- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
New book offers advice for discussing misconceptions and oversimplifications
Research can inform people to take appropriate action to solve problems, but effectively communicating is key. Faith Kearns, who works on emotional and contentious water-related issues such as climate change, drought and wildfire, has learned firsthand that the way scientists communicate can deeply affect people and communities.
“The book offers an on-the-ground perspective on communicating emotional and contentious topics and is filled with concrete examples from practitioners, which is different from many science communication books written by journalists or researchers,” Kearns said. “It is centered around practical tools like relating, listening, working with conflict, and understanding trauma, all with an eye toward equity and justice.”
Among the many issues addressed in the book – ranging from food security to disasters – climate change is one of the biggest. Meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus notes in the foreword that giving people scientific facts isn't convincing many people that there is a climate crisis, much less solving the climate emergency. “This crisis is getting worse not because of a deficit of information, after all, but because of a deficit of action,” writes Holthaus.
Grist journalist Kate Yoder wrote, “For a long time, scientists have relied on a ‘deficit' model of communication. The idea is that if people are given enough facts and data about, say, climate change, then they'd accept the science— in a logical, rational way — and decide to take action. This idea isn't necessarily wrong, but it ignores the messiness of the world and the role that emotions play in guiding decisions.”
Kearns begins the book with a personal anecdote that changed the way she thought about science communication. After she and her colleagues gave a presentation on wildfire preparation to residents in Mendocino County, an emotional audience member explained to Kearns that he had labored to keep a recent wildfire from consuming his property and the way the researchers had presented their information without attention to the fact that a fire had just burned through the area had been re-traumatizing.
“Many communicators, including myself, have neglected other pieces of communicating that don't have to do with providing information,” Kearns said. “It's so important to know who you are in conversation with and what they've been through. Their history, communities, and personal experiences impact how they will receive scientific information. One of the most important skills you can have as a science communicator is to be able to listen well.”
Jonathan Wai reviewed Kearns' book in Science. He wrote: “The book offers a view from the front lines of science communication, profiling practitioners who explain their journeys and share stories of relationship building and community engagement. Framing herself as a scientist turned science communicator, Kearns describe her vision for the future of the field, one in which relational communication is fundamental.”
Kearns acknowledges in the preface that a single book cannot be all things to all people. “My hope is that I can fairly treat the argument that emotion, conflict, and power struggles are already present in science communication and engagement work and that ignoring them is counterproductive,” she wrote.
Getting to the Heart of Science Communication is written for science communicators and scientists working at research institutions, government agencies, consulting firms or nonprofit organizations. In addition, it will be of interest to those working with scientists including journalists and decision-makers. People interested in science will also find much to consider in this updated view of the science communication landscape.
The 280-page paperback is published by Island Press and can be ordered for $30 (use code HEART for a publisher discount) at https://islandpress.org/books/getting-heart-science-communication and wherever books are sold.
For more about science communication, see Kearns' blog at https://faithkearns.substack.com.
- Contact: Jeannette Warnert, (559) 240-9850, firstname.lastname@example.org
The findings suggest many models of wildfire predictions do not accurately account for anthropogenic factors and may therefore be misleading when identifying the main causes/drivers of wildfires. The newest model proportionately accounts for climate change and human behavioral threats and allows experts to more accurately predict how much land is at risk of burning in California through 2050, which is estimated at more than 7 million acres in the next 25 years.
Climate change affects the severity of the fire season and the amount and type of vegetation on the land, which are major variables in predicting wildfires. However, humans contribute another set of factors that influence wildfires, including where structures are built, and the frequency and location of ignitions from a variety of sources—everything from cigarettes on the highway, to electrical poles that get blown down in Santa Ana winds. As a result of the near-saturation of the landscape, humans are currently responsible for igniting more than 90 percent of the wildfires in California.
“Individuals don't have much control over how climate change will effect wildfires in the future. However, we do have the ability to influence the other half of the equation, those variables that control our impact on the landscape,” said Michal Mann, assistant professor of geography at George Washington University and lead author of the study. “We can reduce our risks by disincentivizing housing development in fire-prone areas, better managing public land, and rethinking the effectiveness of our current firefighting approach.”
The researchers found that by omitting the human influence on California wildfires, they were overstating the influence of climate change. The authors recommend considering climate change and human variables at the same time for future models.
