“Where are you from?”
At some point in a conversation, the question arises. Interesting how people respond. Some name their place of residence. Others, like me, will talk about where they grew up. I talk about Atlanta—a land of Civil War battlefields, fine literature, cheese straws and pickled okra, Georgia red clay and loblolly pine.
No matter how we answer the question, for all of us there is a place we call home. A place where we evolved, where we belong—culturally, politically, and in countless ways that help define who we are today.
The same holds true for other species with whom we share this planet.
I’ll never forget the morning I woke up early in the Mexican state of Michoacán and joined a group to like the sides of an ancient volcano. We stopped when we reached a precipitous grove of oyamel firs that seemed to be covered in snow. It was the precise spot where the great majority of the world’s monarch butterflies overwinter every year. Every inch of every twig, branch and trunk seemed to be covered with the silvery folded underwings of millions of Danaus plexippus.
As the sun warmed the grove, a few individuals unfolded their wings and took flight. Then all at once, a cloud of orange shook loose from the trees, and we could hear the sound of hundreds of thousands of butterfly wings. We stood silent. Eyes wide, mouths open. The scientists among us were more dumbstruck than the rest; when they found their voices, they explained.
Monarchs typically live for just five weeks, except for one generation—the Methuselah generation—that survives for seven months or more, long enough to make the trip to Mexico, overwinter, and head back north. Researchers are still trying to truly understand how this generation of monarchs finds its way back to a winter hibernation home it has never seen before. Biologists know the sun’s orbit and an internal biological compass play key roles. But how is it that geolocation and memory can be transmitted so accurately across five generations?
Somehow, the concept of home is baked into the DNA of these magnificent butterflies in a way that defies imagination.
The conditions monarchs need to successfully migrate and reproduce are quite precise, but that does not make them unique. Many plants and animals around the world remain tied inextricably to a place and to conditions that are near impossible to replicate. The golden-cheeked warblers of Texas will nest only in the Ashe juniper. The near-extinct vaquita remains tragically tied to the overfished and almost lawless waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico.
So what does it mean when weather patterns change or shorelines begin to erode? What happens when climate change upends all the definitions of home that creatures have known for millennia?
Some animals relocate themselves. We’re seeing various birds and mammals shift their ranges northward or toward the poles. But some species simply can’t move; the conditions they require for survival aren’t easily found nearby. Polar bears rely on sea ice for hunting prey; all models predict that as sea ice recedes more each summer, they will begin to starve as they’re displaced by orca whales as the Arctic’s top predator. In places like the Great Barrier Reef, the lifecycle of the stunning clownfish remains tied to corals now dying off because of a combination of factors including warming water and increasingly acidified oceans.
While many of us have the resources to move if circumstances dictate, throughout the world the least advantaged human populations are unable to escape the impacts of a changing climate on the places they call home. We run the risk of losing not just species but also indigenous cultures, languages, and communities. These impacts on people and nature are why we are so focused on understanding the impact of climate change, along with other forces that are shaping our planet. And why we are using that understanding to motivate actions—both to reduce climate pollution and to devise tools to help people and species adapt and survive.
Whether it’s monarch butterflies or birds or people, life remains rooted in many definitions of home. A changing climate challenges our best thinking about how to protect these places, wherever they are, in a world that is shifting around us. Answering that challenge is one of the greatest imperatives in our work—because ultimately, of course, the homes we save will also be our own.
President and CEO