In this series, representatives from Chicago Wilderness member organizations share their experiences and work for the people, animals and habitats of the region. This post was written by Abigail Derby Lewis, Ph.D., is a Conservation Ecologist in the Environment, Culture and Conservation department of The Field Museum.
I began my professional career as a biological anthropologist studying primate behavior and comparative ecology in the tropics. This path allowed me to live and work in some of the most biodiverse and threatened regions in the world, and fostered a profound and personal interest in applied research that contributes meaningfully to sustainable environmental policy. In 2009, I transitioned to working on climate change impacts to plants and animals in the Chicago Wilderness region, which in many ways was an extension of my graduate work on human-wildlife interactions. Environmental threats like pollution, habitat loss and degradation impact both people and the rest of nature in every part of the world from the flooded forests of the Amazonian basin, to the coastal habitats of Madagascar and the wetlands in Calumet.
Likewise, every part of the world will be impacted by climate change. Unfortunately the rapidly changing climate is expected to compound existing environmental stresses and pose significant threats to natural communities worldwide and the livelihoods of the people who live in and around them. Actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must occur in order to reduce the magnitude of future climate impacts; but equally critical is to find ways to help nature and people adapt to the changes already underway and to incorporate these adaptation strategies into best management practices for natural resources. Chicago Wilderness is leading the way in this urgently needed effort.
The CW Climate Action Plan for Nature was the first regional plan to address climate change impacts to biodiversity. As part of implementing that plan, Chicago Wilderness also completed a climate change update (2012) to our regional conservation roadmap, the Biodiversity Recovery Plan (2000). In the spirit of the Chicago Wilderness alliance, these landmark endeavors were collaborative and deliberate, seeking to serve as a model for regional partnering that channels the knowledge of natural resource managers, scientists and researchers into practical place-based resources.
Communicating the importance of this work and the direct benefits to the people in the region is paramount to the long-term success of Chicago Wilderness, but there are significant challenges to this in part because the science itself is complex. In addition we have seen that many people do not yet feel an immediate connection with messages about climate impacts. There is a need to translate this information so it can more easily relate to people’s lives. We did this by linking global level changes to impacts closer to home and developing very local climate action strategies for individuals and communities. ECCo at The Field Museum led a Chicago Wilderness effort that used downscaled climate models for the Chicago region informed by knowledge about local values and community concerns gleaned from the museum’s ethnographic research to create a place-based climate change resource for Chicago residents. The Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit offers 60 online tools in English and Spanish to guide communities in implementation of the region’s climate action plans.
Chicago Wilderness truly is a pioneer in this emerging field, and I am honored to be a part of this inspiring and important work.