Catherine O’Reilly, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography-Geology at Illinois State University, is involved in the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON) and worked on the 2007 IPCC (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). Dr. O’Reilly has a B.A. from Carleton College and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.
Women’s Forum: Why did you choose to be a speaker at the Women’s Forum Mauritius 2016?
Climate change may be society’s ultimate challenge. African countries have an advantage, because they can move right to more appropriate ways of resource management without being held back by existing infrastructure and bureaucracy. And African cultures still retain much local knowledge of how to manage and work with the environment, as opposed to trying to control it. The Women’s Forum is an incredible, energizing platform for networking and sharing. I am excited to learn more about what countries are doing to face our climate challenges and to get new ideas that I can bring back to our own project on Lake Tanganyika.
Women’s Forum: In your opinion, what are the challenges and opportunities of climate change for agriculture and biodiversity?
Both agriculture and biodiversity are issues of food security for Africa. Wild fish catches are a critical source of protein for millions of people. Preserving biodiversity is important because it helps provide food, so the challenge is to have agriculture while also maintaining diverse forests, grasslands, rivers, and lakes. We will need flexible and adaptable management strategies that incorporate informed decision-making by local-stakeholders. This is the great opportunity – to develop new ways of managing our natural resources that continue to be sustainable even as climate continues to change.
Women’s Forum: Your research focuses partly on human impacts and climate change. In your opinion, what are the main risks of climate change on our ecosystem and humankind?
Climate change will make ecosystems more sensitive to human activities. So we will need to be extra careful to protect ecosystems from degradation, non-native species and over-extraction. For example, Lake Tanganyika has historically had a very productive fishery, but fish populations are declining because of climate change. So we need to be extra careful not to catch too many fish, which could now cause a population crash. All these ways of looking after our environment come back to provide benefits for society, like fish for food and clean drinking water. The native flora and fauna on the African continent have supported human populations much longer than the other continents, through many climate shifts, and in many ways this is probably the most resilient place to be.