove theories with level of their evidence. "A changing climate is a changing climate, irrespective of its cause." Exactly, let's stop arguing and just needs to happen irregardless of theories that are uncertain. Or I guess I could fake a lot of major scientists signatures on my work and win a nobel prize...

2.  Norman said on March 25, 2011

If you all really want to convince the doubters that humans really are having an impact on global temperature, then you need to address the real issue, and that's either the contradictions that are never scientifically explored for some reason or the evidence that gets covered up, silenced, or is ostracized by the scientific community, leading some to suspect that perhaps funding is too important to really dig in and come at the truth of global warming, constituents and their funding be damned, for lack of a better term.

My point here is that until you stop scoffing at the contradictions, stop scoffing at the evidence that implies humans are not the cause, and really start researching global warming with a willingness to admit that you are wrong, lose your funding, and still publish the results that contradict humans as being the cause of global warming, you will never ever convince a large amount of the U.S. that we are actually the cause of global warming.

You will talk like you're absolutely sure that we are the cause when you very well know that their are avenues of global warming research that are either never conducted because funding would not be so forth coming if they were, or are conducted by others who are willing to put their careers on the line by supporting scientific data that goes against what is popularly accepted within the scientific community.

Unless, you, as men and women of science, look at that evidence as it is, at the truth and merit of that research with an open mind and be willing to conduct further unpopular research down that unpopular road, then you will never convince many Americans that global warming is actually caused by people.

3.  H said on March 25, 2011

Why is a major Texas university blindly following rhetoric liberalism. These days everything is related and reasoned on basis of climate change, a liberal agenda. That is no less than fear mongering. Environmentalists live by killing others' businesses and industry, and we are giving legitimacy to that. WE CARE ABOUT THE CLIMATE AS WELL, HOWEVER IT IS NO REASON TO SPEAK AGAINST INDUSTRY AND MANY OTHER EARNING RESOURCES WHICH ALLEVIATE POVERTY. Once we are off the poverty, then you can care about the environment more. Till then, LET PEOPLE CARE ABOUT THEIR LIVELIHOODS AND EARNINGS. (I know liberals need freebies!!)

4.  Daniel said on March 28, 2011

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"

There was a point made previously about how some policies encouraging sustainable practices could have negative economic impacts in the short term, which could in turn worsen poverty (assuming a very simple, direct relation between the state of the economy and poverty).

I will argue that policies designed to lower humanity's impact on our environment, when formulated and functioning correctly, will reduce and prevent poverty in the future. As such, the slight short term economic cost of such policies is an investment in preventing much higher costs in the future. A simple, clear example would be that of a company which invests in R&D for their product. They would have lower profits in the short term due to the costs of investment, but in the long term the returns would be much greater.

I would now like to present a few peer-reviewed articles describing: the relation between climate change and social vulnerability (specifically food insecurity), and the relation between climate change and the water cycle:

"Climate change and social vulnerability: Toward a sociology and geography of food insecurity "
Found in Volume 4, Issue 1 of this title, 5th down:

"Climate change and global water resources"
Found in Volume 9, Supplement 1 of same title as above.

Also, there is a book "The economics of climate change" which, while not being peer-reviewed work from a strictly scientific journal, illustrates how climate change affects the economic picture.

5.  H said on March 30, 2011

@ Daniel: You missed many industries which environmentalists want to close altogether, and alternative to those industries are pittance in terms of earnings and livelihood. Take for example the oil industry, mining industry. So get a so called one 'green energy' job costs 4 good paying job. Don't have a pre-set agenda before you try to think and conclude about this issue.

6.  Erik Osbun said on March 31, 2011

Have you looked at the 65 million year record of atmospheric temperature obtained from oxygen isotope analysis of Antarctic ice cores? I have, and those changes are far more drastic than anything currently seen,.....and when no humans were around. The plot of these temperatures must be modeled, mathematically simulated, and a match obtained by you "global warmers", .....BEFORE I would accept anything that you could say about human influence on climate change. Until then, the odds are that you don't really understand what you are pushing.

7.  Luke Primrose said on March 31, 2011

Seems to me each and every biology professor (including those who think they are now climatologists) should spend a bit of time at the Jackson School, maybe start will auditing GEO-401 and go from there. Funny thing, we have yet to find those dirty old fossil fuel burning civilizations that caused the last global warming event.

8.  Sam Nettles said on March 31, 2011

Comments about the truth are the most important.

9.  Cary Michael Cox said on March 31, 2011

I suggest every person that opens this e-mail read the following book:

"Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax" by University of Houston professor Larry Bell.

