It’s Climate Change, Stupid!

Shredded leaves from a hail storm litter my driveway.

Shredded leaves from a hail storm litter my driveway.

Even though it only lasted a few minutes, the hail squall that passed through my neighborhood earlier this week did a respectable amount of damage. Winds up to 70 mph toppled stately trees, people lost power – some for up to 22 hours (I lost power for about 12), and hail shredded the leaves that had finally popped out on the trees, creating a green carpet over people’s driveways and the roads.

Loss of power and loss of my routine reminded me of just how vulnerable we are to even the littlest whims of nature. I would have had to eat a cold supper but for the propane-fueled camp stove tucked away in my basement. With all our experience with snowstorms, perhaps northerners are more used to weathering weather disruptions than those in lower regions of the country, but we are far from immune. With no televisions and computers for distraction, my neighbors all took to the street to compare notes and make sure everyone was okay.

Unfortunately, violent storms like this are only likely to increase in the future. A few days after the storm, I attended a public forum called “A Flood of Options – Adapting to Climate Change,” which was hosted by the St. Louis River Alliance and the Izaak Walton League, and sponsored by the Minnesota Coastal Program and Freshwater Future. Speaker Mark Seely, the Minnesota State Climatologist, said that one of the things we can expect with climate change (and it’s happening now) is an increased amount of moisture from violent storms. There’s already been a 31 percent increase in this type of precipitation for the Great Lakes.

Higher temperatures are another thing that are happening, especially in the northern latitudes. The number of warm nights is increasing and so it goes that the number of cold nights is decreasing. Other lovely things to ponder are that mean monthly temperatures across the U.S. in 2012 were the highest since 1895 (I am guessing this is when stable record-keeping started). Not just by a little bit. Seely said they, “Obliterated all other year’s” temps. The same was true for Canada last year. Also, the value of economic losses due to weather/climate disasters has increased since 1980 due to hurricanes, floods, drought, etc. Seely said this is a motivator for communities to talk about climate adaptation. “Our climate vulnerability is becoming more and more clear to us.”

Other consequences include a longer mold and allergy season, increased frequency of freeze/thaw cycles, shorter time of ice cover on lakes (which leads to an increase in winter evaporation), and a longer growing season (which might not be all bad for northern Minnesota). The goal of the workshop was to inform participants about the impacts of climate change and provide ideas about how communities can adapt to it. It is a precursor to later workshops that will get more into advocacy and more specific adaptation measures.

During the question and answer session after his talk, Seely said, “Doing nothing is not an option. We’re obligated to think about this and to do something in our roles as citizens.” Chris Kleist, stormwater manager for the City of Duluth, also spoke, outlining the impacts of last year’s “500-year-flood” on the city. He estimates that long-term restoration will cost $12.6 million and the city has received about $2 million so far.

A look around the audience of 25 made it clear to me the presenters were preaching to the choir. Most of the others are already active in the environmental community. The guy seated next to me was so into the topic, he quoted from notes he wrote on a napkin. The type of approach used in the presentations wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind who wasn’t a climate-change believer. I know enough about behavior change theory to understand that.

Please forgive my Bill Clinton-esque title to this piece. I hope use of the word “stupid” does not offend, but I could not resist! It gets frustrating sometimes reading/hearing some of the refutations to climate change produced by nay-sayers. One of the problems is that those involved in climate change research and education do not employ effective communication techniques to get their messages across.

Spouting facts does not spur people to action. What does spur action and advocacy is storytelling, emotion, and spontaneity combined with some key message pre-testing and removing barriers to action. One of my favorite proponents to this approach is Randy Olson, a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker. He produced a movie about climate change (“Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy), and wrote a book that tries to help scientists get their message across more effectively to the public (“Don’t Be Such a Scientist”). Seely did introduce a bit of emotion, but it wasn’t until the end of his talk, in the question and answer session. By then, an hour after his presentation began, it was too late.

It’s my sincere hope that the later climate workshops in this series integrate more effective communication techniques. And if you have a scientific message to get out to the public, please, consult with a trained communicator. It can only help! I’ll get down off my soapbox now.

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