Reflecting on the enormity of the potential impacts of climate change, and whether we can realistically fight back, can be an intimidating exercise. But for Eve McDonald-Madden (L’Oréal Australia 2011 International Fellow) and Nicola Ranger, there are definite steps we can take to prepare, and to limit the severity of these consequences. From two very different angles, both scientists are already at it, using practical tools for concrete action.
Eve McDonald-Madden is a mathematically-minded ecologist. She is confronting the problem of climate change in a practical, realistic way. At the University of Queensland and for CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, Eve uses mathematical models for making decisions about how to manage wildlife populations. Taking models that predict the impacts of climate change on threatened species, she helps wildlife managers make the best, most cost-effective conservation decisions they can.
Choosing the most appropriate, efficient actions to take today in the face of an uncertain climate future is also the work of Nicola Ranger, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at the London School of Economics. The difference being that the populations examined by this atmospheric physicist and policy advisor are human, and often connected to the insurance industry. Though the subjects of their research are quite different—Hawaiian birds versus Florida homeowners, for example—both researchers ask similar questions to reach a common goal: To identify things we can do, here and now, that will have a positive impact as the climate continues to evolve.
Predicting how the climate will change, when, where exactly, whether a species can adapt, how, how fast…is a task riddled with uncertainty. In addition, conservation data can be scarce for two reasons, Dr. McDonald-Madden explains. “The natural world is complex, and [threatened] species are present at low numbers. So, even when you go out to get information, maybe you can’t find the animal. Does that mean it doesn’t exist, or you just didn’t find it that day?” It’s unclear, but, at the end of said day, decisions still need to be made. One aspect of Eve’s work is determining the value of information in a specific context. Perhaps knowing more about a species’ current situation would help in choosing the best course of action to protect it. Not necessarily, though.
"People often forget that there’s a trade-off between gathering more information and actually making decisions with the information that you have, because things can go extinct while you’re looking for them,” she points out."
Holding off until we know the full story, then, is not a viable response to climate change.
The same is true when considering the effects of climate evolutions on human activities. Nicola Ranger and colleagues have assessed the uncertainty associated with changing hurricane patterns. Their conclusion: “deeply uncertain.” She says they picked hurricanes to study because they are one of the most difficult phenomena to predict, due to the limited resolution of climate models, but the problem is the same for most extreme weather events. What on earth can we do, then, if it’s virtually impossible to predict anything? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but, like Eve McDonald-Madden, Dr. Ranger attempts to work with the uncertainty, incorporating it into decision-making frameworks, and also to work around it.
"There’s a lot we can do now—develop better early warning systems, make buildings more resilient—that will give benefits, whatever the climate does in the future. And that is an important argument when we’re going through budget cuts,” she adds.
Regardless of what our most high-minded ideals might be, any climate change initiative will face the reality of budgetary constraints. So, the question becomes not only “What can we do?” but “What is the most efficient thing to do?” For Eve McDonald-Madden, an essential first step is to identify the goal, then to choose the right response. Using principles of decision theory coming from applied mathematics, economics and operations research, she creates a framework for determining possible conservation actions to take and their likely impact on the system in question. Eve guides policy makers and managers-including the Australian and United States governments-through this process, helping them to elicit their own goals and choose among solutions. Her work is very multidisciplinary, involving not only mathematics and ecology, but the social sciences, too, since “it’s all about what we value. The objectives you choose are driven by society,” she says. Are we more willing to pay to keep seeing tigers, or a species of beetle most people have never heard of?
Society will clearly play a role downstream of climate change, too, via the structures that will help us deal with the consequences. Nicola Ranger studies the scientific aspect of changing weather events, their economic fallout, and how the insurance industry can help. “Developing countries have very little insurance, but years with drought or floods can make the difference between surviving, or not. Well-designed insurance can help by providing a little money to make it through that difficult period”. Whether in the third world, or in more developed regions, she helps insurers make decisions that will leave them better prepared to manage the consequences of climate change: making certain their product is priced properly, in order to have the greatest impact, determining how much capital to be holding in the event of an emergency… Dr. Ranger’s work allows insurance to become part of the climate change solution.
Both researchers see their efforts expanding from here. Next year, Eve McDonald-Madden will work on optimizing her systems by incorporating elements gleaned from artificial intelligence (AI). In conservation work, the systems are complex and uncertain, and sometimes require more than a simple cost-benefit analysis. Principles of AI that allow a robot to make decisions when navigating around a room, for example, can be scaled up to allow learning and decision-making in the face of multiple climate change scenarios. As a recipient of the 2011 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science fellowship, she will use her award to travel to France and learn more about these methods from the Biometrics and Artificial Intelligence group of the National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA).
Nicola Ranger predicts that adaptation ahead of climate change will receive more and more attention. A United Nations initiative, for instance, has grown out of last year’s climate summit in Cancun. The program’s goal is to examine different ways, including expansion of insurance structures, in which developing countries vulnerable to a changing climate can improve their ability to adapt.
Adaptation will be a hot topic at the UN climate conference currently underway in Durban, South Africa, and with good reason. Although there is still much debate about how to enhance adaptation and who will pay for it, Nicola Ranger, Eve McDonald-Madden, and others are trying to stay one step ahead of climate change. At this point, both women remain optimistic about our chances for making positive changes, while recognizing the very real threat of inaction. Eve feels that “we don’t need to get overwhelmed by the uncertainty, to throw up our hands [in despair]. Standing back will put us in a worse position.” Nicola agrees. “The longer we leave it, the harder and more expensive it will be [to make a difference.] We’re at a turning point, but it can also be seen as an opportunity point,” she is quick to add. “Adaptation to climate change, as well as mitigation of its effects, can be a positive story. It’s such an opportunity for growth.”
Ranger and McDonald-Madden certainly have a big job ahead of them, but by refusing to back down from an unpredictable opponent, uncertain in its dimensions, these scientists will continue to chip away at the potential for climate change to inflict damage. We have to hope that others will join them in taking practical, achievable steps to this end, because, as Nicola points out, “The thing about climate change is that we need everyone to act together.” -
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Nicola Ranger at the Grantham Institute, London School of Economics