OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

AGU Talk: Science of Climate Change Needs to Scale Down to Community Level

12/11/2007

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – An Oregon scientist and outreach specialist who has spent part of the past three years working with community leaders in the Pacific Northwest on climate change issues says a majority of the public has accepted the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing.

Now, he says, it is time for scientists and funding agencies to increase research that focuses more on adapting to climate change rather than on mitigating gas emissions – and at a local or regional level to help local communities develop climate change preparedness plans.

“As researchers, we need to better tailor our science and advice to the needs of our local communities,” said Michael Harte, a professor and Extension specialist in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. “Climate change is a global issue, but the specific impacts – and strategies to cope with them – will be local and that’s where our help is urgently needed.”

In a talk this week at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Harte challenged scientists to use their expertise to provide climate information that is relevant to the needs of communities – and to do it credibly, without resorting to “doom-and-gloom” scenarios.

“People only have so much capacity to be scared,” Harte said. “If you live in a coastal community that has lost federal subsidies for its forestry industry, and your local library has closed and there isn’t adequate money to run your schools, how worried are you going to be when an international panel proclaims global sea levels will rise in the next century? This information is far too general, and too far in the future for most people to worry about.

“But if you talk about past sea level rises – and about predicted rises for their coast over the next 20 years – and you’re living in a community that gets its water from a coastal aquifer, or you have an aging sewage system or aging flood protection dikes, the impacts become more real. Getting science down to that scale is the challenge.”

Harte is the director of the Marine Resource Management Program at Oregon State, where he also works as an Extension specialist for Oregon Sea Grant. He has traveled to communities throughout the Northwest listening to the concerns of local leaders related to climate change and asking what they need in terms of scientific information.

He and his co-author, Denise Lach, a sociologist at OSU, have found that information needs vary with location, which is why scientists need to scale down their research.

“People living on the coast want to know how great coastal erosion will be if predictions of higher sea levels, stronger winds, and more intense storms are true,” Harte pointed out. “Fishermen want to know if they should continue to fish for salmon, or switch to sardines. In inland communities, water is the main issue. Farmers want to know if drought is a more distinct possibility and whether they should invest in more expensive, but less wasteful irrigation systems.

“This is the level at which climate change is real to people,” Harte added. “It’s where it strikes them in everyday life.”

Scientific credibility is critical in working at the community level, Harte told scientists at the AGU meeting. Over-emphasizing the impacts of climate change, or ignoring historic variability, will quickly erode that credibility, he added.

“Coastal residents have seen erosion and big storms, and people living in the Coast Range have seen or heard about large wildfires,” Harte said. “Floods happen and drought happens. Pointing out that these extreme events are likely to occur more frequently with climate change is a message that is credible.

“It’s also okay to admit what we as scientists don’t know,” he added. “We can predict more rain, but we’re not yet sure about where and when. Our models say the snowpack will decrease, but how much and how soon is open to debate. We need to take our models and make them as relevant as possible, as reliable as possible, and make sure we don’t oversell our findings.”

Note to Reporters: Michael Harte will be in San Francisco from Dec. 9-14, but is available to talk by cell phone. To contact him, call Mark Floyd at 541-737-0788.