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Bridie McGreavy and David Hart
Direct experience, scientific reports, and international media coverage make clear that the breadth, severity, and multiple consequences from climate change are far-reaching and increasing. Like many places globally, the northeastern United States is already experiencing climate change, including one of the world’s highest rates of ocean warming, reduced durations of winter ice cover on lakes, a marked increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events, and climate-mediated ecological disruptions of invasive species. Given current and projected changes in ecosystems, communities, and economies, it is essential to find ways to anticipate and reduce vulnerabilities to change and, at the same time, promote sustainable economic development and human well-being.
The emerging field of sustainability science offers a promising conceptual and analytic framework for accelerating progress towards sustainable development. Sustainability science aims to be use-inspired and to connect basic and applied knowledge with solutions for societal benefit. This approach draws from diverse disciplines, theories, and methods organized around the broad goal of maintaining and improving life support systems, ecosystem health, and human well-being. Partners in New England have been using sustainability science as a framework for stakeholder-engaged, interdisciplinary research that has generated use-inspired knowledge and multiple solutions for more than a decade. Sustainability science has helped produce a landscape-scale approach to wetland conservation; emergency response plans for invasive species that threaten livelihoods and cultures; decision support tools for improved water quality management and public health for beach use and shellfish consumption; and the development of robust partnership networks across disciplines and institutions. Understanding and reducing vulnerability to climate change is a central motivating factor in this portfolio of projects because linking knowledge about social-ecological systems with effective policy action requires a holistic view that addresses complex intersecting stressors.
One common theme in these varied efforts is the way that communication fundamentally shapes collaborative research and social, technical, and policy outcomes from sustainability science. Communication as a discipline has, for more than two thousand years, sought to understand how environments and symbols shape human life, forms of social organization, and collective decision making. The result is a body of scholarship and practical techniques that are diverse and well adapted to meet the complexity of contemporary sustainability challenges. The complexity of the issues that sustainability science aspires to solve requires diversity and flexibility to be able to adapt approaches to the specific needs of a situation. Long-term, cross-scale, and multi-institutional sustainability science collaborations show that communication research and practice can help build communities and networks, and advance technical and policy solutions to confront the challenges of climate change and promote sustainability now and in future.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Dramatic climate changes have occurred in the Baltic Sea region caused by changes in orbital movement in the earth–sun system and the melting of the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet. Added to these longer-term changes, changes have occurred at all timescales, caused mainly by variations in large-scale atmospheric pressure systems due to competition between the meandering midlatitude low-pressure systems and high-pressure systems. Here we follow the development of climate science of the Baltic Sea since observations started in the 18th century to the present. The question of why the water level is sinking around the Baltic Sea coasts could not be answered until the idea of postglacial uplift and the thermal history of the earth were better understood in the 19th century and periodic behavior in time series attracted scientific interest. Herring and sardine fishing successes and failures have led to investigations of fishery and climate change and to the realization that fisheries themselves have strongly negative effects on the marine environment, calling for international assessment efforts. Scientists later introduced the concept of regime shifts when interpreting their data, attributing these to various causes. The increasing amount of anoxic deep water in the Baltic Sea and anthropogenic eutrophication have prompted debate about what is natural and what is anthropogenic, and the scientific outcome of these debates now forms the basis of international management efforts to reduce nutrient leakage from land. The observed increase in atmospheric CO2 and its effects on global warming have focused the climate debate on trends and generated a series of international and regional assessments and research programs that have greatly improved our understanding of climate and environmental changes, bolstering the efforts of earth system science, in which both climate and environmental factors are analyzed together.
In regions such as the Baltic Sea, attributing the causes of climate variability and change has been hampered by the spatial and temporal limitations of observations and by an incomplete understanding of driving mechanisms, leaving room for speculation as to both the reasons for changes and the role of the climate in them. Major achievements of past centuries were developing and organizing regular observation and monitoring programs. The free availability of data sets has supported the development of more accurate forcing functions for Baltic Sea models and made it possible to better model the Baltic Sea–North Sea system, including the development of coupled land–sea–atmosphere models. Most indirect and direct observations of the climate find great variability and stochastic behavior, so conclusions based on short time series are problematic, leading to qualifications about periodicity, trends, and regime shifts. Starting in the 1980s, systematic research into climate change has considerably improved our understanding of regional warming and multiple threats to the Baltic Sea. Several aspects of regional climate and environmental changes and how they interact are, however, unknown and merit future research.