“There is widespread agreement about the importance of climate on wildfire at relatively broad scales. At more local scales, however, you can get the story quite wrong if you don't include human development patterns,” said co-author Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension fire ecology specialist whose lab is at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is an important finding about how we model climate change effects, and it also confirms that getting a handle on where and how we build our communities is essential to limiting future losses.”
Between 1999 and 2011, California reported an average of $160 million in annual wildfire-related damages, with nearly 13,000 homes and other structures destroyed in so-called state responsibility areas - fire jurisdictions maintained by California, according to Mann. During this same period, California and the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $5 billion on wildfire suppression.
In a model from 2014 that examined California wildfires' destruction over the last 60 years, Dr. Mann estimated that fire damage will more than triple by mid-century, increasing to nearly half a billion dollars annually. “This information is critical to policymakers, planners, and fire managers, to determine wildfire risks,” he said.
The paper, “Incorporating Anthropogenic Influences into Fire Probability Models: Effects of Human Activity and Climate Change on Fire Activity in California,” published Thursday in PLOS ONE.
Press release written by Emily Grebenstein, George Washington University, email@example.com, 202-994-3087
The team found that earthworms do not, as was suspected, stimulate carbon sequestration in the soil, which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, they actually increase greenhouse gas emissions through a variety of ways.
"There was a hypothesis that earthworms were having a positive effect on the greenhouse balance, but they don't," said co-author Johan Six, a plant sciences professor at UC Davis during the study who is now a professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. "I would never say you have to take out the earthworms because of greenhouse gases. It's just that you cannot give them credit for reducing greenhouse gases."
The scientific team was led by Jan Willen van Groenigen of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and, along with UC Davis, included colleagues from Trinity College Dublin, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.
The team gathered all relevant published research to date: 57 different experiments.
The research team then employed a statistical technique called meta-analysis to discern overall patterns in the data.
They found that the presence of earthworms increased nitrous oxide emissions from soil by 42 percent and carbon dioxide emissions from soil by 33 percent. But they found no indications that earthworms affect soil organic carbon stocks -- the carbon stored within the soil.
According to the researchers, earthworms likely increase greenhouse gas emissions several ways: they mix organic plant residues in the soil, which may increase decomposition and carbon dioxide emissions; the earthworm gut acts as a microbial incubator, boosting the activity of nitrous oxide-producing microbes; and the earthworms, by burrowing through the soil, make it easier for greenhouse gases in the soil to escape into the atmosphere.
Small changes in soil greenhouse gas dynamics can have important repercussions for global warming, the researchers said. But lead author Ingrid Lubbers from Wageningen University said it is not yet clear to what extent the effects of earthworms on plant growth may negate earthworm-induced increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
"Our literature search also pointed out a large gap in the published studies," Lubbers said. "We need more experiments that include growing plants, as well as more long-term studies and more field studies before we can decide to what extent global worming leads to global warming."
- Author: Sarah Yang | Media Relations firstname.lastname@example.org, (510) 643-7741
One study, published online Monday, Aug. 6, in the journal Global Change Biology, finds that changes in precipitation have been underappreciated as a factor in driving bird species out of their normal range. In the other study, published today (Wednesday, Aug. 15) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers found a sharp decrease in range for the Belding's ground squirrel, but noted some surprising areas where the species found refuge.
The two studies exemplify the type of research being explored through the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology <http://ib.berkeley.edu/labs/globalchange>, or BiGCB, an ambitious effort to better understand and predict how plants and animals will respond to changing environmental conditions by studying how they have responded to earlier periods of climate change.
The first study’s findings challenge the conventional reliance on temperature as the only climate-related force impacting where species live. The authors noted that as many as 25 percent of species have shifted in directions that were not predicted in response to temperature changes, yet few attempts have been made to investigate this.
"Our results redefine the fundamental model of how species should respond to future climate change," said study lead author Morgan Tingley, who began the research as a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. "We find that precipitation changes can have a major, opposing influence to temperature in a species' range shift. Climate change may actually be tearing communities of organisms apart."
