Heavy Weather, Charting a Course for Wisconsin’s Green Fire Science Communications

Terry DaultonWI Green Fire, August 30, 2018

Credit: Terry Daulton
Credit: Terry Daulton

by Terry Daulton, President, Wisconsin’s Green Fire

This August I sailed to Isle Royale National Park with my husband and our sailing partners, a trip of 72 miles across Lake Superior from our Apostle Islands home port. Our 12 day voyage was squeezed into seven, crimped in on the ends by storms and weather fronts that could have threatened our 30 foot sloop.  While we listened for gale winds from the northeast, torrential rains were falling on southern Wisconsin, creating a reciprocal flood of emails on the Green Fire airwaves. Work group members lamented flood waters, and suggested a response to the summer’s extreme weather events. In the north, U.S. Highway 2 remains closed west of Ashland from record-setting rainfalls in June. The extent of damage from late August floods from LaCrosse to Lake Michigan is still unfolding. The question for scientists, including Wisconsin’s Green Fire: is there some way to use this summer’s flash floods, record breaking fires, arctic ice loss and heat waves as a teachable moment and awaken the latent interest of the public to demand leadership on climate change?

Michael Cain, Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s Public Trust Work Group leader shared these observations. “I just returned from two weeks in British Columbia and Alberta, where they are dealing with drought and wildfires. When I was there, the news said there were 600 wildfires burning in Western North America. The air quality index was 10+ in many areas. We had a couple days that looked post- apocalyptic as the sun was an orange orb in the sky, visibility was 1/4 to 1/2 mile, and the smoke burned our throats.” Michael returned home to the flash floods in Madison that now encompass a large swath of the state.

Emails from members brought links to articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and other prestigious sources tallying the human, economic and environmental toll of climate change. Meanwhile the federal administration worked to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and its CO2 curbing regulations for coal fired power plants.

One link, to an article in the journal Astrobiology, at first looked like a knock off science fiction short story. A photo beneath the headline showed a giant Easter Island sculpture. The premise of the article was that we might not be the only planet or civilization in the universe to experience climate change.  University of Rochester astrophysicist, Adam Frank and colleagues, developed a model, based in part on Easter Island, to evaluate whether planet systems with technologically advanced civilizations would be prone to overpopulation, environmental degradation and collapse. In short is the idea of sustainability doomed from the start?

“If we’re not the universe’s first civilization,” Frank says, “that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.” The study’s mathematical model suggests that there are four possible outcomes for planetary development.

Die off – where the dominant species population peaks, creates unfavorable planetary conditions, and sharply declines, with unknown potential for species survival.

Sustainability – the population and planetary conditions come into balance, the population recognizes and controls the adverse impacts of its resource use.

Collapse without resource change – the population and conditions change rapidly, no one acts and populations collapse.

Collapse with resource change – the population and conditions change rapidly, the problem is recognized and addressed, but too late to prevent catastrophic change and population collapse.

I read the article summary and added the email link to my growing folder of “read” items but it nagged at the back of my mind. The novel approach of the paper brought back memories of sci fi tales I read in my youth, but somehow that last scenario, where the population recognizes the problem and fails to respond in a timely fashion, kept re-surfacing as a bit too close to home in our quickly warming world. It certainly seems to be the approach currently taken in the U.S. and perhaps around the globe.

When we were sailing back from Isle Royale one of my sailing partners shared the following quote from Gus Speth, Former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Co-Founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

At first read, this quote could demoralize a group like Wisconsin’s Green Fire, suggesting sound science-based information will not sway public opinion. So, what are our options… retreat to the tiki bar for a frosty drink and sit out the struggle in a pleasantly numb haze, or fight on and tackle the communication challenges of our era. Perhaps the growing economic costs of floods, fires, and other climate change symptoms will finally spur a call to action.

So where does this leave Wisconsin’s Green Fire? What role can we play that will most effectively encourage leadership on climate change and the other important topics with which our work groups are engaged? At our annual meeting in September we hope to explore communications paths that fit our niche as a source of nonpartisan natural resources expertise. We need to identify and test out novel methods for communicating our science, crafting messages that cross political and cultural divides.

When we headed northeast for Isle Royale this past month we faced looming swells, but the winds were dropping and the way was clear. On our return journey, a thick fog descended and we had to set our course based on the data from our tablet navigation program and our compass. This required more than a little faith and optimism, it required a bit of blind faith that a big tanker would see us in the gloom and steer clear. Perhaps the course for Green Fire is a bit foggy as well. But I think given a correct bearing, some confidence and a bit of technology, we may be surprised by what we can accomplish.

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