Ep 27: Dr. Jessica Hellmann on ecosystems, resilience, and financing the future

Jessica Hellmann is the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Ecolab Chair in Environmental Leadership. Hellmann also is the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences. She served as research director of the  Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, which assesses and ranks the vulnerability of nations around the world to climate change and their readiness to adapt. For more information, visit her website or read her blog, the Director’s Almanac.

“Climate is not a specialty issue.”

Without ocean ecosystems and forested lands, Earth would not be able to absorb enough carbon or produce enough oxygen to allow for our existence. The science of planetary boundaries is not about hard barriers and enforced scarcity; it is about the nonlinear compounding effects of interactions between systems, including human systems embedded within Nature.

If we learn to meet the baseline for human need, while avoiding overconsumption of irreplaceable natural resources—including carbon absorption, glaciers, and watersheds—we can achieve sustainable prosperity within a safe operating space. This is where the idea of “doughnut economics” comes from: sustainable prosperity that operates within the safe space between the floor of human need and the ceiling of planetary boundaries.

Asked what message is most important to communicate regarding climate change, Dr. Hellmann responded: 

Climate is not a specialty issue; it’s not even an environmental issue. It’s about the future we want to create.

The world we have, the one created by us and by those who came before us, does not live rationally within the constraints of the biosphere. That means we have to make some difficult choices, to make rapid change to industries that shape our everyday experience. But these investments will generate significant added value—co-benefits that outweigh the cost of transformative action. 

How we respond to climate change will determine whether we can have a habitable, prosperous future. 

Relationships between species 

Climate disruption is also a question of relationships between species. As Dr. Hellmann notes:  

Wherever you look, you see a deep relationship between ecological processes and climate.

Most species have evolved to live optimally in specific climatic and ecological conditions. When conditions change, species tend to move. Even plant species will “migrate” over time, as their seeds take root and prosper in the places where optimal conditions exist. 

Adapting to climate change means not only changing where and how we build human settlements; it means managing ecosystems so they can better tolerate and survive rapidly changing conditions. Succeeding in this kind of climate-related adaptive management will require innovations in law and policy, both within and between nations. 

What about Geoengineering? 

We have to be very, very careful about even exploring experiments in geoengineering. There are serious concerns that, however useful it might appear, it may be unmanageably dangerous—especially if we don’t understand or guard against pervasive ecological impacts. 

In a recent study, Dr. Hellmann joined a team of scientists to examine those potential ecological effects. The study doesn’t advocate for geoengineering; instead, it starts from the premise that much scientific study is needed before it could be considered safe or actionable.

Dr. Hellmann explains: 

This is a group of ecologists saying ‘Wait a second! This effort to manipulate the planet will most certainly have ecological impacts, and we need to begin studying those.’

Just as climate change itself does, interventions in planetary systems will affect every living thing on Earth. 

Finance must build resilience  

The climate system itself pervades everything that makes human existence possible. The climate challenge is pervasive, because greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in virtually every activity product, service, or activity in modern life. 

We need to realign incentives, so pollution is never profitable and enterprise is rewarded for getting good results without creating harm. Finance is an investment in the future; it makes no sense for finance to primarily support those ignoring their wider responsibilities. 

Dr. Hellmann co-founded Geofinancial Analytics to provide information about methane emissions from oil and gas industry, to make it easier to line up capital investment with enterprise that honors these wider responsibilities to society and to the future. The cost of systemic resilience failure is too high, so we need this kind of service to ensure financial decision-makers have a way to put scientific information to practical use. 

We are moving toward a world where ESG (environment, social and governance) ratings are not an inconvenience to industry, but generally recognized as “good business practice principles” and where resilience-building is seen as healthy operational strategy.