Martin Claussen, Anne Dallmeyer, and Jürgen Bader
There is ample evidence from palaeobotanic and palaeoclimatic reconstructions that during early and mid-Holocene between some 11,700 years (in some regions, a few thousand years earlier) and some 4200 years ago, subtropical North Africa was much more humid and greener than today. This African Humid Period (AHP) was triggered by changes in the orbital forcing, with the climatic precession as the dominant pacemaker. Climate system modeling in the 1990s revealed that orbital forcing alone cannot explain the large changes in the North African summer monsoon and subsequent ecosystem changes in the Sahara. Feedbacks between atmosphere, land surface, and ocean were shown to strongly amplify monsoon and vegetation changes. Forcing and feedbacks have caused changes far larger in amplitude and extent than experienced today in the Sahara and Sahel. Most, if not all, climate system models, however, tend to underestimate the amplitude of past African monsoon changes and the extent of the land-surface changes in the Sahara. Hence, it seems plausible that some feedback processes are not properly described, or are even missing, in the climate system models.
Perhaps even more challenging than explaining the existence of the AHP and the Green Sahara is the interpretation of data that reveal an abrupt termination of the last AHP. Based on climate system modeling and theoretical considerations in the late 1990s, it was proposed that the AHP could have ended, and the Sahara could have expanded, within just a few centuries—that is, much faster than orbital forcing. In 2000, paleo records of terrestrial dust deposition off Mauritania seemingly corroborated the prediction of an abrupt termination. However, with the uncovering of more paleo data, considerable controversy has arisen over the geological evidence of abrupt climate and ecosystem changes. Some records clearly show abrupt changes in some climate and terrestrial parameters, while others do not. Also, climate system modeling provides an ambiguous picture.
The prediction of abrupt climate and ecosystem changes at the end of the AHP is hampered by limitations implicit in the climate system. Because of the ubiquitous climate variability, it is extremely unlikely that individual paleo records and model simulations completely match. They could do so in a statistical sense, that is, if the statistics of a large ensemble of paleo data and of model simulations converge. Likewise, the interpretation regarding the strength of terrestrial feedback from individual records is elusive. Plant diversity, rarely captured in climate system models, can obliterate any abrupt shift between green and desert state. Hence, the strength of climate—vegetation feedback is probably not a universal property of a certain region but depends on the vegetation composition, which can change with time. Because of spatial heterogeneity of the African landscape and the African monsoon circulation, abrupt changes can occur in several, but not all, regions at different times during the transition from the humid mid-Holocene climate to the present-day more arid climate. Abrupt changes in one region can be induced by abrupt changes in other regions, a process sometimes referred to as “induced tipping.” The African monsoon system seems to be prone to fast and potentially abrupt changes, which to understand and to predict remains one of the grand challenges in African climate science.
Neil T. Gavin
Television and cable are two routes by which broadcasters reach the public. Citizens are known to rely on a variety of media sources; however, television is seen by people in a very wide range of geographical locales, as a main or major source of reliable and trusted information. The coverage of climate change by broadcasters is, however, modest relative to press coverage of the topic and reports on topics other than global warming. Journalists in the televisual media can struggle to justify the inclusion of climate change in programming because it can lack the “newsworthiness” that draws editors and reporters to other issues. A range of incentives and pressures have tended to ensure that commentary and claims that stand outside the scientific consensus are represented in “balanced” reporting. The literature on broadcast programming output on climate change is highly diverse and often country specific. Nevertheless, certain features do stand out across locales, notably a focus on alarming (and possibly alarmist) commentary, limited reporting on the causes and consequences of climate change, and widespread reproduction of climate sceptic claims. These common forms of coverage seem unlikely to prompt full understanding of, serious engagement with, or concern about the issue.
Edward Maibach, Bernadette Woods Placky, Joe Witte, Keith Seitter, Ned Gardiner, Teresa Myers, Sean Sublette, and Heidi Cullen
Global climate change is influencing the weather in every region of the United States, often in harmful ways. Yet, like people in many countries, most Americans view climate change as a threat that is distant in space (i.e., not here), time (i.e., not now), and species (i.e., not us). To manage risk and avoid harm, it is imperative that the public, professionals, and policy-makers make decisions with an informed understanding of our changing climate. In the United States, broadcast meteorologists are ideally positioned to educate Americans about the current and projected impacts of climate change in their community. They have tremendous reach, are trusted sources of climate information, and are highly skilled science communicators. When our project began in 2009, we learned that many U.S.-based TV weathercasters were potentially interested in reporting on climate change, but few actually were, citing significant barriers including a lack of time to prepare and air stories, and lack of access to high-quality content that can be rapidly used in their broadcasts, social media, and community presentations. To test the premise that TV weathercasters can be effective climate educators—if supported with high-quality localized climate communication content—in 2010 George Mason University, Climate Central, and WLTX-TV (Columbia, SC) developed and pilot-tested Climate Matters, a series of short on-air (and online) segments about the local impacts of climate change, delivered by the station’s chief meteorologist. During the first year, more than a dozen stories aired. To formally evaluate Climate Matters, we conducted pre- and post-test surveys of local TV news viewers in Columbia. After one year, WLTX viewers had developed a more science-based understanding of climate change than viewers of other local news stations, confirming our premise that when TV weathercasters report on the local implications of climate change, their viewers learn. Through a series of expansions, including the addition of important new partners—the American Meteorological Society, National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Yale University—Climate Matters has become a comprehensive nationwide climate communication resource program for American broadcast meteorologists. As of March 2016, 313 local weathercasters nationwide (at 202 stations in 111 media markets) are participating in the program, receiving new content on a weekly basis. Some leaders in the World Meteorological Organization are now promoting the concept of “TV weather presenters as climate change communicators,” and collaborative discussions are underway with Climate Central. In this article, we review the theoretical basis of the program, detail its development and national scale-up, and conclude with insights for how to develop climate communication initiatives for other professional communities of practice in the U.S. and other countries.
