The Point of No Return?

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By Kristi Evans

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and that human activity is the primary cause, according to climate.nasa.gov, a series of surveys and scientific literature reviews. The strong consensus within the scientific community has even received validation from a high-profile leader in the religious realm: Pope Francis. The pontiff proposed an international climate change treaty. He also delivered this message on Capitol Hill during his first U.S. visit in September: “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the more serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.” Science and faith do not always intersect, so perhaps it is significant that representatives of both have expressed shared beliefs and a unified concern related to climate change.

Still, climate change is often portrayed as a controversy in media coverage. Some people bristle at the mention of global warming, perhaps citing the transitory weather patterns such as the string of sub-zero wind chills in Marquette the past two winters as contradictory proof. Others may acknowledge that overall warming has occurred, but attribute it to natural forces rather than human involvement. In either case, they may dispute the dire prognosis for the planet if major changes are not implemented by those who populate it.

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SCIENCE NOW: NMU Professor Jes Thompson

Climate change denial is not based on a lack of empirical evidence, according to Dr. Jes Thompson ’01 BS, an NMU associate professor who teaches environmental communication as part of the public relations sequence. She said there are plenty of visible indicators and volumes of scientific material that demonstrate global warming “has reached the point of no return.” Communicating that effectively, she adds, requires knowing where the audience’s resistance originates.

“I think it’s an internal mechanism, because if you acknowledge the role of human activity in what’s going on, it puts the responsibility on you to be part of the solution,” Thompson said. “Those denying it have a vested interest in preserving their everyday conveniences, habits and rituals, and fear that responding to climate change would require too much change on their part.

“While policy will play a role, individual choices matter as well. For example, eating a burger in a Prius is worse (carbon footprint-wise) than having a veggie burger in a Hummer because one pound of methane gas from beef production heats the atmosphere 25 times more than one pound of carbon dioxide.

“Talking about individual choices is tricky because people don’t like being told what to do, what to eat or what kind of car to drive. It’s better to connect with them through shared values—caring for the next generation, their families or their communities—in hopes that appeals to values will promote more sustainable lifestyle choices.”

Framing environmental information in a way that resonates with different audiences has been a major component of Thompson’s career. After graduating from NMU with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and public relations, she earned a master’s in environmental journalism and a doctorate in environmental communication and conflict resolution—both from the University of Utah. She landed her first full-time faculty appointment in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources department at Colorado State University before returning to her alma mater. Thompson’s research focuses on communicating, educating and managing environmental conflict about complex ecological issues, including global climate change and natural resource conservation. She serves in related capacities on two advisory boards: the New England Aquarium’s National Network of Oceans & Climate Change Interpretation; and the National Park Service (NPS) Education Committee.

In early 2009, the NPS established a Climate Change Response Program to address adverse impacts that were becoming more pronounced at the parks. A world-renowned climatologist hired to lead the effort contacted Thompson—in Colorado at the time—for communications guidance.

“She told me, ‘I’m learning that this is not a science or policy problem; it’s a people problem,’” Thompson said. “I worked with the staff at 16 national parks and wildlife areas to identify localized concerns. Then we worked to engage NPS leaders and surveyed park visitors to identify opportunities to improve climate change education. We also formed collaborative relationships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.”

The survey of more than 4,000 park visitors showed 56 percent were extremely concerned about climate change and many wanted to learn more about it from park staff. But when NPS employees were surveyed, only 1 percent perceived visitors as extremely concerned and did not think there would be sufficient interest in relevant programming.

Thompson said bridging such disconnects is essential for effective communication and education. So is developing key messages with supporting information. For the NPS, those key messages were: climate change is real; there are consequences for the parks; the NPS has implemented some solutions; and individuals are urged to make a difference by reducing their carbon footprints both at the parks and at home.

At the local level, Thompson serves on the steering committee of the Marquette Climate Adaptation Task Force. The group will incorporate a climate resiliency toolkit—developed as part of President Barack Obama’s 2015 climate action plan—into city planning and use a “place-based engagement” approach that emphasizes how inaction could impact the economy and quality of life. Thompson also advises the Northern Climate Network, an NMU student organization that hosts a fall march and festival along with monthly presentations.

“Think globally, act locally” became the mantra for environmentalists after the inaugural Earth Day in 1970. The first half of that slogan may fall short in the modern context, as global climate issues require action, not just thought, as Thompson learned during interdisciplinary research of herding communities in Mongolia.

“No one can own property, but there are no restrictions on animal ownership. Mongolia has 2.5 million people and more than 35 million head of livestock. You combine that with the impacts of climate change and grazing is a risky livelihood. There’s not enough vegetation.”

Herders also confront dzuds, summer droughts followed by early, heavy snowstorms and temperatures well below average that freeze to death already malnourished livestock. Thompson said they were once considered 100-year storms, but three have been recorded since 2009.

The project to help build rangeland resilience and develop adaptive economic options, such as growing plants to produce essential oils and teas, will wrap up this year.

From Marquette to Mongolia, addressing climate change relies on engaging people in a discussion of the particular issues confronting their community and empowering them to make changes for the collective good.

