2116 words • 10~16 min read

When I talk about Climate Change, I don’t talk about science.

Climate Change is real. It’s happening now. And the best available data points to us as the cause.

That the foundational science is settled is a point of unending frustration to scientists, science writers, and policy advocates who face continuous partisan push back, from whitewashing government websites to threatening scientists with legal repercussions for reporting the data.  During my International Marine Conservation Congress keynote last year, I argued that Climate Change denial is not a science literacy problem, but rather a product of increasing political bifurcation. Political ideology is a much stronger predictor of Climate Change understanding than science literacy.

The term “Climate Change” is now loaded with so much political baggage that it becomes almost impossible to hold a discussion across political lines. In stakeholder interviews, people generally understand and acknowledge the impacts of climate change on local and regional scales, as long as you don’t call it “Climate Change”. This has been my experience working in rural coastal communities, which tend to be strongly conservative and intimately connected to the changing ocean.

Which is why, when I talk about Climate Change, I don’t talk about science. 

When I talk about Climate Change, I talk about Fishing. 

Fishing communities have a long, rich history in the United States. Many are among the oldest townships in the country, tracing their roots back before the Revolution. Fishing, in many ways, built this country. Fishermen know that things are changing, that black bass, scup, and butterfish (an important prey species in the tuna fishery) are moving further and further north. Oystermen know that the increasingly high high tides have a negative effect on the recruitment and growth of commercial oysters. More importantly, fishing communities have records and cultural knowledge that go back centuries, and they can see from multi-generational experience that the seasons are less predictable now than in the past and that the changes taking place today are nothing like the more gradual changes of previous generations. Northern fisheries that rely on an annual freeze-thaw cycle are already being severely affected, impacting subsistence, recreational, and commercial fisheries. Chinook Salmon are disappearing from California’s rivers, thanks to warmer waters and severe drought.

Disease once linked to warm, southern waters are making their way north, too. Vibrio, a bacterial infection with a 38% fatality rate and most often occurs when eating raw oysters, thrives in warm waters. Last year, a Maryland fisherman was killed by the infection for the first time in 25 years. Around the world, Vibrio is on the rise, and it’s expansion has been linked directly and repeatedly to climate change, threatening both fishermen and the raw oyster industry.

When I talk about Climate Change, I talk about Flooding.

I know fishermen in Guinea living in houses that have stood for hundreds of years. Some of those houses now flood at high tide. Every high tide. They weren’t built at the water’s edge, the water’s edge came to them. I lived in the same house in Beaufort, North Carolina for ten years. When I moved in, we were high and dry. Now our street has a permanent “high water” sign. The farm I just left in coastal Virginia is inundated after heavy rains or strong tidal surges. The front fields, which once held vibrant gardens, now nurture short grass and salty soil.

Insurance companies aren’t dumb. They care about their bottom line. Increasingly, more and more insurers are shying away from coastal properties and demanding that the government stop subsidizing climate-risk homes.  My own insurance agent, back in Virginia, pointed out that, in his thirty+ year career working in the same area, he had never filed a single flood claim until Hurricane Isabel. After that? Numerous every year.

Increased flooding isn’t just a civilian issue, but a matter of national security. Hampton Roads, home to Old Dominion University (which now floods at every high tide) and the nation’s largest naval base, is among the most at-risk regions for sea level rise. For the Navy, this means that the now frequent flooding events are causing significant damage to their 14 piers. These piers now need to be replaced, at a cost of over $490 million.

When I talk about Climate Change, I talk about Farming.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: You have never had real, American bacon. Bacon came to America on the same ships that carried the first colonists to Jamestown and Yorktown. The hogs grazed on the land that would eventually become Williamsburg. Slices of fatback or pork belly were cut from these pastured hogs, then packed in salt until it turned green. Green bacon was hung in large storehouses to dry for months in the cool, moist air of coastal Virginia. It was Virginia’s mild climate, with easy winters and long falls, predictable rainfall, and a gentle cycle of freezing and thawing, that cured bacon to perfection. Good bacon is a created through the delicate balance between the chef, the farmer, and the climate. No one in coastal Virginia makes bacon the way it was made 200 year ago. I know, I checked.

