Climate Change: Some thoughts on what to do about that queasy feeling

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By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at]

BC ferries has been having a tough time this winter among our gorgeous Southern Gulf Islands. The main ferry for the route, the Queen of Nanaimo, was damaged in early November as high winds pushed it off course, inconveniencing many travelers on a long weekend. A month later I set out from Vancouver for Galiano Island, which is normally a one-hour ferry ride. To cut a long story short I didn’t arrive until some 30 hours later, due to high winds and resultant re-routing via Vancouver Island.

The scariest stage of the journey was our first try to dock at Galiano’s Sturdies Bay. Having been sternly warned over the intercom, we 25 or so passengers stayed in our seats as the little Queen of Cumberland bucked forward and back, side to side, banging the dock infrastructure. Cars on the open deck swayed and were doused in sea water, as we could see through the window. The captain ultimately backed out in retreat.

I recall a plenary session at the 2011 State of the Salmon conference in Portland where I had another shared experience of a queasy feeling. It was a presentation on ocean acidification. At that point the science was relatively new, and the speaker, Chris Sabine, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shocked the audience with his presentation on the growing evidence that human release of CO2 will have a profound impact on marine ecosystems. Marine organisms are very sensitive to acid balance, and the formation of shells – oysters, clams, corals, mussels – is compromised if carbonate is removed. Anna Warwick Sears, Executive Director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, commented on behalf of those listening that day: “Everyone was deeply troubled by the ocean acidification talk.”

More recently, as I was facilitating expert discussions of climate change impacts and vulnerabilities in Canada’s Pacific marine ecosystems, participants were again “deeply troubled.” The report to which these discussions contributed predicts that climate change is likely to lead to mismatches of species that have evolved together (e.g. prey species become unavailable to predators at key life stages). This will lead to a cascade of effects that “could push marine ecosystems toward or beyond tipping points and into degraded or otherwise altered states from which recovery or return would be unlikely.” Yikes.

Here is one more example of the traumas of climate change, from Canada’s Cohen Inquiry into missing Fraser Salmon: Justice Cohen concluded “I heard enough evidence about warming waters and the impact on Fraser River sockeye salmon to reach the uncomfortable conclusion that many of my recommendations, and [Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s] efforts to implement them, will not improve the fate of the Fraser River sockeye fishery if climate change continues unabated.”

All of these knowledgeable people emphasized the need for more research to deepen our understanding of the processes at play. We particularly need strong data and reliable knowledge on marine productivity and survival, and more generally, biological and geochemical observations in the ocean.

But surely the situation is so urgent that we need action as well as information. Too often I get the message that experts from the physical and natural sciences feel discouraged about the power of their research to prompt actions necessary to reverse the trends driven by global change.

I’ll grant that if mitigating climate change is largely about altering human behaviour, a field called “decision science” is closer to the nub of the issue. A Google search shows that decision science is a department or institute in many universities in various countries. One such organization, which dedicates itself largely to the human responses to climate change, is the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

Decisions about climate change and the factors contributing to it are made by individuals, including policy-makers. People have to stop burning fossil fuel and start supporting leaders who will set policy and law to make this happen at a broad scale. But human nature wants to keep us in our comfort zones and, sadly, this usually means being complacent about, or even denying climate change. And we find it easier to discount future consequences of our actions than to give up indulgences today. Think of eating Christmas shortbread and the weight to be lost later, or driving large vehicles and the CO2 impacts that seem so distant.

It’s great that experts are examining these behavioral challenges closely. Yet I wonder if they are getting enough support. I have no recent figures, but five years ago, according to the New York Times, about 98 percent of US federal funding for climate change research went to the physical and natural sciences, with the remainder to the social sciences.

Decision science is inherently interdisciplinary, and I was intrigued to learn a bit about it in the keynote talk at that State of the Salmon conference – which was mainly attended by fisheries scientists from Pacific Rim countries. Murray Rudd, who works at the intersection of public policy, economics, and ecology, addressed head-on the need to modify human goals and values. He explained the importance of doubting the acceptability of the status quo: To engage in such thorny topics as climate change, people have to be concerned – then they can be receptive to evidence, learn to scrutinize it via “intelligent inquiry,” and perhaps come to believe that the world can be made better by their actions.

What can experts who are not working in behavioural science do? Among other things (e.g. running for public office), they can work collaboratively with the decision scientists, and they can get the word out about climate change so that individuals are fully informed – and maybe even motivated.

For guidance on communicating science they can go to organizations like COMPASS, which “is dedicated to helping scientists connect themselves and their science to the wider world.” Clear, engaging, news releases like one from the University of Washington about “what climate change means for federally protected marine species” set a good example. Pushing the envelope, climate researchers and communications specialists at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December focused on climate literacy and communications, including quantification of kitten sneezes! (See some coverage at the Skeptical Science website.)

A truly interdisciplinary strategy includes art. The Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington currently has an exhibit on alpine and polar landscapes in Western art. Vanishing Ice “aspires to kindle a personal connection to these regions along with an active commitment to their preservation.” In another wonderfully creative case of art-meets-science, oceanographer Greg Johnson, a lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Summary for Policymakers, has put key messages into haiku, along with watercolor paintings. These are well worth a look.

As well as communicating messages from climate change research, we can all model good behavior by minimizing our own CO2 footprints, and we can encourage those around us to do the same. We can be alert to teachable moments. This can involve raising doubts, as explained by Murray Rudd, who said appeals to observation are particularly effective and people tend to take their own experience seriously. Climate change has to be perceived as a salient threat.

The chatter after our hair-raising, Christmastime ferry trip to Galiano Island dwelled on the extreme, unusual nature of the episode. Not me – I was the Scrooge declaring “This is the new normal.” And at a party on the Island, a neighbor who, bless his heart, is experiencing some doubt, asked me, “Do you think climate change is real?” I said yes, I know it is.

Thanks to the widely-covered research report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective, we can be pretty direct about the fact that human influences are having an impact on the weather. The punishing seas tossing around the ferry could well be linked to climate change.

Ask yourself what might ring a bell with your friends, relatives, taxi drivers, etc. Is it erosion at a coastal property? Missing favorite wildlife? Difficulties with invasive species?

Maybe we need a jolt. When a ferry runs into the dock with enough impact possibly to cause damage, it’s called a “hard landing.” The usual smooth arrival is thwarted by high winds (or other factors). Hard landings bring distant impacts to the foreground, and make the threat of climate change dramatically salient.

Or use a gentle haiku – thanks, Greg Johnson:

We burn more carbon
air warms for decades –
but seas … for millennia.

We’re all in the same boat; let’s keep it safe.