The findings are based upon data gathered from the Grinnell Resurvey Project, which retraces the steps of Joseph Grinnell, founder of the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, in his surveys of Sierra Nevada wildlife from the early 1900s. The resurvey project, which began in 2003, was led by Craig Moritz, former UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, and his colleagues at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.
For the bird study, the researchers included 99 species in 77 historic survey sites in Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, as well as in several national forests. In the century that has passed since the original Grinnell survey, summer and winter temperatures have increased an average of 1-2 degrees Celsius in the Sierra Nevada. Yosemite experienced the most warming — with average temperatures increasing by 3 degrees Celsius — while parts of Lassen actually got cooler and much wetter.
Among the bird species that moved upslope are the Savannah Sparrow, which shifted upward by 2,503 meters, and other meadow species such as the Red-winged Blackbird and Western Meadowlark. The ones that shifted their range downslope include both low-elevation species like the Ash-throated Flycatcher and Western Scrub-Jay, and high-elevation species like the Cassin’s Finch and Red-breasted Nuthatch.
"Temperature did not explain the majority of these shifts," said Tingley, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University's Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy. ''Only when we included precipitation as an explanatory variable did our models adequately explain the movement patterns we observed."
The researchers found that while rising temperatures tended to push birds to cooler regions upslope, increased precipitation, which is more common at higher elevations, pulled them downslope.
"We believe many species may feel this divergent pressure from temperature and precipitation, and in the end, only one wins," said Tingley.
Notably, more than half of the bird species in each of the three study regions did not shift their range despite pressures from climate change. "Moving is a sign of adaptation, which is good from a conservation standpoint," said Tingley. "More worrisome are the species that have not shifted. How are they adapting? Are they moving, but we just can’t detect it? Or are they slowly declining as environmental conditions gradually become less ideal where they live?"
The answers are complex, as illustrated by the second UC Berkeley paper about range changes for a species of squirrel found in the mountains of the western United States.
In that paper, researchers again used information obtained from the Grinnell Resurvey Project. Through visual observations and trapping surveys conducted throughout the mountains of California, they discovered that the Belding's ground squirrel had disappeared from 42 percent of the sites where they were recorded in the early 1900s. Extinctions were particularly common at sites with high average winter temperatures and large increases in precipitation over the last century.
"We were surprised to see such a dramatic decline in this species, which is well-known to Sierran hikers and was thought to be fairly common," said study lead author Toni Lyn Morelli, a former National Science Foundation postdoctoral researcher who was based at UC Berkeley. "In fact, the rate of decline is much greater than that seen in the same region for the pika, a small mountain-dwelling cousin of the rabbit that has become the poster child for the effects of climate warming in the contiguous United States."
Morelli added that the squirrels are thriving in areas that have been modified by humans. For example, irrigated Mono Lake County Park serves as an artificial oasis that sustains squirrel populations despite otherwise hot and dry conditions in eastern California.
"As predictions indicate that the range of the Belding’s ground squirrel could disappear out of California by the end of the century, these areas might be particularly important for this and other climate-impacted species," said Morelli, who is now a technical advisor for the U.S. Forest Service's International Programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Although the Belding's ground squirrel is widespread, the rapid decline in its distribution is of concern because it is an important source of food for raptors and carnivores. However, the paper suggests that even when climate change causes large range declines, some species can persist in human-modified areas.
"Taken together, these two studies indicate that many species have been responding to recent climate change, yet the complexities of a species' ecological needs and their responses to habitat modification by humans can result in unanticipated responses," said Steven Beissinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and the senior author on both studies. "This makes it very challenging for scientists to project how species will respond to future climate change."
Funding from the National Science Foundation, National Park Service, and California Landscape Conservation Cooperative helped support this research.
- Museum scientists to repeat landmark 80-year-old Yosemite wildlife survey <http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/08/05_survey.shtml> (UC Berkeley press release)
- Sierra Nevada birds move in response to warmer, wetter climate <http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/09/14_birds.shtml> (UC Berkeley press release)
- Grinnell Resurvey Project <http://mvz.berkeley.edu/Grinnell/>
- Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology <http://ib.berkeley.edu/labs/globalchange/>
- Author: Robert Sanders, (510) 643-6998, email@example.com
In a press announcement accompanying the release of the studies, Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird noted that “significant increases in wildfires, floods, severe storms, drought and heat waves are clear evidence that climate change is happening now. California is stepping up to lead the way in preparing for — and adapting to — this change. These reports use cutting-edge science to provide an analytical roadmap, pointing the way for taking concrete steps to protect our natural resources and all Californians.”
