Levi Lewis, one of Peter Moyle’s many former undergraduate students, now runs the Otolith Geochemistry and Fish Ecology Laboratory at UC Davis. His previous research has taken him to wetlands, seagrass beds and coral reefs around the world. He’s currently studying Delta smelt and longfin smelt — two critically endangered fishes in San Francisco Bay. We talked about climate anxiety, privilege and the value of science, empathy and staying the course.
What drew you to your work?
I was born and raised in San Diego and spent the first 18 years of my life hiking, camping and fishing with my folks. Having observed the harm society can have on the places I love, I decided that conservation was an honorable career goal, and UC Davis was the place to do it.
I come from a hard-working, farming and military family. Ecology as a career was foreign, but education was emphasized. In 2002, I became a first-generation college graduate and was hired as a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So I’d achieved my life goals by age 22. But at the time, my TA [teaching assistant], Jim Hobbs — another former Peter Moyle student — asked me to join his research team at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and to pursue an advanced degree because, “I was too talented not to.” So I changed my goals and left the agency to begin my journey in academia.
Since then, I’ve bounced from tidal marsh ecology in Bodega Bay for my postgrad work, to seagrass ecology for my master’s work in San Diego, and to coral reef ecology at Scripps. Now I’ve come back full circle to UC Davis, my roots, to study endangered fish. The common thread throughout my career is that all of these ecosystems are threatened. All of my previous experiments were trying to understand how these systems function to help conservationists provide some sort of resilience to local impacts and impending global changes.
So I now I find myself moving from coral reefs back to Delta smelt and its sister species, the longfin smelt. If you can get any worse off than coral reefs, you look to Delta smelt. This year, after thousands of surveys, state and federal agencies caught one wild Delta smelt, whereas in the past, it was one of the most abundant fishes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
How do you feel when you’re out in the environments you study?
I love being out there, it’s my happy place. That’s the reason I wanted to study conservation — this isn’t just a job; it’s my mission. I have a passion for all these ecosystems. I truly love them. They do something for my soul — and for the souls of lots of people, if they get out there. Seagrass beds, marshes, coral reefs and even the murky Delta smelt habitats are absolutely fascinating.
Do you think your perspective about climate change is different compared to older scientists in your field?
My dad always makes this joke. I’ll be describing how the world and the water will get warmer, and he’s like, “Where, when, how soon?!” He loves it warm. He loves it when the tropical fish like mahi-mahi and tuna come up from Mexico to San Diego. I think there are a lot of folks in that boat. My father is in his 70s. When it comes to climate change, he jokingly says, “Levi, I’m too old to buy green bananas.” Touché.
For my entire career, climate change has been a big part of almost all conservation concerns, be it seagrass, corals or wetlands. It’s been about sea level rise, climate change, drought — all these issues. I don’t think that’s how it was for a lot of senior researchers during their prime. They battled the problems of their time. They put their time in. This is now a problem of my time.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming. It’s terrifying now to think about what it’s going to be like with respect to water and California’s ecosystems in 50 to 100 years. Let’s take Delta smelt, longfin smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon, for example. We know they’re all thermally sensitive. It’s unclear if our discoveries will really give us enough tools to deal with the looming climate change that’s coming.
There’s a great meme of people building a little seawall on the beach, completely oblivious to the 200-foot tidal wave that’s coming, and the tidal wave says “climate change” on it. Sometimes I feel like our research is the seawall and climate change is the tidal wave. So one of the defensive mechanisms is to ignore it or dismiss it.
But the effects of climate change are becoming so severe that it’s almost impossible to ignore them anymore. Even in my time, we were never smoked out by fires when I was an undergrad at Davis, and now we have been smoked out in the past four consecutive years. My generation is just starting to have real conversations about what they can do about it.
Where do I fall? On one hand it feels somewhat hopeless, but it’s still really intriguing to uncover new and potentially valuable information. Not every discovery will provide solutions, but I do see science as building on a lot of seemingly minute discoveries that, in aggregate, may reveal something super valuable. That’s where I find my motivation.