International climate negotiations seek to limit warming to an average of two degrees Celsius (2°C). This objective is justified by the claim that scientists have identified two degrees of warming as the point at which climate change becomes dangerous. Climate scientists themselves maintain that while science can provide projections of possible impacts at different levels of warming, determining what constitutes an acceptable level of risk is not a matter to be decided by science alone, but is a value choice to be deliberated upon by societies as a whole. Hence, while climate science can inform debates about how much warming is too much, it cannot provide a definitive answer to that question. In order to fully understand how climate change came to be defined as a phenomenon with a single global dangerous limit of 2°C, it is necessary to incorporate insights from the social sciences.
Political economy, culture, economics, sociology, geography, and social psychology have all played a role in defining what constitutes an acceptable level of climate risk. These perspectives can be applied through the framework of institutional analysis to examine reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other international organizations. This interdisciplinary approach offers the potential to provide a comprehensive history of how climate science has been interpreted in policy making. An interdisciplinary analysis is also essential in order to move beyond historical description to provide a narrative of considerable explanatory power. Such insights offer a valuable framework for considering current debates about whether or not it will be possible to limit warming to 2°C.
An orbitally induced increase in summer insolation during the last glacial-interglacial transition enhanced the thermal contrast between land and sea, with land masses heating up compared to the adjacent ocean surface. In North Africa, warmer land surfaces created a low-pressure zone, driving the northward penetration of monsoonal rains originating from the Atlantic Ocean. As a consequence, regions today among the driest of the world were covered by permanent and deep freshwater lakes, some of them being exceptionally large, such as the “Mega” Lake Chad, which covered some 400 000 square kilometers. A dense network of rivers developed.
What were the consequences of this climate change on plant distribution and biodiversity? Pollen grains that accumulated over time in lake sediments are useful tools to reconstruct past vegetation assemblages since they are extremely resistant to decay and are produced in great quantities. In addition, their morphological character allows the determination of most plant families and genera.
In response to the postglacial humidity increase, tropical taxa that survived as strongly reduced populations during the last glacial period spread widely, shifting latitudes or elevations, expanding population size, or both. In the Saharan desert, pollen of tropical trees (e.g., Celtis) were found in sites located at up to 25°N in southern Libya. In the Equatorial mountains, trees (e.g., Olea and Podocarpus) migrated to higher elevations to form the present-day Afro-montane forests. Patterns of migration were individualistic, with the entire range of some taxa displaced to higher latitudes or shifted from one elevation belt to another. New combinations of climate/environmental conditions allowed the cooccurrences of taxa growing today in separate regions. Such migrational processes and species-overlapping ranges led to a tremendous increase in biodiversity, particularly in the Saharan desert, where more humid-adapted taxa expanded along water courses, lakes, and wetlands, whereas xerophytic populations persisted in drier areas.
At the end of the Holocene era, some 2,500 to 4,500 years ago, the majority of sites in tropical Africa recorded a shift to drier conditions, with many lakes and wetlands drying out. The vegetation response to this shift was the overall disruption of the forests and the wide expansion of open landscapes (wooded grasslands, grasslands, and steppes). This environmental crisis created favorable conditions for further plant exploitation and cereal cultivation in the Congo Basin.
Robyn S. Wilson, Sarah M. McCaffrey, and Eric Toman
Throughout the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, risks associated with wildfire were addressed by suppressing fires as quickly as possible. However, by the 1960s, it became clear that fire exclusion policies were having adverse effects on ecological health, as well as contributing to larger and more damaging wildfires over time. Although federal fire policy has changed to allow fire to be used as a management tool on the landscape, this change has been slow to take place, while the number of people living in high-risk wildland–urban interface communities continues to increase. Under a variety of climate scenarios, in particular for states in the western United States, it is expected that the frequency and severity of fires will continue to increase, posing even greater risks to local communities and regional economies.
