The world is on the edge of catastrophe, but millennials can save it, said a University of Georgia professor.
Dr. James W. Porter, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Odum School of Ecology, presented his evidence to an audience of colleagues, students and supporters for the “clear and present danger” of climate change and how the human race can stop it in his talk "Butterflies, Corals and the Future of Humankind: A Last Lecture." A standing-room only crowd of more than 500 filled the UGA Chapel to hear his remarks.
“The fundamental systems that support human society are at risk,” Porter said. “The world must act now.”
As the title of his lecture implies, Porter, who is retiring from UGA after more than 40 years as a professor, used his studies on Costa Rican butterflies and Floridian coral reefs as real-world indicators that climate change is occurring.
The butterflies that Porter and his students observed in Costa Rica, he said, are migrating upslope to cooler climates. Species in the lowlands have room to move upward but mountainous species have nowhere to go. They essentially “fall off the top of the mountain,” Porter said.
“In Costa Rica, butterfly range extensions are predominately upslope to escape rising temperatures in the lowlands due to global warming,” he said. “The tropics are too hot, and they’re getting hotter.”
Porter also cited the disappearance of Floridian coral as another example that climate change is a real and present danger.
To demonstrate this trend, he used a photo progression of the same spot of ocean floor over several years that showed the coral go from filling the frame in the 1970s to nonexistent in 1996.
“We are in the same place in the photos. Look!” Porter said as he flipped through the pictures. “Going, going, gone.”
Porter believes, however, that it’s not too late to stop, or even reverse, the effects of climate change.
“I’m optimistic about the fact that we will find solutions to this problem,” he said. “We are at a point in history, and that window is closing fast, where we do have choices, and we can make a change.”
Millennials and their ability to communicate broadly are the key to reversing climate change, Porter said in closing.
“You have the unique ability to communicate instantly to the entire world. That is something my generation never was able to do,” he said, addressing the millennials in the room directly. “Use your voices to demand change, and use your gifts as global communicators to create a sustainable future.”
Porter’s “last lecture” is very unlikely to actually be his last, according to John Gittleman, dean of the Odum School of Ecology who introduced Porter. He is continuing his work in retirement on Costa Rican butterflies and Floridian coral populations.
The lecture was part of a series of events celebrating Porter’s career and the launch of the James W. and Karen G. Porter Endowment. The Porters, both emeritus professors of ecology and former directors of the University of Georgia Foundation Fellows program, specified that the endowment in their honor be used to fund undergraduate research at the Odum School. For more information or to contribute, visit our Giving page.
PHOTOS by Dawson Knick.