How do you deal with the overwhelm?
We only have so much time on this Earth. To get through it, I focus on my finish line. The finish line for me is to produce the best body of knowledge that I can. I don’t feel like I personally have to solve climate change. But to generate a decent body of new knowledge that might prove helpful? That’s something I can do, even as this tidal wave is coming.
I’m a fisherman and will often get up at 2 or 3 in the morning and drive down windy roads to the ocean or a lake. Often, the road is dark, and the fog is thick. I can’t see the cliffs or the water. I was trained to look down and to the right. Follow the solid white line. Stay the course. Stay on track, and you’ll get there. With climate change, during the clearest and warmest of days, I sometimes feel like I’m still following that line.
We need for those who can be concerned about climate change, to be concerned. But the fact that some people lack the bandwidth is OK. We don’t need to judge each other.
What do you think about the idea of climate grief as a privileged emotion — one felt primarily by the already comfortable?
My wife is a therapist, and we talk about this all the time. One of the things she’s taught me is that all trauma is real. Some people seem more resilient than others, but the person experiencing trauma is experiencing real trauma, even if to you it seems inconsequential. Being empathetic and not critical is hard, but important.
Coming from a blue-collar family and attending the UC, you see the filters, the kinds of people who end up in these academic positions, and the types of things they perceive as traumatic. At UCSD, my lab was traveling to Australia for the International Coral Reef Symposium, and my advisor offered each student $1,000 to cover part of our costs. I was deeply grateful, thrilled! But my lab mate was red-faced angry; they were enraged that my advisor didn’t cover the full cost. The only difference was our perspective.
We need for those who can be concerned about climate change to be concerned. But the fact that some people lack the bandwidth is OK. We don’t need to judge each other. Like I’m not going to be upset with Ukrainians right now for not being concerned about climate change.
In our country, for a lot of people, climate change is the least of their worries. As for my father, many seniors don’t see climate change as their biggest concern; they have plenty of immediate things to worry about. But us privileged, mid-career, upper-middle class folk — we have the bandwidth, and thus, the obligation. I don’t see this as a bad thing.
People have a hard time dealing with their world changing. Does your work shape your perspective on that kind of anxiety?
While conducting research on coral reefs in Maui, I met a “local” who was concerned that there were too many people moving to “their” island. This person was a transplant from California. This mindset of “I’m here now; I have to protect it from others,” that’s not authentic conservation. We need to check ourselves and be aware of our impacts on others, not their impacts on us.
My work makes me think about this every day, because I speak for the fish. With global climate change, the crisis will also be largely humanitarian, and those most impacted will be the poorest among us. We also need to speak up for them.
Studying ecology and evolution forces me to deal with deep time. Ecosystems on this planet have come and gone forever. When humans are long extirpated from this planet, other ecosystems will emerge. The Earth doesn’t give two bits about people. Saving the planet is really about saving ourselves. And in saving ourselves, I think it’s noble to love our forests, our lakes, our seas, and to want to protect them. That’s why I got into this. And it’s important to remember that, even in this context, the climate crisis is still about people.
Are there better ways we can talk about climate change with that in mind?
I recently read a book that put a big emphasis on the value of “and.” I can be concerned about Delta smelt and people. Climate change will be devasting, and we’ve proven to be resilient. The Earth will likely be fine, and I should still be concerned for myself and future generations. Beware the false dichotomy. It’s “and” not “or.”
Do you have any long-haul advice for others studying climate change as part of their careers?
I would encourage them to find a goal that’s attainable. You can’t solve climate change by yourself, but you can contribute to the solution. When overwhelmed, follow the white line. For scientists, I’d say to examine what the models say about how things will look decades from now, and cater our research so that it will still be relevant in 50 to 100 years.
As scientists, we have to have faith that knowledge for knowledge’s sake at some point is valuable. As ecologists, our objective is to contribute to a global body of knowledge about the Earth. If we are doing this well, then we can, and probably should, feel both content and concerned.