How Can We Help Put a Human Face on Climate Change?
By John R. Platt
Communicating the truths about climate change isn't always easy. Sometimes the effects of climate change seem to hover in the future, or are occurring most visibly in other parts of the world. Other times they're subtle—at least for now. And of course, there are some people who just don't want to hear anything about it.
With those and other challenges, how can we as a society do a better job communicating the facts and realities of global warming? One way, experts tell us, is to try to show that climate change is affecting people now, in ways we can see, feel and understand.
So how do we show those impacts on real people? We asked several climate experts to tell us:
How can we help put a human face on the effects of climate change?
Their answers may surprise you—or they may give you the tools you need to communicate this vitally important topic.
Valentina Bosetti, professor of climate change economics, Bocconi University
When people think of climate change, they think of the damages, physical and economic, deriving from it. However, there is also the other side of the problem. Mitigating climate change is forcing us to rethink the way we move around, produce goods, generate electricity, feed ourselves and many other aspects of human activities.
This requires inventing technologies, processes and coming up with revolutionary and bold concepts, and daring to push them out in to the economy. Who are the people that will bring this change about? What are the faces of the myriad passionate students who will make this happen? What about the young entrepreneurs who are betting on this side of the battle we are fighting? These are the faces we should also show to the world.
Michael Burger, executive director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law
It's hard to believe that we are still at a point where people need to be persuaded that climate change is a problem for people, here and now, including you and me and all our friends and relations. With the devastation caused by the insane 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, the wildfires running rampant throughout the American West, daily flooding from sea-level rise in major American cities, heat waves year after year, ongoing changes in local fauna and flora, and the extraordinary expenses being taken on by cities and states to adapt to these impacts, one would hope the point has become clear.
And, in fact, I think it largely has. The days of imagining climate change as a problem remote in time and space, potentially harming polar bears and impoverished communities in a place called Bangladesh, are coming to an end. Yet, there will always be a gap between the perception of the problem and the willingness to make real sacrifices in the present tense in order to address it.
One way of helping to bridge that gap is to highlight the ways that climate change impacts public health, especially for vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and the poor. Among other things, climate change makes air quality and water quality worse, increases the risk of exposures to toxic pollution, increases the risk of displacement from one's home, all of which are terrible for one's well-being, including one's mental health. As people come to understand the pervasive effects of climate change, and the many ways it impacts the people they know living in the world today, the chances of the well-mobilized political pressure we need to enact real reforms will grow.
Astrid Caldas, senior climate scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists
One could argue that climate change is all about people, and that a need to "put a human face" on it would be totally unnecessary. However, we know that is not what happens. Concerns range from lifestyles to the economy, when they should be about livelihoods and the society as a whole, not only the economic aspect.
Various initiatives exist to show "the faces of climate change." The sobering images show people—many of them children—suffering as their lives are directly affected by floods, droughts, wildfires and sea-level rise; homeowners coming back to what's left of their flooded or burned homes after a heavy rain event or a wildfire; people in drought-stricken regions either looking in despair at their destroyed crops or holding their starving babies, a lost look in their eyes; people in the Arctic seeing their villages disappear into the sea as it rises. These events are happening all over the world and are being made more likely by climate change—attribution studies have determined how much more likely or stronger some have been made by human caused global warming. But most people don't know that.
These initiatives are not reaching enough people. Mainstream media should be showing these on a regular basis, as these impacts are ongoing, not only when some disaster happens. They should be making the connection between climate change, and those events, and the consequences (human, economic, social) while also highlighting that there is something we can do to avert the worst. They should be pulling at peoples' heartstrings, because research shows that when people relate to, or are emotionally affected by, something, they are more likely to act—and we need people to act.
Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of a human face of climate change that has stayed with me is that of the Yupik people in Alaska. They have various words for sea ice, like the one for thick, dark, weathered ice, which has become very rare: tagneghneq. That is hard to explain to the next generation—one cannot know what something is if one cannot see it. Their cultural heritage is at risk because of climate change, and like them, many will lose much more than property or livelihoods to climate change. They are losing their way of life, and that's something one cannot get back with insurance. Most people don't think about that when they think about climate change.
Alexis Berg, associate research scholar, Princeton University
This is going to sound obvious, but I think it's simply about telling the stories of people, here and elsewhere, already significantly and demonstrably affected by ongoing climate change, illustrating the hardship they are facing while warning that it's still only a preview of things to come. It's about finding the human canaries in the climate change coal mines.
It's a tall order because not every extreme weather event, and certainly not every regional trend in climate—for instance, a decrease in precipitation somewhere—can be rigorously attributed to climate change at this point. There are some current, observed trends, though, that can be: heatwaves, etc. Current regional drying in certain places such as the Mediterranean or the Southwest U.S. is also certainly consistent with climate model projections. Sea-level rise is a clear and attributable signal as well.
I think stories identifying connections (even very partial) between political events and their consequences in places like the Middle East, such the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, to regional changes in climate, are really powerful. Likewise, stories about communities and people affected by incremental sea-level rise are quite telling—for instance, stories about people who already might not be able to insure of sell their homes in places like Miami.
Somewhat sadly, as time goes by and climate change impacts emerge more and more clearly, such stories should become more and more obvious!
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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