Dr. McElwee's interests are in global environmental problems, with particular expertise in biodiversity conservation, climate change, and forest restoration. She is most interested in how individuals and households respond to changes in the physical environment, and how their responses are shaped by external policies and other constraints. Most of her research combines household-level analysis of environmental decision-making and resource use with an examination of global institutional practices and norms that influence environmental policy. She is currently PI on an NSF-funded study of the use of ecosystem services concepts in environmental policy formation in Southeast Asia, including the governance of nature-based solutions.
Much of her current work also involves organizing and writing in teams for science-policy assessments. She has served as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment (2019), lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019), and the first joint IPCC/IPBES report on Biodiversity and Climate Change (2021). She will be co-chairing the upcoming IPBES “nexus” assessment on the interlinkages between biodiversity, water, food, climate and health. She is also currently Chapter Lead for Ecosystems, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for the ongoing Fifth US National Climate Assessment, to be released in 2023.
She was trained as an environmental scientist and anthropologist at Yale University (Ph.D in Forestry & Environmental Studies and Anthropology), Oxford University (M.Sc in Forestry) and the University of Kansas (B.A in Political Science). Before becoming an academic, she worked at the US Senate for Al Gore, in the Clinton White House on environmental policy, and at the US EPA.
Current research projects:
CLIMATE CHANGE: Land use change has been estimated to contribute from 10 to 15% of global carbon emissions, particularly from deforestation. Yet while many recognize the scale of the problem, how to formulate policy for this has been more challenging. Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) is the most well-known forest mitigation strategy to lower land-use generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Together with colleagues in Vietnam, McElwee has investigated challenges of implementation, publishing on how REDD+ needs to include attention to climate adaptation and examining the process of developing locally appropriate safeguards. She has also explored the challenges of large-scale reforestation projects and how net-zero pledges across the globe are likely to spur more interest in so-called Nature-based Solutions. She served as a co-author on the new IUCN Nature-based Solutions Global Standard to improve safeguards and outcomes from NbS interventions.
ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: With funding from NSF, McElwee is serving as PI for a project examining how institutions and policymakers in Southeast Asia are using the concept of ecosystem services. Payments for environmental services (PES), which provides funding from users of ecosystem services to those who provide them, is one of the most well-known of these approaches. The project aims to answer two key research questions: (1) How are ecosystem services defined, measured, and prioritized by different actors in policymaking? (2) How are different services turned into economic values and through what means, while others are not? The research project is using mixed methods, including focus groups, participatory mapping, and interviews to assess understanding, use, and valuation of ecosystem services in three watershed-based case studies with research partners in Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. The team is particularly interested in non-monetary valuation and in the cultural elements of how ecosystem services are conceptualized and valued. McElwee has also recently co-edited a special issue of Ecology and Society on “Cultural Ecosystem Services in the Global South”.
Environmental Politics of Restoration: McElwee received a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for work on her second book, tentatively titled Rivers of Blood, Mountains of Bone: An Environmental History of the Vietnam War which looks at the environmental history and contemporary legacies of the Vietnam War. Despite the profound significance of this conflict, there remains no comprehensive look at post-war attempts at environmental remediation and the long-term outcomes of the militarized landscapes. Using multiple methods, including interviews, historical archives, and geospatial analysis this project is assessing how ecological and political factors played a role in what post-war landscapes looked like and where restoration took place, which has shaped contemporary vulnerabilities to such problems as climate change. McElwee also written on the environmental impacts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as well.
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