Camille Parmesan: ‘Trump’s extremism on climate change has brought people together’ | Science

Camille Parmesan, a biologist at the universities of Texas and Plymouth, is one of the world’s most influential climate change scientists, having shown how butterflies and other species are affected by it across all continents. She is one of 18 US scientists moving to France to take up President Macron’s invitation of refuge after Donald Trump’s decision to cut science funding and withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris agreement.

What has made you leave the US?
The impact of Trump on climate science has been far greater than what the public believe it has. He has not only slashed funding, but he’s gone on the attack in any way he can with his powers as the president. University researchers are buffered from this, but scientists working at government agencies have really felt the blow. They have been muffled and not allowed to speak freely with the press, they have had their reports altered to remove “climate change” from the text, and are being told to leave climate change out of future reports and funding proposals. This degrades the entire climate science community. Scientists are fighting back, but Congress needs to exercise its constitutional powers and keep the executive branch in check. This is not a partisan issue – this is about the future of America.

Are you angry?
None of us expected Trump to win. It was a real shock. It was horrifying to have him as a candidate. He was so extreme. Frankly, I am not just angry at the far right, extreme Republican groups but also with [some] liberals who bought the Russian propaganda and who are not taking responsibility. And with people who didn’t vote. Good lord. You need to vote! It was a bit like Brexit. Many young people did not vote. I understand they did not want a mainstream candidate but they got Trump and Brexit.

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Green man: President Macron attending the Tech for Planet event in Paris earlier this month. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images

Why go to France?
I came to the UK for family reasons seven years ago. But I was not happy with my department at the University of Texas. Research funding has gone down so much in the US. I had a big collaborative grant and I wanted to continue it, but it looked like funding was not there. Then Brexit happened, Trump got elected and President Macron made his offer [to fund climate research]. It was perfect timing. His initiative brings me to France, which allows me to apply for EU money.

You are now in a select club?
None of us knew each other until we met before Christmas in Paris. We were like giddy little teenagers, saying “Isn’t this great!” I was happy to take five years out but some of the others have retained dual positions. I will be moving to a small field station in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It has fabulous facilities. It’s torture, isn’t it?

What will be your research?
It will be on the impact of climate change on wild species. To date, I have done mainly meta-analyses of species movements, like to the poles or up mountains. It has been important from a policy perspective. Policymakers need big-picture numbers, like half or two thirds of species are moving. I don’t want to do meta-analyses now. That’s done. Now I am going to do a series of different projects, all looking at the effect of climate change on species, and the vulnerability of systems, such as the high Alps and mountain tops. I will be documenting the impacts because they are relatively understudied and looking at animals carrying diseases which may come to Europe. I did a small project linking leishmaniasis and climate change.

Is there any difference between public attitudes to climate change in the US and UK?
Average citizens in the UK are much better informed about issues, more science-knowledgeable and more likely to want to see policies based on the best science available than is the average US public. This was not always the case. Science historically has played a strong role in US policies and there was a bipartisan respect of scientific findings. I’ve seen this erode over the past 30 years, and really don’t know why this has happened.

What has changed in climate research in the last few years?
We are now seeing the impacts of climate change everywhere. None of us thought that we would find huge changes taking place in the oceans, which have been largely ignored. But the range shifts [migration of plants and animals] there are 10 times that of land. Also, we are seeing diseases coming from ocean systems, like outbreaks of vibrio poisoning [bacteria that occur naturally in warm coastal areas]. We think of these as being tropical but we are now seeing outbreaks in colder waters like the Baltic and Alaska.

Are you surprised?
I am shocked at the ubiquitousness of climate change. We are seeing change in every country and every ocean. That is what surprises biologists. All regions studied are being impacted. Every group of animal and plant, from the oak tree to birds, is being impacted. All groups are showing change. We would expect to find some regions or groups which are stable, but to date we are not. We are seeing change happen much faster than I thought it would 10 years ago.

What is the present state of climate science?
The science of climate change, and its impacts, is at a very strong place. Conclusions that were tentative 15-20 years ago have been firmed up and are now well supported. Numbers that used to be presented as rough estimates are now being given with high confidence and low error. So our conclusions are being stated with higher and higher confidence, and stronger wording, because all of the research we’ve been doing has backed up nearly all of the trends and patterns we saw many years ago. We are now sure of what we only suspected many years ago. This is great news for the public and policymakers, because it gives them the support to take strong action. Policy needs to catch up with science.

When do you expect the major impacts to take place?
Things will shift to the extremely negative in the next 50 years. Climate scientists are doing decadal projects and it starts really shifting about 2070-2090. That is in my children’s lifetimes. They will have to deal with it. That’s what makes me angry. Policymakers are mostly in their 50s and they will be dead by then. The worst impacts will hit their grandchildren. That’s what annoys me about young people not voting. They will be the most severely impacted.

Look back on 2017 and forward to 2018?
2017 was quite hopeful. Trump’s extremism on climate change has invigorated the populace in both Europe and the US to take action. The world refused to let Trump derail the Paris agreement and said it would move with more vigour. Trump has brought people together. The US withdrawal from Paris energised groups like the mayors who are now saying “we need to get this moving”. Both governor Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger before him in California have been very committed. The rest of the US will follow. Then you have Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and other multi-billionaires saying business will do it on its own. That has been fabulous. Developing countries, too, are rejecting the idea of going dirty and are going green. We’re seeing new and wonderful groups being formed at all levels and across all sectors to take action. I think we’ll see projects for carbon-cutting and green energy at the local and state levels that will overwhelm anything the White House tries to do. I think the shocks we’ll see in 2018 will be positive ones.

What about the deniers?
People like believing in fiction in the face of reality. We’ve had many climate disasters and they haven’t woken up the minority who are still living in a fictional universe. People want to believe this lie and I don’t know how to get through to them. But hurricanes like Harvey and Katrina have woken up middle-of-the-road people. It’s not that they were denying climate change, but it was unimportant to them. These people are beginning to understand it is impacting whole countries and regions.

As a lepidopterist, is there any truth in the saying that a butterfly beating its wings in one part of the world can set off a tornado in another?
Metaphorically, yes. My 1996 Nature study on Edith’s checkerspot butterflies was one of the first to document impacts of climate change on wildlife. It was viewed by many ecologists as the first “clear” evidence for climate change impacts because of its very large geographic extent. It may be said to have started a storm.