Camille Parmesan is the National Marine Aquarium Chair in the Public Understanding of Oceans and Human Health at the Marine Institute, University of Plymouth, in the United Kingdom. She is also a professor in Geology at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, and holds a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Texas at Austin.
In the 1990s, scientists were still debating whether rising greenhouse gases were causing significant warming that was just starting to be seen in temperature trends. Dr. Camille Parmesan’s research demonstrating that butterfly populations in both the USA and Europe were going extinct in southern regions and expanding their northern range limits provided the first clear evidence that the warming trend just being documented by climate scientists was already impacting wild species.
Camille’s findings sparked a whirlwind of criticism and media attention. Publicly accused of scientific misconduct by important leaders and politicians, she remembers sitting on stage at public discussions as people shouted at her about her research. She never expected to be in this situation when she unintentionally entered the field of climate science more than two decades ago.
Why I joined the UCS Science Network
The fast pace of discoveries in my field makes it imperative that the scientists doing the research work closely with organizations that can translate and disseminate the very latest results. UCS is invaluable as a medium that fills this gap between publication of such results in scientific journals and getting the key conclusions out to policy makers and the general public. While I certainly do my best to work directly with media reporters, they typically have no scientific training, and so can inadvertently give readers inaccurate perceptions. Because UCS employs scientists, many with Ph.Ds, their products provide highly accurate summaries of the state of the science on a topic, while also being accessible to a lay audience.
From family vacations to scientific frontiers
Growing up, Camille was always interested in the natural world. Week-long family camping trips were an annual occurrence for the Parmesan family ever since she could walk. Her mother’s deep knowledge about rocks, plants, and birds, which she shared with the family on these trips, inspired Camille’s love of science.
As a college student, Camille had enjoyed an independent research project on butterflies because they were easy to work with and provided an abundance of data. After college, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. researching the basic ecology, evolution, and behavior of a species of butterfly that would eventually alter her entire life: the Edith’s Checkerspot . In the final stages of her graduate work, Camille received a fellowship to study the effects of climate change on this climate-sensitive insect. Species response to climate change was a new and unexplored area of research, and Camille realized she could spend the entire three and a half year fellowship looking for a shift in this species' range and get nothing out of it. Despite the risky nature of this project, she decided to accept the fellowship—a decision that “changed my whole career,” she says.
Discovering evidence for climate change—and talking about it
Four years and fourteen different distinct geographic varieties of Edith’s Checkerspot later, Camille’s single-author paper in Nature in 1996 became the first clear demonstration of a species shifting where it lives in response to climate change. The attention she received—from people disagreeing with her conclusions to biologists and climate scientists who appreciated her filling in this data gap—was overwhelming and exhilarating. Driven to provide more evidence of the effects of global warming, she began to explore this same effect on other species, and eventually, other taxonomic groups. Through global meta-analyses, she has continued this work for the better part of the last two decades. Her conclusion, that plants and animals on all continents and in all oceans are changing in ways predicted from a warming climate, is both an independent confirmation that the climate is truly warming and a warning that large-scale impacts on living creatures are already occurring across the globe.
Because of the heightened scrutiny Camille's work received, she spent extra time, sometimes years, in the field collecting abundant reams of data to make sure she had identified a real and significant trend and had all of the details correct. As she was thrust into the public sphere, Camille also began to appreciate the political significance of her work. When first engaging in political discussions, she struggled to figure out how to be viewed as an impartial scientist. She did not want people to see her as someone exploiting her scientific credentials in order to provoke some specific policy action.
Working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a body of scientists that produces reports on the risks of climate change, climate impacts, resilience, and adaptation—helped Camille understand her role in the political sphere. As an IPCC scientist, Camille learned to stay policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. She explains, “My job is to get the correct science out there and understood by people who will then use it to make policy.”
The attention her work received—both positive and negative—made Camille realize, “it was going to be important to translate it properly … I felt like I needed to do the translating directly, not rely on secondary or tertiary sources.” Her dedication to defending her science launched Camille into frequent communications with the public and policy makers, and she has spoken to a wide range of audiences—from groups of children and young adults to government agencies and even the White House.
For the love of butterflies
Having completed her last global meta-analysis, this time focusing on ocean species, Camille is overjoyed to return to the butterflies that started her down this whirlwind path of climate science.
“What I enjoy most as a person,” she reflects, “is being out in the middle of nowhere working with my butterflies. What I feel best about in terms of professional satisfaction is doing things like working with IPCC, getting the strongest statement that the science will support out there for the policymakers to see and hear. To have one and not the other is not being whole in some way.”
Camille encourages other scientists and experts to be vocal about the importance of their work with the hope of restoring science to its rightful role informing policy in the U.S. “We need scientists to be much more out there in people’s faces …. We need people to see how science is shaping their lives. We need people to know that in their own city they’ve got people changing the world with their science.”