Climate Solutions Taking Cues from Ecosystems

Miren Schleicher helps communities in Africa and Southeast Asia adapt to sea level rise, increased drought, and other threats


For Miren Schleicher, VG18, the path to conservation work started with penguins in Boston. But it now takes her through Africa and Southeast Asia, where she helps people adapt to the hazards of climate change.

Schleicher, who holds a master’s degree in conservation medicine from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, is a consultant in climate and spatial data analysis with C4 EcoSolutions, based in Cape Town, South Africa. She helps countries reckoning with climate change disruption, such as sea level rise and increased floods and drought, by researching ecosystems-based solutions on behalf of United Nations agencies, with the aim of securing funding from sources that include the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility.

“We are trying to make a difference in communities that are being hit the hardest by climate change in every aspect of their lives but, at the same time, are contributing the least to climate change,” says Schleicher, who joined C4 EcoSolutions in 2020. 

Pivot Point: Penguin Keeper

The New England Aquarium was Schleicher’s favorite place to visit as a child. While a student at Northeastern University, she landed a co-op (internship) as a keeper in the penguin exhibit, where she worked with a colony of about 60 African and rockhopper penguins. “Getting to work at the aquarium was super special,” she says, “and I thought that it would be what I would do for the rest of my life.” 

But she was also learning more about global threats to the birds. The population of African penguins, especially, has dropped dramatically, in part because the penguins’ favorite foods, such as anchovies and sardines, aren’t thriving as food availability is impacted by shifting ocean currents caused by climate change, and waters are being overfished by people.

In 2015, Schleicher first traveled to South Africa through a partnership between the New England Aquarium and a seabird rescue and rehabilitation hospital called the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB. 

When she visited a marine protected area and she spotted only five or six penguins, that was a “wakeup call,” she says. “I saw that conservation works in the real world to protect endangered species. That awakening would drive me to pursue conservation medicine at Tufts.”

Over the next five years, she would periodically return to SANCCOB as a volunteer. In addition to caring for endangered African penguins, she had fallen in love with the region.

Responsive Design

In her current role working on projects in Southeast Asia and Africa, Schleicher draws on a signature perspective of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine known as One Health, which focuses on global connections between humans, animals, and the environment. Schleicher also regularly uses her Cummings training in GIS—Geographic Information Systems—for mapping, modeling, and analyzing data about specific locations. 

In developing solutions to conserve resources that people depend on, Schleicher puts context at the forefront. “That means really working with the communities to have some ownership over how they adapt to climate change and navigate these changes in a sustainable and meaningful way,” she says. 

Ecosystem-based Adaptations

As one example of her work, Schleicher describes Kenyan fishing communities faced with coastal degradation due to rising sea levels and an increase in storm intensity. That intensity can destroy coastlines and the coral reefs that could help protect them from damaging waves. The storms can also damage mangrove forests, making it more dangerous to go fishing. 

Local residents don't have access to modern boats or fishing equipment, so they “are being forced to go out in dangerous conditions, at risk of losing their lives,” Schleicher says. Ecosystem-based adaptation measures may include restoring some of the ecosystems, but also new strategies, like reforestation. Selling seedlings gives people the means to transition to other work, rather than relying solely on fishing, she says. 

Another disruptor is drought. Schleicher recalls a recent visit to Djibouti, a small country in East Africa, where agropastoral communities are struggling to find access to water; diminished rainfall means its traditional groundwater sources are depleted. Schleicher’s project aims to helps local people build new infrastructure, such as underground water storage tanks, a concrete micro dam, or rooftop rain catchments, or dig wells or boreholes powered by solar pumps. The end goal? To help residents continue to grow their own food.

The Long Road Ahead

Schleicher’s work requires both technical knowledge and empathy for communities facing uncertain futures. And she says, "We’ve got a long road ahead of us in terms of turning around the impacts of climate change and human activities on the natural environment.”

Yet she relishes the challenge. “I don't think that you could work in this field if you didn't think that what you did made a difference,” she says. “For me, it's just never been an option to do nothing. I would always rather participate and make my work as meaningful as possible.”

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