Plants are front and center in the unfolding drama of climate change. These organisms, which provide food and oxygen for virtually all living things, and which structure biological communities around the world, depend critically on temperature and precipitation patterns, both of which are shifting rapidly under human-induced climate change. Geographic ranges and seasonal cycles of agricultural crops and natural plant communities have already been altered in response to climate change, with profound implications for ecosystem services as well as the human food supply.
In this course, we will explore the science behind the impacts of climate change on plants and, through them, on people, investigating what we know, how we know it, and what we can predict for the uncertain future. By what processes might climate change increase the risk of food insecurity worldwide? To what extent will replacement of Amazon forest trees with biofuel crops hinder the discovery of useful medicinal plants? To answer these sorts of questions, we also need to know how plants work – so we’ll examine the evolutionary history of plants, and learn how these distant cousins of ours eat, drink, breathe, travel, reproduce, sense their environment, and defend themselves from enemies. Through readings, discussions, hands-on experiments, and a field trip to US Botanical Garden, students will come away from the class with a greater appreciation of the absolutely essential role of plants on Earth.