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Climate change is not on the horizon, it's here: How can scientists help communicate risks to populations vulnerable to weather/climate-change disasters?

Written by Aaron Piña, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology.

This article was written as an opinion of the author. Topics discussed are solely from anecdotal experiences growing up in rural Texas and may not reflect what has been documented in the social-science literature.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has funded a coastal Native American community in Louisiana to relocate. This marks the first official government recognition of climate refugees in the U.S.

On February 12th, I was asked to go speak with high school and college students about the science and politicization of climate change in rural, southern Louisiana—ground zero of sea-level rise impacts in the United States—as part of their annual Wetlands Youth Summit.

Less than a month went by before I was on a plane en route to Houma, Louisiana. On one hand, I was elated to have the opportunity to go speak about my passion (science) in a place I am deeply connected to (the Gulf Coast); on the other hand, I wished the discussion of loss of life and property wasn’t the reason behind my invitation to southern Louisiana.

The main purpose of my visit was to present scientific facts to students and have them devise future adaptation paths in light of a changing landscape. For decades, leaders in southern Louisiana have touted global warming as a hoax. Try telling that to the people of the Isle of Jean Charles who have no choice but to battle rising seawaters or move.

The purpose of me writing my thoughts about my life-impacting weekend is to discuss the importance of communicating science, especially to those vulnerable to weather/climate-related changes. Communicating science requires knowledge of the science, empathy for those involved, and a positive outlook for the future. Rogers (1957) suggested empathetic communication as necessary and sufficient for a constructive dialogue between a therapist and a client, and I couldn’t agree more. Not only am I young, but my hometown in Texas is not much different than the town the attendees were from.

The importance of communicating science

The majority of the audience at the Wetlands Youth Summit was high school students, followed by community members, middle-school students, and two college students. As I talked with the students and community-goers of southern Louisiana—none were related to Isle of Jean Charles, to my knowledge—it reinforced my deeply held conviction that clearly communicating the science, risks, and potential solutions to a vulnerable audience was a task that deserved forethought and due deliberation. When talking about the science, participants understood sea-level rise was occurring but did not seem aware of the nuances leading to enhanced sea-level rise around the Louisiana coast. Tensions ran high the entire morning. The line between “this is a severe, life-threatening problem” with “let’s work towards a bright future” was very thin. Some of the kids were even outraged at the thought of anyone calling what was happening to their land  a “hoax”.

Communicating science can take many forms, whether it is giving a public lecture or doing a hands-on activity with elementary students. The manner in which a scientist delivers their message(s) can have a lasting effect on peoples’ interest in science issues. The public becomes engaged in science by doing small research projects (e.g. volunteering for local non-profit organizations) or by taking part in a large-scale operation (e.g. citizen science observations with the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network). In southern Louisiana, kids are involved with research projects through the auspices of the Southern Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center. One of the awe-inspiring happenings that took place at the summit was the interaction between students who are heavily involved in research projects, their parents who support and help with the projects, and older community members who have witnessed the environmental changes through the decades. 

The importance of diversity in science

I believe it is important for people from diverse backgrounds to communicate science. It should be noted, diversity encompasses more than gender and ethnic minorities. While these populations are vital for bringing different voices to the discussion table, there are additional (and much needed) dimensions of diversity. A white male from a poor, rural farming town should have a place at the table, too.  A real-life example: Katharine Hayhoe is arguably a religious minority among natural scientists (Ecklund and Scheitle, 2007) by self-identifying as an Evangelical Christian. Hayhoe, in this regard, is able to reach audiences a non-religious scientist may not be able to gain trust with.  

By simply connecting with others through cultural values, I felt my early-life experiences helped deliver my message to coastal Louisianans. This cultural identity and connection is vital for scientists discussing and helping to create a sustainable/resilient future where major changes to peoples’ lives are likely inevitable. This raises an important point for scientists who engage with public audiences: it is vital to understand the values of the audience and tailor a talk/engagement accordingly.

The importance for a diverse economy

The ease and passion with which I found myself explaining the dire situation in southern Louisiana came from my upraising just a few hundred miles along the coast—in Port Lavaca, Texas.  With the exception of much faster sea-level rise in Louisiana, both of our economies rely heavily on oil-and-gas as well as fisheries. With a reliance on money from the oil industry, climate-change discussions are difficult to talk about. So it is extremely important to not vilify oil/gas companies. Students at the summit entertained the idea of engaging local oil companies on ways to co-design future projects so that they better fulfill both community and corporate needs. Future projects could include students partnering with energy companies, such as Shell Global, to advance their efforts towards clean energy.

Many people in the town of Houma, much like people in towns in southern TX, are losing their jobs with no foreseeable career prospects in the near future. If we consider local economies as natural ecosystems, we can draw parallels between job-sector diversity with ecosystem services. The more ecosystem services an area has, the less prone the ecosystem is to succumbing to a shock. In the case of a single-sector based economy, a surprise (e.g. natural or economic disaster) can easily perturb an entire community, potentially leading to a regime shift for the town and even its surrounding region. This regime shift could mean changing the single-sector economy to a different sector (e.g. energy to manufacturing) or even uprooting the entire community.  For obvious reasons, a diversified economy is desired to maintain stability within an ecosystem, or in the case of Houma, Louisiana, a town.

A hopeful future

While it is important to consider how communities, cities, states, and countries are to remain resilient during rapid environmental changes, we must start with an understanding that a sustainable future begins with an educated public. The public should be involved in discussing solutions instead of disputing if changes are going to occur. Our reputation as scientists has been tarnished by the politicization of climate change.  We have to regain the trust of the public. This can be facilitated by effectively communicating the importance of science and encouraging people of all backgrounds to get involved in local science projects.

Lastly, when identifying and solving problems at the interface of humans and the environment, scientists and engineers must incorporate the dynamic world around them, leaving behind the study of systems in isolation. If we are to solve community-wide environmental challenges, we as scientists must acknowledge that there are very little “one-size-fits-all” solutions. In other words, solutions for combatting sea level rise in Louisiana will be different than those in Miami or the north slope of Alaska.  This, on one hand, reflects the reality of the complex earth system.  On the other hand, it is also an implicit acknowledgment of the “power of place” that connects communities to local ecosystems.  “Power of place”, an important aspect of the beliefs of indigenous peoples, is a potent tool for engaging local communities in essential dialog about social-ecological systems.

REFERENCES

Ecklund, E.H. and Scheitle, C.P., 2007. Religion among academic scientists: Distinctions, disciplines, and demographics. Social Problems54(2), pp.289-307.

Rogers, C.R., 1957. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of consulting psychology21(2), p.95.

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