Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the University of Texas and Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, has been studying the effects of climate change on plants and animals for years — a pursuit fraught with highs and lows.
An example of the former: She served for a time as lead author on a United Nations climate panel that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore, a recognition so thrilling that “it feels good, even if it’s 1/2,000th of a Nobel Prize,” Parmesan quipped at the time.
Among the lows: President Donald Trump’s declaration in June that he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, which aims to reduce emissions of carbon and other planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Parmesan is now feeling great again: On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron awarded her and 17 other researchers grants to work in France for three to five years. Macron calls it his “Make Our Planet Great Again” initiative, a riff on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
It felt “fantastic” to be chosen for the award, Parmesan told the American-Statesman by email.
“As well as providing five years of good funding, it has provided an important psychological boost for those of us in the climate change field,” she said. “It’s so fabulous for the head of state of a major economic power to say that he won’t let Trump pulling out of the Paris accords derail forward momentum on climate change, and that supporting the science is fundamental to developing solutions.”
Parmesan explained her work in a video posted on the Facebook page of UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, where she is an adjunct professor.
“My research has documented how plants and animals have been moving towards the poles and up mountains and towards early breeding in spring as they attempt to track a shifting climate,” she said. “This research has been important independent support of what the climate scientists have found in the temperature data. The research has also been important in shaping the international policy determining that 2 degrees centrigrade is the threshold for dangerous climate change.”
Her research in France will take place at an ecological station in Moulis, in the Pyrenees.
“I plan to study how these movements of animals from the tropics into Europe may be bringing tropical diseases into countries and medical systems that have not historically had them,” she said.
“I’m also a conservation biologist, and I’ve been working with modelers to adapt approaches from the field of economics that help us to make decisions when we don’t know what the future is going to bring,” Parmesan said. “So by applying these economic approaches to conservation, we hope to come up with a set of concrete management actions that can be taken now that will help preserve biodiversity even in the face of rapid and highly uncertain climate change.”
She told the Statesman that the amount of her French grant “is still being worked out, but it will be sufficient for me to start a new team,” with post-doctoral researchers and graduate students, “and get some real work done.”
Originally from Houston, Parmesan earned a bachelor’s degree with special honors in zoology and a Ph.D. in biological sciences, both at UT. She has taught and conducted research at UT for many years, becoming a tenured professor in 2006, but dialed back to adjunct, or part-time, status in 2014 to become a professor at Plymouth University.
She lives mainly in Plymouth these days but still has a house in Austin and an office at the university. “I just finished my last Texas Ph.D. student last summer,” she said. “So I’m there a couple of times a year for one to two months. I’ll be in Austin all this January.”
Jay L. Banner, director of UT’s Environmental Science Institute, said Parmesan’s discoveries have provided a benchmark for many other researchers.
“She is among the most highly cited climate scientists in the world,” Banner said. “One may feel a bit discouraged by this recruitment of talent away from our shores, sort of like when a successful football coach is hired away by a rival university. In the present case, however, the results may provide new insight into how we as a society may best mitigate against and adapt to the impacts of changes in our climate, and that would be a win all around.”
Parmesan said she hasn’t decided where she will work after her stint in France. “I’m certainly not keen to return to the USA as long as Trump is president,” she said.
Macron came up with the idea for a competition for climate-related research grants soon after Trump said he would withdraw from the Paris accord. A total of 1,822 people applied, nearly two-thirds from the United States. Thirteen of the 18 recipients are U.S.-based.
The awards were announced a day before the opening of the “One Planet Summit” in Paris co-hosted by the U.N. and the World Bank. More than 50 world leaders, not including Trump, gathered to re-energize the Paris accord.
Mayors from the U.S., Canada and Mexico convened in Chicago last week to affirm their support for the accord and to emphasize the impact cities can have in fighting climate change.
“Austin will not stop fighting climate change,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “Worldwide, cities will lead in achieving climate treaty goals because so much of what’s required happens at the local level.”