It totally debunks the myth of man-made Greenhouse Gasses casuing Global Warming.

The fact that The Univeristy of Texas put this liberal "BS" e-mail is sickening.

What a bunch of fools!

BTW who gives a damn about a freaking butterfly over the needs of the human race.

10.  David Wood said on March 31, 2011

If humans are really the cause, why are we not addressing population control and limiting immigration. Your study shows that increasing the population increases global warming. So why not go after the cause?

11.  Howard R. Lowe said on March 31, 2011

It appears the planet is undergoing global warming, but to establish a long term warming trend a lot more time will be needed. If global warming is actually taking place I am of the opinion that the #2 cause is human OVER-POPULATION on a grand scale. WHY? To feed the growing population man has drastically increased the amount of arable land, causing forests to disappear. AND, more and more food from the sea is needed to feed growing populations. There is a growing shortage of pure water to quench the thirst of the growing population.

Humans are the destructive force - causing erosion of the land as forests are cleared for agriculture and for timber. On top of this man overfishes the waters. AND, he contaminates the rivers, lakes, and seas, and the land with his waste. He creates urban sprawl - you think Austin fits into this category? All these things have an effect on climate warming. Yes, the demand for ever increasing huge amounts of fuel certainly assists man is his unrelenting pressure on the planet's ecosystems.

What things have the greatest effect on global climate? I am convinced that #1 is the cyclically changes associated with our planet's movements - the Earth's eliptical orbit, declination of its axis, density of sunpots are the most noticeable. Along with these add geological processes to the mix, since they continually alter the planet's surface.

Many of us who are scientifically trained believe if we cut off every ounce of fossil fuel it would have little effect on the climate. Yet, I believe we should exert every effort to protect the environment, including conservation, but in a reasoned practical manner. Item #1 holds tight - man must somehow get control of population growth.

So - what are the suggestions on China and India who pollute on a massive scale, OR how do we go about controlling populations in developing regions? Get realistic!

12.  Dorothy Bell said on March 31, 2011

Not until people like the above writer understand that what affects the butterfly or bee will eventually affect humans will we make any progress in climate change. You may have a job today, but, your children may not have water or clean air in their lifetme.

13.  rosbo said on March 31, 2011

A few observations based upon the above comments:
1.) The scientific method, and the evidence it produces, appears to be more and more impervious to "anti-liberals".
2.) There seems to be a inverse relationship between increasing average temperatures and the average IQ of Faux News devotees.
3.) The "infinite Monkey Theorem" is apparently incorrect... even with word processors and an internet account.

14.  ncooty said on March 31, 2011

Bravo rasbo. I completely agree. I hope these people aren't actual alumni.

15.  H said on March 31, 2011

@rosbo: The fact is no one among the liberals like you ever even want to take a look at the science which depicts other side of this topic. BTW, we know how much liberals are pervious to common sense and logic. You guys live in some fantasy world.

16.  Dr. Pierre A. Kleff, Jr. said on April 1, 2011

This unsupported hypothesis of man-made global, warming has become a joke. Cycles in global environment are a constant phenomenon as any valid scientist will admit. Ask a child in a 5th grade science class. If you do not like it, complain to God.

17.  John said on April 1, 2011

This and other similar articles make me embarrassed to be a UT graduate in Science and Engineering.

18.  Susan said on April 1, 2011

Don't believe all this rubbish. Most scientists have disproved global warming. You embarrass me, a UT Science Graduate and yourself.

19.  Concerned Citizen said on April 4, 2011

I am not surprised to see most of the comments here; y'all will find whatever way you can to be ignorant and noisy. All I have to do is follow the money to find out why. I've taken courses in the Jackson School, and I know that department is seriously split between petroleum engineers vs "other geologists". I see the oil companies coming to wine, dine and interview your students before they even get their degrees. Its as pervasive as drug reps in medicine. I noticed when Big Oil made it possible for you to have your own School. Don't be surprised when I can see right through the "credibility" you're trying to tout by mentioning your "Dr." title or your "UT grad in Science and Engineering". How many times did Shell buy your lunch?

For all you other readers; I hope you have the common sense to actually go read the paper. Good Grief!

20.  Cary Michael Cox said on April 5, 2011

H - I'm an actual alumnus and don't hide behind a letter such a "H" - what's that for Hokie?

What you hope that The University of Texas only graduates liberal idiots?

21.  Dal Chand said on Aug. 29, 2011

Thanks for the article. We have listed here some of the endangered species in India thought your readers might find it interesting-