Pamela McElwee’s 30-year mission to save the planet

"Pamela McElwee"

In August the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that the UN Secretary General called a “code red for humanity.” The report indicated that before 2030 the planet is on track to will likely exceed 1.5 degrees C warming in the next two decades, a thresholds that world leaders sought to prevent in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. But before the August report, another grim prediction that could be called a code red for biodiversity was also released.  

The report commissioned by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an international science consortium outside of the United Nationsintergovernmental organization, was co-authored by Dr. Pamela McElwee, a Human Ecology Professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers University.  

“Oftentimes we have policy that's just aimed at biodiversity and then policies aimed at climate. My work and the work of my colleagues has pointed out that those are two sides of the same coin, and that you cannot have a biodiversity policy that doesn't have a climate element and vice versa,” McElwee (c’93) said.  

An alumna of the University Honors Program, McElwee began formally studying climate change as an undergraduate student before it was a front-page story. Her senior thesis involved research on the impacts of the burning of biomass, when fuelwood is used for energy, and its impact on climate change. She was advised by then-director of the Environmental Studies Program Steven Hamburg, who now serves as the chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund. 

After graduating with a major in Political Science and a number of courses a minor in Environmental Studies, she earned a master’s in Forestry & Plant Science from Oxford University in 1994, followed by a master’s then a doctorate in Forestry & Environmental Studies and Anthropology from Yale University in 2003.  

“I left political science formally after undergraduate,” she said. “The stuff I was doing for political science was never theoretical. I was never a person who was just sort of interested in the theory of politics. I was always interested in how we get policy to work.”  

That interest in the practice of policy making led McElwee to intern in then-Senator Al Gore’s office in 1991. While most KU students interning in DC took positions with the Kansas congressional delegation, McElwee chose Gore because he was already focused on climate change. He held the first congressional Senate hearing on the topic in 1988.  

After a brief stint at the Environmental Protection Agency funded byarranged through the  Harry S. a Truman Scholarship Foundation, McElwee returned to Al Gore’s office after graduationin summer of 1992. Around half of his Ssenate staff joined him on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. McElwee and others continued the senator’s work on the legislative process and constituent services until after the election.  

“I stayed in Washington and worked in that office until after they were inaugurated. Once Senator Gore became Vice President Gore in January of 1993 I moved over to the White House Office on Environmental Policy,” McElwee recalled.  

Though she would leave the administration in 1994 to take advantage of a Rhodes Scholarship— she was KU’s first woman recipient of the prestigious award— McElwee never fully left public service. The State Department nominated her to serve on both the IPCC and IPBES on behalf of the United States. She co-authored multiple chapters across reports for both organizations and now serves as a a leadchapter lead author for the federal government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment. This work has been pivotal to helping lawmakers understand the gravity of human activity’s impact on the environment.  

“The last thirty years of my life has been trying to make the US president put climate policy either one or two or three on the agenda, and we're finally here. It took thirty years,” McElwee said.  

McElwee frequently takes interview requests from journalists to further explain the findings to the public. She also meets with world leaders and testified before Congress in January 2020. While reducing carbon emissions is essential to addressing climate change and protecting biodiversity, McElwee notes that carbon sequestration, a method of taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, also has a role to play.  

One sequestration program Congress is considering expanding is the Conservation Reserve Program. Started in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to conserve biodiversity and soil carbon. This can be accomplished through not using the land for a year, employing different tillage methods, or using cover crops. As with most things concerning climate change, McElwee was again ahead of the curve. 

“I have a personal connection to that. My father is a farmer and we had lands enrolled in that program for many years, while he was still farming actively,” McElwee said. “It’s nice to see it get it’s due.”