From climate communication to engagement: The 1.5 Degrees Series at Mt Baker Ski Area

Over the last five months, I have facilitated a partnership between the Future of Ice Initiative at the University of Washington and Mt. Baker Ski Area. Here’s what it was like to step out of the academic tower and into my ski boots.

In October of 2015, I sat on the phone for 2 hours with Gwyn Howat, the Mt. Baker Ski Area Operations Manager. “Well, what do you know about El Niño then…” Gwyn said skeptically. “Umm, well…” I said, scanning my inner catalogue — I know a lot about El Niño, but mostly about the consequences to ocean ecosystems and maritime climate. There I was, a paleoceanographer and marine ecologist, trying to talk about climate change and snowpack to, arguably, one of the most powerful women in the Pacific Northwest.

How did I get here? To start, I’m a fifth generation Washingtonian — I’ve skied at Mt. Baker since 1987. And, I’m a postdoctoral scholar at the Future of Ice Initiative at the University of Washington. When I returned home to Washington, what I really wanted to do (beyond sking all. the. time.) was to contribute to climate engagement in the PNW. So, I called Gwyn.

I may or may not have grown up in one-piece ski outfits. Yes, this is my family. Yes, my dad grows a moustache like a boss. Luckily you can still shred in a one-piece….. (photo is from ~1992)

On the other end of the spectrum, I also had to approach the leadership of the Future of Ice Initiative with this crazy idea….scientists? ski area? climate change lectures for a recreational audience? Yep. It was a little out of the box, and the idea was warmly and enthusiastically embraced by the leadership (thank you FoI).

I think — coming from a climate communication viewpoint — the platform that built the whole partnership was trust. This is where we as scientists often do not get the memo — trust is built on shared values. Such human values will always eclipse the importance or message of the basic science. And, in turn, the Future of Ice leadership had to trust me and how I would represent the scientific institution to the broader community: not an insignificant task.

Here is video shot of Gwyn and myself — watch our conversation and you’ll hear a very clear values-based message. As I said to Gwyn, we all want to eat salmon and ski with our kids in the future. And, in a future of abrupt climate warming, these things are on the table to be sacrificed. This is why we in academia have a cultural role to play — the information that we generate is not ours. We have a responsibility to deliver information to the communities who need it the most.

After talking with Gwyn on the phone, meeting with her in Bellingham, pitching possible speakers, and developing example calendars, we finally lifted the project off the ground — but it was yet to have a name. Some time in mid-December, after #COP21, I opened my email inbox to a message with the series title: The 1.5 Degrees Series. I was shocked. The title is an homage to the ambitious temperature target set in the Paris Agreement. For the ski area to commit to such an aggressive title was a huge cultural statement — it sends a message that, I hope, will have major reverberations for years to come.

Eric and Gwyn talk about the problems and solutions that revolve around the large issues of climate change, personal responsibility and political engagement

Now for the fun part. Gwyn came to UW and filmed short conversations with Eric Steig, Cecilia Bitz, Nick Bond, and Daniel Schindler. The series was picked up, blogged, and tweeted by the University of Washington (importantly for other scientists — this happened because I cold-called the UW communications office). An excellent piece of science journalism came out about the series in Crosscut. And, we had 50–60 people in the audience for each talk. Killer.

Here is my take-home message for other climate science communicators: this kind of work is hard, rewarding, and really unclear how to do. There is no roadmap for forging these kind of partnerships — mistakes are definitely bound to happen and you need resilience, leadership and vision to do this work. And, you need to know what your own motivations are, so that you can come forward with integrity and clear messaging around your value system. Honestly, from the place of privilege that I sit in, I think that I might just go crazy if I didn’t have an outlet to contribute to climate engagement here in the PNW. The cognitive dissonance is too great, the moral quagmire too sticky, the heartbreak too real.

Below are videos and pictures from the speaker series. Thank you to everyone that participated — it was a total blast.

Cecilia Bitz and Gwyn Howat talk about snow adventures and polar science
Cecilia, Gwyn and me riding out on a snowmobile. Not fun at all.
Daniel Schindler and Gwyn Howat talk about why snow is actually salmon habitat
Nick Bond (who was soaked from biking in the rain to work) and Gwyn Howat talk about ENSO and climate variability in the PNW
Still not having any fun — Nick, Gwyn and me on a snowmobile