University of Vermont

Jeffords Hall

Evolutionary Change and Resilient Systems: How the Natural World Will Adapt to the Changing Climate

by Julia Breul '12, Clean Energy Fund Intern, 2011-2012

On February 8, 2012, professor and author Amy Seidl spoke in the Fletcher Room of Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library as part of a lecture series on the topic of adaptation to climate change. The lecture series was born out a collaborative effort between the City of Burlington and the Burlington Sustainability Action Team and ultimately funded by the University of Vermont’s Clean Energy Fund

The series began with Rhett Lamb, the Planning Director for the City of Keene, New Hampshire, giving two lectures on February 7th. The first lecture was at a meeting of Burlington’s department heads at City Hall and the second to the Campus Masters Planning Committee at UVM. Each lecture focused on the same matter – how can cities like Burlington and Keene become more resilient communities through efficacious planning initiatives? 

Amy Seidl’s lecture looked at adaptation from a macro level – how will humans and natural systems as a whole adapt to this changing climate? She began by explaining indicators as signals of change. According to Seidl, the response of species to these changing conditions can be both biological and evolutionary. The arrival of spring is the strongest indicator we have in North America and in the Northeast. Today it comes two weeks earlier than it did in the 1970s. Seidl remarked that just that morning she saw a Robin and how her children have less and less days to safely ice skate on the nearest frozen pond with each coming year. From old kitchen table data of women recording the first birds to their feeders to marked events such as Tropical Storm Irene there is a powerful array of indicators that the climate is changing. 

Moving on to evolution, Seidl explained that many species will adapt to change over time. However, many of the 30 million other species we share this planet with do not have the capacity to adapt. Examples of species adapting include the Yukon Red Squirrel, who is having pups months earlier than in the past. Seidl posed the question, how do we, as humans, open ourselves to the opportunity to adapt? This changing climate can either be met with resistance or as an opportunity to change. Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design is an innovator, an adaptor. He is growing rice in Vermont and embracing the opportunity to grow new things in a wetter environment.

Finally, Seidl broached the topic of resilience. Resilience, as Seidl defined it, is the ability to withstand shock and return to a stable state. We know that climate change is a long-term event and we must reorganize our systems so that they can persevere throughout disturbance. With a hopeful outlook one may see resilience as a cultural attribute of our society. 

The lecture concluded with two readings from Seidl’s latest book, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming. The first reading was on biological evolution and the second on persistence. Persistence is about “trying to build a less vulnerable society; the need to breach what no longer should be allowable.” Her book tells the stories of pragmatists and practitioners moved by the science and by the moral issues of our time to act, to change, and to adapt. 

The full audience, an even mix of students and community members, met the lecture’s end with eruptive applause. Amy Seidl eloquently and impressively explained what is happening and what can be done in the face of this changing climate.

Listen to the lecture here.