“Doomsday prophecies and instigating panic never work,” Thompson said. “I could talk about broad changes directly tied to climate variability—the polar vortex; the increase in poison ivy and other invasive species; the multiple lifecycles of tree beetles. Or the data showing the increase in heat over the past 150 years is equivalent to the temperature difference over an ice age that took 10,000 years to achieve. But we need to package the need for individuals to have a smaller carbon footprint in a way that appeals to their personal values and sense of community or it won’t result in meaningful change.”

The Environmental Protection Agency offers a personalized online Household Carbon Footprint Calculator to help estimate and reduce one’s home energy, transportation and waste activities.  

 

FIGHTING THE FLAMES OF CLIMATE CHANGE

 

Fire has played a significant role in the biodiversity of the forest ecosystem. At its best—as a natural and healthy occurrence—it removes brush and debris, clearing space forrejuvenated vegetation that provides food and habitat for wildlife. It helps to enrich the soil with nutrients and combats tree pests and diseases. 

Fire also can be a destructive force, as evidenced by the devastation inflicted on the western United States. Wildfires scorched more than 11 million acres in the U.S. this year through mid-October, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Agencies warn that the costs related to property damage, risks to human safety and state/federal resources re quiredfor containment efforts will only increase unless Americanscurtail activities that lead to further climate change.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that the effects of global warming on temperature, precipitation levels and soil moisture are “turning many of our forests into kindling during wildfire season.” Other factors include longer fire seasons as the result of earlier spring runoff and increased lightning as thunderstorms become more severe. The National Wildlife Federation adds that “climate change and other pres sures are causing more intensified firestorms, sparking moredamage and putting wildlife more at risk.”

In California, where numerous raging fires were aggravated by a historic four-year drought and the notorious Santa Ana winds, Gov. Jerry Brown told the media, “There is no doubt that we need to de-carbonize our modern economy. We have sharpened what the debate is because there are a vast amount of officials that say it isn’t true. This will smoke it out. Fires are not political. Climate change is not political. It is real.”

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ACTION NOW: Ernst in King Fire, Tahoe National Forest

Liz Ernst ’14 BS was among those battling California blazes in 2014. She responded to the French Fire in the Sierras near Yosemite, the Happy Camp Complex Fire near the Oregon border and the King Fire in El Dorado County. Ernst served on the Region 10 hand crew at each location. Composed of 18-20 members, these crews have been called the infantry of wildland fire forces.

“Hand crews hike everywhere with just a tool and supplies on their backs and work side by side with the others to construct a fireline,” Ernst said. “That’s one of the main tactics for fighting fires—digging line. You use a tool [the Pulaski] that has an axe blade on one side and a grubber on the other so it can cut wood and dig down to bare soil. The goal is to remove anything that can burn from the ground so that when the fire gets to that area, it will hit mineral soil and hopefully won’t cross. Sometimes if the embers get carried over the hand line or it’s not wide enough, the fire will cross anyway.

“Safety is something firefighters are supposed to think about constantly. When you’re on the big California fires, you might be one of 8,000 people working on it and you can’t expect people calling the shots to know where every personis at all times. That’s why it’s crucial to look after yourself and those around you. Crews are expected to be in constant communication with handheld radios or to be within shouting distance. It is also important to establish a lookout to get eyes on both the fire and personnel. Finally, there must be an identified escape route to access a safety zone, where you could survive the fire without the use of a shelter. It’s a lot to think about and it’s always on our minds.”

Ernst was an earth science major at NMU, but also took courses that were part of the wildland firefighting minor (it has since been elevated to a certificate). She participated in the program’s spring break trip to Florida, where students get hands-on experience working on a prescribed burn. She also spent two summers with the U.S. Forest Service gaining more firefighting skills.

Ernst praised the instructors in NMU’s program. One is Pete Glover ’95, a full-time forest fire officer supervisor with the Michigan DNR who also answers calls for assistance at hot spots nationwide.

“NMU is making a mark in this field because I bump into students and alumni—male and female—working all over,” Glover said. “I’ve also found myself that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Being an instructor has helped me tremendously on the fire line because I need to communicate and explain what’s going on. I tell students I may not be a professor and refined speaker, but I’m a firefighter who can teach you how to fight fires. Living it and breathing it through real-world experience goes a long way.”

After graduating from Northern, Ernst spent the past two summers with the National Park Service stationed at Denali in Alaska, where she was involved in managing several fires, many of which are left to burn due to the remote location and sparse settlement.

Now in the graduate forestry program at Michigan Tech, Ernst said, “I hope to stay involved with wildfires, but maybe in more of a management role. Fire effects monitoring is becoming more common. That’s looking at how fires burn in areas with different cover types, how it behaves and its effects on the landscape. You get a bunch of data before a fire and go in after to see how it differs. The goal is better prevention and more effective tactics so people aren’t put at risk.”

Ironically, the emphasis on fire suppression over the years has resulted in a lack of the sporadic, natural fires critical to habitat renewal and vitality. Particularly in the western states, there has been a steady buildup of fuel on the forest floor that has also contributed to the devastating power of today’s massive fires. Management and monitoring will be critical as the frequency and intensity of large wildfires are projected by various agencies and scientists to continue to grow.

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