Meet the Climate Scientists Travelling by Bike and Foot from the Poles to Paris
Traveling a combined distance of 20,000 kilometers (nearly 12,500 miles), the two scientists—plus team members joining them along the way—are working to raise awareness about climate change ahead of December’s Paris climate conference.
Erlend Moster Knudsen on the Northern Run. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
Meet Dr. Daniel Price, UK specialist in Antarctic climate and Dr. Erlend Moster Knudsen, Norwegian specialist in Arctic climate.
Since the spring, the two have been hosting events with local communities along their journeys—Price, bringing a flag from the Antarctic as he makes his way up from New Zealand, covering some 17,000 kilometer (more than 10,000 miles) by bike and Knudsen, taking the lead on the 3,000 kilometer (more than 1,800 miles) Northern Run beginning at the tip of Norway.
And on the rare occasion that travel by land isn’t possible—say when going from Norway to the UK—carbon offsets from one of their partners, MyClimate.org, are used to compensate for the climate impacts of flying.
DeSmog UK recently spoke with the two scientists over Skype as Knudsen was preparing to make his way from Norway to Cambridge and Price, sitting in an Austrian hostel, was about to start his final leg through the Alps.
Knudsen and Price talk about their many experiences, from trying to close the gap between the scientific community and society when it comes to knowledge about climate change, to witnessing first-hand the number of people at risk from the impacts of climate change in the developing world.
Kyla Mandel (KM): How did this all come about? What inspired this idea of running and cycling from the poles to Paris?
Dr. Erlend Moster Knudsen (EMK): As we were getting closer towards the end of our PhDs we realized more and more that we’re spending a lot of time conducting research that is only read by our fellow scientists whereas the big potential for improving our climate understanding is really among the general public.
I did my PhD in Arctic sea ice and Arctic climate whereas Dan did his PhD in Antarctic climate and Antarctic sea ice. So this kind of explains why we’re starting in the poles … But it’s also because those are the regions where climate change is occurring at the fastest rates.
Dr. Daniel Price (DP): It was majorly driven by frustration. I sat down at my desk one day finishing up my PhD and I realized that even my parents didn’t know about COP21, even my parents who I babble on, complaining about my PhD to … didn’t even understand it. My closest friends weren’t even getting it, so there’s just this massive gap between science and society, which is really the problem, which I’ve come to realize even more during this as to how key it is that the more people that get this the faster we’ll move forward. So, that was kind of the driving factor for it all.
I decided I wanted to dedicate the rest of the year to public outreach because that’s the really key thing now, right? Doing all the science and no one understanding it is pretty pointless.
EMK: This is really an initiative to try and bridge the gap between academia and the general public, the understanding of climate change. So we’re trying to raise awareness of climate change and especially focusing on this climate summit that will take place this year in Paris.
DP: I think the gap is absolutely profound between the professional science level and the general public. And it’s exactly like you said what your main focus is [at DeSmog], sort of clearing this noise and disinformation. It’s just so important because it’s delayed us 20 years this active misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry … So that’s something I am super passionate about, just getting the facts straight because it’s painful and it’s so dangerous. I don’t know how we’re going to look back on these guys in an historical context. You can’t really do anything more evil than that. It’s pretty painful.
Daniel Price speaking with local media about climate change. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
KM: What has been the reaction so far when you engage with the public?
EMK: People I meet are very positive and I find also that most people have questions. They’re not denialists; they’re not climate denialists saying, "Hey, I don’t believe in human induced climate change, it’s all a hoax." People don’t say that. People have questions, they may have heard something from a neighbor, they might have read something in the newspaper and so they’re like "oh, is this something related to this?"
DP: Definitely setting the facts straight and getting the key messages across is really important to tell the general public … Generally people are just, not necessarily in shock, but kind of had their eyes opened when they realized some of these basic facts in understanding how it all works. So that’s been really amazing to see.
KM: On a day-to-day basis what have your travels been like?
EMK: I didn’t do this only running on roads. I chose as much as I could to stay in the mountains and stay on paths and in forests, so I have covered a lot of elevation, been doing a lot of up and down … The reason why I chose to do this was that, first of all, I [want] to avoid injuries. When one person is running this far and I was running with a backpack … so you have a lot of stress on your knees and your legs … It also provides me with a lot of motivation running in nature.
DP: [For me,] it’s been pretty varied. It’s normally eight to ten hours of cycling a day on average … It was a bit tough to get used to at first [with 30 or 40kg of gear on your bike]. Typically [I’m] covering about 100km a day. Through segments in China and Mongolia, one of my friends joined me there and we were averaging about 160km a day, so those were massive days. We tried to cycle from Beijing to Ulan Bator in Mongolia as fast as we could and managed to do it in eight days. That was an amazing experience going up through the Gobi there was really cool.