Laird and others appeared yesterday at a press conference in Sacramento, where Robert B. Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission, called the reports “historic” and praised the scientists who contributed.
“We scientists know that climate change is and will be significantly affecting the state’s energy supply and demand system,” he said. “The research in these assessments furthers our understanding of the impacts …. The challenges are enormous, but certainly this state has the capability to rise to those challenges, and with these types of studies we are going to be prepared. We will use these in the energy commission planning … to maintain a reliable grid, but also use this as a way of planning our research.”
Laird and Weisenmiller were joined at the press conference by Chief Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), who painted a grim picture of the state’s fire future. Of the 20 worst fires in California history, 11 have occurred since 2002, he said. The fire season in some areas has increased by an average of two months, and a few areas in Southern California now have a year-round fire season.
“Studies like those being released today are key in helping us move forward to prepare California” to deal with these large and damaging fires, said Pimlott.
State’s fire season longer, fires more intense
UC Berkeley fire expert Max Moritz, who contributed a paper about increased vulnerability to wildland fires in the state, has been warning of increasing fire danger for years.
“Our results reveal that California should prepare — regardless of the future we may face climatically — for quite different fire activity levels in the future,” said Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. “Though our models continue to improve, we still don’t know which future climate scenario will actually emerge. The challenge is to learn to ‘coexist’ with this natural hazard and move toward fire-resilient ecosystems and fire-resistant urban development.”
Speaking for the more than 120 scientists in 26 teams who contributed to the studies, Susanne Moser, a Social Science Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said that the report “spells out our new understanding of what climate change might mean to California. We are trying to inform the public, we are trying to inform the decision makers, with valuable information that they can use in … planning.”
The reports represent the third assessment commissioned by the California Climate Change Center since 2006, following up on discussions and topics presented at the Governor’s Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future held last December in San Francisco. The new studies will provide a foundation for the 2012 Climate Adaptation Strategy, which is expected to be completed in December 2012.
David Ackerly, who co-authored three of the papers released yesterday, provided a new vegetation map that will allow planners to see how the Bay Area will likely change in the future.
“The big result that comes out of the models — and we have to remember that they are models — is a very wide expansion of chaparral and the loss of the cooler oak woodlands. And as climate change becomes more extreme, the Bay Area looks more and more like Santa Barbara or areas farther south, and the vegetation begins to look like Southern California, which is mostly scrublands,” said Ackerly, a professor of integrative biology. “That could take a hundred years or more, but the short-term result is that the dead trees become a fire danger and alien weeds invade.”
The short-term impacts are the most uncertain, he said, though UC Berkeley scientists hope to fill in these gaps through a broad research effort, the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology.
“We hope to answer the question, ‘How fast can these changes really occur?’” he said.
Ackerly said that through his reports, which synthesized previous and ongoing research, he particularly wanted to link the expected decline of biodiversity throughout the state with a more visible impact on the ecosystem services people take for granted. The predicted march of desert northward into the San Joaquin Valley will make some areas unsuitable for agriculture, for example, while warmer winters may mean that plums and peaches will not get the winter chill they need to produce fruit.
“This is not merely nature for nature’s sake; nature and the services we expect from nature are all connected,” he said.
Gov. Jerry Brown is listening to these reports, according to Ken Alex, Brown’s senior policy advisor and director of the Office of Planning and Research, who also spoke at the press conference.
“Here in California, we do make policy decisions based on the science,” he said. “Gov. Brown actually reads the science, and he takes it very seriously, and I know that at a very deeply personal level, he wants to do something about climate change and wants to see California take the leadership role.”
The 26 teams submitting reports were led by researchers from around the state, including 15 from UC Berkeley, 19 from other UC campuses and two from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For highlights from the reports, link to the CEC’s press release (PDF). To download the full reports, link to CEC’s website.
“The incredible breadth of studies, as well as the depth of their analyses, reveals just how much the University of California has to offer in preparing us all to adapt to a changing climate,” Moritz added. “Hopefully, it also demonstrates how important it is to grow this scientific capacity within our public university system.”