Resource managers and public safety officials are increasingly aware of the need for strategic communication to both encourage appropriate risk mitigation behavior at the household level, as well as build continued public support for the use of fire as a management tool aimed at reducing future wildfire risk. Household decision making encompasses both proactively engaging in risk mitigation activities on private property, as well as taking appropriate action during a wildfire event to protect personal safety. Very little research has directly explored the connection between climate-related beliefs, wildfire risk perception, and action; however, the limited existing research suggests that climate-related beliefs have little direct effect on wildfire-related action. Instead, action appears to depend on understanding the benefits of different mitigation actions and in engaging the public in interactive, participatory communication programs that build trust between the public and natural resource managers. A relatively new line of research focuses on resource managers as critical decision makers in the risk management process, pointing to the need to thoughtfully engage audiences other than the lay public to improve risk management.
Ultimately, improving the decision making of both the public and managers charged with mitigating the risks associated with wildfire can be achieved by carefully addressing several common themes from the literature. These themes are to (1) promote increased efficacy through interactive learning, (2) build trust and capacity through social interaction, (3) account for behavioral constraints and barriers to action, and (4) facilitate thoughtful consideration of risk-benefit tradeoffs. Careful attention to these challenges will improve the likelihood of successfully managing the increasing risks that wildfire poses to the public and ecosystems alike in a changing climate.
Maria Ojala and Yuliya Lakew
One important group to include in efforts to combat climate change is young people. This group comprises the future leaders of society, besides being citizens of today, and they will be the ones handling the future negative consequences of this global problem. This article provides an overview of some research about climate change communication and young people. The aim is to gain a better understanding of how this group relates to and communicates about climate change in different contexts, and how to best promote knowledge, a sense of efficacy, and engagement concerning this problem. The focus is on young people who are between late childhood and young adulthood. Questions in focus are: How do media messages about climate change influence young people, and how do they themselves use media, for instance social networks, to engage with this issue? Can art-based and entertainment approaches to communication overcome the distant and complex character of climate change and make young people feel more empowered and engaged? Is it possible to communicate about climate change and raise awareness by promoting contact with nature and animals? How do young people cope with the negative emotions that are often evoked by information about this problem? In what way do young people communicate in everyday life with parents, peers, and teachers about climate change? Are participatory approaches to climate change communication a good way to prepare young people for future extreme climate events?
A great deal of learning takes place outside of the standard curriculum. School-based education is often insufficient to address climate change; many schools do little to cover the topic, perhaps out of the desire to avoid political controversy. This leaves social media, mainstream news media, and informal learning environments to cover the gap. Although social media and mainstream news media can be politically polarized, science museums, zoos, and other informal learning environments draw a broad and diverse audience, and are generally trusted by people across the political spectrum. This makes them an important location for climate change education.
Informal learning environments are settings outside traditional educational institutions in which information is communicated. Environments such as zoos and nature centers, which provide information about animals, ecology, and the natural environment, have several attributes that are important to their role in climate change communication. One significant feature is that they are social contexts, in which social interaction is both expected and encouraged. If the people who are encountering the message talk to each other about it, they can develop a shared understanding of, and response to, the content. The social experiences provide an opportunity to affirm shared values for nature, and understandings of the potential impacts of climate change.
Another key characteristic of these environments is that they have at least a minimal entertainment function along with the education function. People are required to attend formal educational settings, at least within certain parameters, but informal settings are usually optional. That means that those who run the sites have to think about ways to encourage attendance, by providing an emotionally engaging experience. The personal experience of curiosity, awe, and connection to nature can be dramatic, as can be seen by observing visitors at a zoo exhibit. Such connections can provide a powerful basis for empathy, a precursor to concern about the impacts of climate change on animals and ecosystems.
Climate literacy requires “an understanding of your influence on climate and climate’s influence on you and society” (U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), 2009, p. 4). Such an understanding can be frightening if people feel helpless. In addition to providing information about climate change, informal learning environments can do more to overcome denial. Well-constructed exhibits can promote concern through interest and engagement. But they also need to avoid a message that is too pessimistic. Beyond this, informal learning centers should take advantage of their social context. The very experience of learning about climate change in an institutional setting can empower visitors, who can feel reassured that society acknowledges the issue, cares about it, and has suggestions for effective action.
After reviewing aspects of environmental learning and the ways in which it occurs in informal settings, this chapter will present some suggestions about how zoos and other science museums can more effectively capitalize on their strengths to communicate with the public about climate change.