Not Enough People Talk About and Understand Climate Change

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If you were to ask me in the month of October, “Laura – what are you afraid of?” you might expect a response that connects to the theme of Halloween. Maybe my fear during this fall celebration would be focused on getting scared by creepy scarecrows, or freaked out by unexplained noises I hear in my house. Actually, one of my biggest fears has nothing to do with monsters or what may be lurking in the dark. I’m very concerned that I’m not doing enough to help individuals – especially my students - understand climate change.

I’m sure this story has now taken an abrupt, unexpected turn. And I ask that you stay with me and not be afraid to read the words I’ve composed. Running away from what we don’t know doesn’t help us address our fears and move forward beyond what we don’t understand.

I wear many different hats – I’m a scientist, an educator, a mentor, an innovator, a communicator, and so much more. All of these hats allow me to pursue my passion to engage in the process of science and to share this experience and knowledge with others, whether they be in my classroom, reading my blog, or attending science outreach events I’m speaking at. I use these opportunities to help individuals understand the grand challenges we are facing in the Earth sciences – access to clean water, development of renewable energy technologies, eliminating food insecurity, forecasting and preparing for natural hazards – the list goes on. But there is one umbrella topic that connects all of these subjects that I talk about each and every time – climate change.

Talking about climate change can be a very “doom and gloom” conversation, whether we share the changes our planet has experienced through data visualizations or words. The impact on us can be stunning, heartbreaking, and devastating, and the year 2020 is filled with these headlines on climate impacts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that September 2020 is the warmest September on our planet in 140 years of recorded measurements. [1] This year is only the second time since the establishment in 1953 of the naming convention for Atlantic tropical storm names has gone through the alphabetical list and required the use of Greek letters to refer to storms and hurricanes. [2] Wildfires continue to burn while permafrost continues to thaw... these Earth processes and much more only confirms that our planet is dynamic and always changing.

So what might cause fear across America, where these climate impacts affect so many? Read the stories on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, to see the words of farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners that are battling drought conditions, and think of their concerns. [3] Think about the economic and cultural impacts going through the minds of those working in fisheries, where the changing climate is shifting the habitats of the American lobster and sea scallop, two of the most economically valuable single-species fisheries in the entire United States. [4] Climate migration is happening now in the United States, with an expectation of millions of individuals that will be displaced. The New York Times Magazine reports there may be hundreds of millions of climate refugees across the planet required to relocate because of a decline in the quality of the environment. [5]

Climate change is real, impacting all the physical spaces and places across the planet (see NASA for a deeper dive into the causes of climate change). [6] My role as a scientist, instructor and communicator of Earth science is to help individuals understand why climate is changing and the role humans have played in accelerating this change. To accomplish this, I take a page out of the playbook of Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (Texas Tech Univ.), an atmospheric scientist that gave a TED Talk in 2018 with one incredible suggestion to help people understand climate change – just talk about it. [7] Hearing and reading narratives that lead to discussions on climate change can then encourage reflection and action. For example, check out the edited volume by Drs. Ayana Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, a collection of essays written by women “at the forefront of the climate movement who are harnessing truth, courage, and solutions to lead humanity forward.” [8] This book is an incredible source for learning and a starting point for personal and relevant conversations on climate.

When it comes to my classroom, full of diverse students, coming up with examples they can each make a personal connection to can be challenging. But there are several climate stories that cross their interests and experiences. For example, I have found sports to be one of those topics, such as the struggle for the National Hockey League to maintain an outdoor ice rink at the start of January for their annual Winter Classic game, with the warm temperatures turning ice to slush. [9]

So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that in one 15-week semester, I am unable to do enough to educate students on climate science and why it matters. I worry that when I speak at outreach events like Nerd Nite Philly and Taste of Science Philadelphia, my climate message isn’t connecting with my audience. I’m concerned that too many individuals don’t take the knowledge I share with them and work towards a better, more sustainable planet for all citizens.

But this fear doesn’t stop me. I think it would be even scarier if I gave up on even trying. Positive change addressing Earth’s grand challenges is happening, with successes across countries and cultures that we must call attention to and celebrate. I am committed to showing each individual person that they can make a difference, especially through telling stories with their own voices, to help expand the understanding of climate change.




Sources

[1] NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. (2020, October 14). Warmest September on record for the globe. NOAA NCEI News, https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/global-climate-202009

[2] NOAA. (2020, September 18). With #Alpha, 2020 Atlantic tropical storm names go Greek. NOAA News, https://www.noaa.gov/news/with-alpha-2020-atlantic-tropical-storm-names-go-greek

[3] USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (n.d.). Drought stories. USDA NRCS Programs, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/?cid=stelprdb1245725

[4] Dawicki, S. (2020, May 28). American lobster, sea scallop habitat could shift off the northeast. NOAA Fisheries News, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/american-lobster-sea-scallop-habitat-could-shift-northeast

[5] Lustgarten, A. (2020, September 15). How climate migration will reshape America. The New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/15/magazine/climate-crisis-migration-america.html

[6] NASA Earth Science Communications Team/NASA JPL. (2020, October 21 (last update)). The causes of climate change. NASA Global Climate Change – Vital Signs of the Planet, https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

[7] Hayhoe, K. (2018). The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it. TEDWomen 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_hayhoe_the_most_important_thing_you_can_do_to_fight_climate_change_talk_about_it

[8] Johnson, A., & Wilkinson, K. (2020). All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. One World. 448 pp. ISBN-13 : 978-0593237069

[9] Cotsonika, N.J. (2019, December 29). Winter Classic crew battling weather to get ice ready. NHL News, https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-winter-classic-crew-battling-weather-ice-conditions/c-313223180

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