From National Security to Green Roofs: Q & A With Jessica Hellmann

By Stacey Solie | February 16, 2015

Jessica HellmannLast fall you became the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, one of NatCap’s four partner institutions. But not everyone may realize that you also spent time at Stanford where you earned a Ph.D. in biology alongside one of NatCap’s co-founders.  

Taylor Ricketts and I are academic siblings. We were both in Paul Ehrlich’s lab, we started the same year, we shared an office a good portion of the time, we graduated the same year and we were close friends in graduate school. I’ve been listening to conversations about natural capital since long before The Natural Capital Project existed.

You also did a fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Security and Cooperation (CSAC), which seems surprising for a biologist.

CSAC was working on international security. A lot of people there were working on weapons proliferation and conflict, but I went in with a proposal that the environment is an important part of what it means to be secure. I was the only person there thinking that was the case. At the time it was quite controversial. People said that the evidence was not great. People said, it’s really political problems that cause conflict. That may be true, but there’s a lot more acknowledgement now that the environment can be a very important aggravator. We know things like addressing historic injustice, social injustice, and political stability are very important to sustaining or building peace, but we also know that people need to live in healthy communities, they need to grow food and they need to drink water and that’s also about the biophysical environment. It was fun to be in that policy setting as a scientist.

What’s most interesting and important to you about working with NatCap?

The NatCap staff make up a significant component of our intellectual community here at the Institute on the Environment, and the NatCap perspective leaks into much of the other research that the Institute does. It really benefits our intellectual community in many ways. It’s crucially important—if we want to change the world, if we want to take science and innovation, and see that knowledge and that information into practice—then we have to partner, and we have to be able to work together. So I’m really committed to seeing the Institute on the Environment join with other like-minded organizations and work collaboratively.

Do you have specific ideas about what IonE is going to focus on in this partnership? Are you coming in with your own enthusiasms about where you want to focus?

The urban work is very important. There are a lot of resources here at the University of Minnesota, not to mention the Twin Cities itself, which is a terrific laboratory for work on natural capital in cities.

At the symposium in March, I’m going to talk about how important natural capital is as we think about adapting to climate change, and opportunities for incorporating natural systems into making all kinds of environments and communities more resilient to climate change. Personally, I’m very interested in that angle. Climate change adaptation and management in the face of climate change is going to become a growing research focus here at the Institute on the Environment.

There are also things I think Minnesota offers to the consortium that are a distinct advantage. For example, our connection to agricultural landscapes and connections to one of the world’s greatest freshwater ecosystems. Being here in the central part of the US is complementary to the broader objectives to NatCap.

What’s your favorite example of how natural capital is being used for climate change adaptation?

One example of work that NatCap is already doing, is coastal restoration, to protect coastal communities from things like storm surge and some of the hazards that are increasingly likely under climate change. In municipalities, we’re increasingly thinking of green infrastructure as cost-effective and it confers other economic benefits, not just climate resiliency. Like, how green roofs reduce the urban heat island effect and can help manage storm water, which can influence water quality, for example.

When I think of green roofs I think of the efforts of Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley’s initiative, back in the early 2000s. What’s happening with green roofs now?

I’ve done a lot of work with the city of Chicago, in thinking about the role of green infrastructure in preparing for climate change. I was part of the City of Chicago Climate Action Plan, and the assessment behind it. I sat on the city’s working group under Mayor Daley. We [IonE] also have been doing research on green roofs, we have a paper currently in review, that measures how much green roofs change the urban heat island effect. We studied how many roofs you would need to deploy and what effect that would have on reducing peak summertime temperature. The question of bringing green roofs to scale, not just ‘hey, look, we can build a green roof’ but ‘how much area would we actually need to make a difference?’

We found that with 25% deployment, you can bring down the peak daytime temperature by 1 °C [almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit], which on a really hot day is a big effect. With 100 percent deployment, the temperature drops by 3 °C. On the one hand, that’s a lot of roof, but on the other, if it’s a major adaptation strategy, it’s feasible, and it’s within the sphere of influence of a city planning committee.

Before you came to Minnesota, you lead research at the Global Adaptation Index, out of Notre Dame. What does the index do?

The Global Adaptation Index attempts to measure, for countries around the world, both climate risks and readiness to adapt to climate risks. In that index, we already recognize that ecosystems are part of risk mitigation—reducing risk in the face of climate change. If you look up the index, you can see that “ecosystems” is one of six key sectors that we’re including in our assessment when we think about vulnerability [along with food, water, health, human habitat, and infrastructure]. What I’m really interested in exploring is, ‘do we have the right indicators?’ What are new ways of capturing the idea of ecosystem services and including that information into these kinds of global indicators that decision-makers are using?

Take for example the agreement that just happened in Paris, which calls for $100 billion per year of investment in mitigation and adaptation by 2020. Some of that money is going to be sent around the world, often to developing countries, some of that money should be invested in natural capital because that’s part of what we think will reduce climate risk.

Any parting thoughts?

It’s encouraging to me to see NatCap grow in the form of a network. The strength of its partnership and the institutions that are participating in it, are vital to The Natural Capital Project’s future success. It is the connection between them and their ability to work together that will make it see and achieve its greatest aspirations.

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project

Jessica Hellman

Jessica Hellman

DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE ON THE ENVIRONMENT, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

Jessica Hellmann is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. As director, she provides overall strategic leadership for the Institute, an internationally recognized organization working to solve grand environmental challenges, while promoting interdisciplinary research, teaching and leadership across the university and engaging external partners and stakeholders. Hellmann’s research focuses on global change ecology and climate adaptation. She was among the first to propose and study ways to reduce the impact of climate change through new techniques in conservation management. She works with governments and corporations to build investment in climate change adaptation and co-authored several climate assessment and adaptation planning efforts. Before coming to the University of Minnesota in 2015, Hellmann was on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Biological Sciences. Hellmann is a frequent contributor to leading scientific journals such as Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, BioScience and PLOS ONE. She serves on the editorial board of the journal Evolutionary Applications, is an associate editor with both Conservation Biology and Elementa, and serves on committees for the Ecological Society of America, the College Board and the National Academy of Sciences. Hellmann earned her Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University and served as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Biodiversity Research.