But once you get in and Erlend I’m sure has the same experience, you’ve still got the project to run as well, so getting into your emails, planning down the line and trying to get all those things sorted.
KM: Dan, you’ve cycled through many different countries and cultures, what’s that been like?
DP: For me, from a scientific perspective data on climate change is the only way to assess it really … Climate is just sort of 30 years of something happening and it is really difficult to pick out these [local] stories and attribute current climate change to what’s going on in certain cases.
Photo credit: Pole to Paris
It was quite tricky for me as well because of the language barrier. People kept asking me to find out local stories, because obviously they’re much more powerful because they’re personal … But one that does stick out to me is that they are having problems with desertification in Mongolia. We met countless herders in the desert but of course I can’t communicate to them what’s changing but it is very apparent in those regions that there is this extra stress in their lives because it’s becoming more difficult to have a livelihood.
Bangladesh is a pretty clear example as well. I was working with the UNDP [the United Nations Development Program] there and we had translators, [so] that’s a much clearer story to establish … It’s a deltaic country, there’s 160 million people there and 30 million of them live within one meter of sea level … but then the situation on the ground is just so complicated, it’s not necessarily a case that the water is going to rise in one area by one meter, because it’s just such a naturally evolving landscape anyway.
And then, to see the stress that’s already in that country. The Bangladeshi people are absolutely incredible, I was just blown away. [Climate change] is going to add extra stress to this country that’s trying to sort of get ahead of the game, it’s pretty upsetting to see … Shrinking a country [due to sea level rise] with a population that’s expanding is obviously not going to end well.
The real clincher for climate change is the extra stress it’s going to put on society.
KM: Right, it’s not just about the environment, it’s about people too.
DP: It’s been absolutely, massively eye opening for me just to appreciate just how many people are at risk with this. It sounds totally mundane I guess, you kind of sit at home and think "Oh yeah, lots of people" but going through places like Indonesia and Bangladesh, just the amount of people is insane. And a lot of them are already living on the fringe so it is pretty worrying how these communities are going to adapt and how far they can adapt.
So, that really clicked with me at one point that the human development and the whole human rights side of it, is just so strong. And the amount of people that are susceptible to these changes, that’s something that really clicked with me while traveling through.
Daniel Price. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
KM: What’s been the most challenging part of the journey so far?
EMK: I think in general the most challenging part is being able to motivate yourself no matter how your legs feel, no matter how the weather is … you might be staying in a little cabin up in the mountains which I did a lot, the wind outside sounds like it’s going to lift the whole cabin and take it off to somewhere else and the little cabin is warm, you have your food, you have shelter, you have a fire going, you have pretty much everything you need and you know you have to get out and cover 30km until the next time you’re safe.
That to me is a challenge, you have to be pretty strong mentally to prepare yourself and just take it on because I could never fall behind the schedule because I have so many presentations along the way, so I could really not wait and stay and relax for a day. There was no chance to do that.
DP: It’s been much more of a mental challenge than physical. I guess a lot of people say that. When you do something physical it’s all mental really. The body keeps going. But just trying to run the project at the same time as trying to cover kilometers can be quite challenging.
And trying to keep our message clear. It becomes very difficult once you’re completely immersed in a project to understand what it looks like from the outside. That’s been a massive learning lesson for me.
Erlend Moster Knudsen. Photo credit: Pole to Paris
KM: And the most enjoyable part?
EMK: Since the biggest challenge is mental, not really physical, just mentally [trying] to motivate yourself day in and day out, then having people who really salute the project, that really support it, [helps].
Photo credit: Pole to Paris
People have been giving me food along the way, some people giving me perhaps a bed for the night or a warm shower, some people just gave me some nice words along the way, which is just so, I can’t stress how important that is, especially since I’ve been running so much alone. Just meeting these random people, they say go for it, they give me a thumbs up and saying I’m doing a great job, that really means a lot to me because it’s a bit of a journey in solitude for a while there, it makes more sense when you have those thumbs up and slap on your back and just keep going kind of thing, it’s really, really supportive.
KM: In addition to helping communicate climate change to the public what message do you hope to send to decision makers in Paris?
EMK: That there are so many people that now see changes. They hear our politicians talking about it, but there is such little change when it comes to policies. It’s very politically correct nowadays to talk about climate change and environmental stuff, that’s very important, but when it comes to it, it’s always being looked at as something that is costly … And so, I believe that when you send a signal that, first of all, a lot of people are joining in an initiative like this and supporting it in so many different ways, but [it’s] also saying that this is possible.
In the same way that Dan and I are capable of biking and running across half the globe, it is also possible to use the options we already have, the tools we already have, because we have so many tools available… [From] renewable energy all the way to the way we design our cities.
DP: I see this project as a small part in this whole global effort that is going on from everyone to try and build the movement and try and just put momentum ahead of Paris, so that, the key thing is that the policy makers feel the pressure to pursue what we need to do with enough ambition.
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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