We don’t need to project into the future to talk about the changes taking place in agriculture, today. Frost days are going down, dry days are going up, there are more hot nights and a longer frost-free season. These matter. In 2010 and 2012, higher nighttime temperatures reduced corn yields throughout the corn belt. A warm winter in 2012 caused $220 million in losses to Michigan’s cherry farmers. California’s drought is so severe that many farmers have fled the state for wetter, cooler pastures. Heat related stress resulted in over $1 billion loss from livestock death. As the world gets hotter, those losses are going to go up.

When I talk about Climate Change, I talk about Faith.

Confession: I am not a person of faith, but I was raised in two Abrahamic faiths and I recognize and value the role that faith plays in many American lives and the insight that can be gleaned from studying religious texts. Dominionism is a challenging concept, with interpretations varying among religious leaders from “man has the right to do with the world as we want” to “man has a duty to be stewards of the land”. Less confusing, however is the Covenant of the Rainbow, in which God promised never again to flood the world. Given that covenant, it would seem that ascribing climate change and sea level rise to purely natural phenomena would go directly against the word of God.

Evangelical leaders, incidentally, are not united in denial of climate change. Carl Safina’s work with interfaith delegations on climate change has been tremendously successful and, at its peak, inspired significant discussion within religious communities about the role of the church in combating climate change.

But there are concrete reasons religious leaders need to take a stand, and that is the inundation and desecration of their history. Religions of every stripe have edicts against the desecration of graves. Across the world, cemeteries and grave sites are experiencing the creeping approach of sea level rise. Around the Chesapeake Bay, it has become such a problem that one historian noted that “the water is evicting the dead“. Arctic communities are hit even harder, as both rising seas and the thawing of the permafrost due to warming act in concert to inundate and uplift traditional grave sitessome thousands of years old, putting communities and their heritage at risk. Cemeteries by the Sea is a project to document these graves, once high and dry, about to be lost forever.

When I talk about Climate Change, I talk about the Future. 

Climate change is inevitable. This has been true for many years now. The future is as much about mitigation as it is adaptation. Communities need to plan for increased flooding, prolonged droughts, stronger storms. People need to start thinking about moving. The next century will likely see the largest migration of people in the history of our species. Entire nations are already preparing to relocate.

Talking about the future means talking about the inevitable forces that drive us forward. Alternative energy doesn’t dominate because we all care about our planet, it dominates because relic energy is failing. There’s only so much coal and oil left in the ground, and it’s harder and more expensive to get to. Meanwhile, solar is poised to become the dominant energy source in the near future. And sure, all energy sources have their downsides, but civilization is built on bootstrapping our way towards less destructive practices. When investing in the future, why bet on a loser?

Adaptation matters. Almost everyone I talk to recognizes change, even if they don’t recognize it as Climate Change. We have a pretty good idea what’s coming, and talking about reasonable plans to minimize the worst of the impacts to communities is a strong way to begin a dialog about the future.

Data is the map, storytelling is the journey. 

There’s a phrase we throw around far too often when talking about science communication: Anecdotes are not data. While true, it is, at best, a profoundly naive way to think about communication. Anecdotes may not be data, but anecdotes are the stories we tell in order to make the data mean something to people.

There’s a twitter account I follow, UnchartedAtlas, which uses a sophisticated erosion algorithm to generate fantasy maps. As a science fiction writer, I like to look at these maps and think about little stories that we could tell with these trails and towns and coastlines. The map is the data, but the story, the journey through that map, that is the anecdote. A map of the Mariana Trench, no matter how detailed, doesn’t tell the story of Piccard and Walsh’s epic dive in the Bathysphere Trieste. Darwin didn’t just give us On the Origin of Species, his datum opus, he also gave us The Voyage of the Beagle, his story.

Science is Storytelling. Learning to transform data into an effective, compelling, and true story is the most critical, powerful, and challenging skill a scientist, science writer, science journalist, or science advocate can master. Even within the peer-reviewed literature, papers that are framed using narrative structure are more widely read and more often cited than those that don’t. People understand and retain information delivered through narrative more readily than that delivered through expository writing. To teach, to inform, and to connect with people, we need to identify the narrative threads in our own research and tell a better story.


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