In my last conversation with my grandpa, he spoke his mind on climate change.
One by one, grizzled outdoorsmen stood up, while turning their leathered faces downward and choking back their tears. They spoke of my grandpa with reverence — using words like “my hero.”
They seemed to be the type of men who meant precisely what they said.
All the legends about Dick Mozzetti were true. Once, he physically subdued a furious wolf that was caught in one of his beaver traps, just so he could set it free.
He had narrow escapes from literal thin ice. He was charged by a bull moose.
Because he was arguably the most successful charter fishing captain on Lake Superior for multiple decades running, it is not hyperbole to say it’s possible he caught more fish out of that Great Lake than any other single person in human history.
He also taught me how to shoot a gun, how to drive a truck, and how to remove the razor-sharp fish hook that is lodged in one’s left hand.
He came to watch my high school basketball games — and he told me that I needed to FOUL MORE.
The last conversation we had was in early 2018, as I sat next to his hospital bed. I was nearing the completion of my Ph.D. — and I was telling him about my research: developing strategies for communicating science.
In some ways, my apple is not far from his tree. He had mastered his own unique way of communicating science.
For decades, he had taught 5th-grade science. No one forgot Mr. Mozzetti’s classroom — it was the one filled with animal skeletons, live snakes, and jars of bugs.
One year, a friend of his had raised a mountain lion to adulthood. So, without hesitation, my grandpa brought it in to school. (This was back before you would get promptly fired for such things).
The kids all took turns petting it.
The mountain lion was enjoying the playtime so much that, at the end of the day, its owner had to drag it out the door on its haunches like a stubborn mule.
I think my grandpa communicated science this way because that is how he himself understood it best: By seeing it and touching it.
Even in his 70s, he was spending more than 250 days per year hunting, fishing, or trapping. He understood North American wildlife and their habitats at an intimate level that is difficult to translate into words and impossible to glean from an ecology textbook.
But still, I winced when our conversation turned to a primary focus of my research: climate change.
He was definitely not a tree-hugger. Actually, he wasn’t much of a hugger at all.
And he often voiced opinions that were as strong as his handshake — especially on political issues like immigration, the criminal justice system, and gun control.
I liked his handshake, but often disagreed with his opinions.
But then, right there in that hospital room, he turned to me and spoke with a firmness that could make Clint Eastwood fold his cards.
“If you don’t think there is climate change, then you are a fool.”
He wasn’t one for subtlety.
“I would know,” he said. “And I’ve seen it.”
He told me how he’s noticed that fish that prefer cold temperatures are now being caught at much lower depths than normal. Many animals are migrating and hibernating far later in the fall, and returning far earlier in the spring. Some species that used to only be seen in Southern Minnesota and Iowa are now venturing far north near the Canadian border. And — most of all — the winters have less snow.
This was my last conversation with him.
And I remember being struck by how his understanding of climate change was so tangible and first-hand.
See, I get my confidence from the mountain of data assembled by other scientists. But that kind of evidence can sometimes feel abstract.
In contrast, Dick Mozzetti had gathered his own data — which is maybe the only evidence he would fully trust.
This land was his home, his office, his playground, and his love.
He had seen it change. It was as simple as that.
To him, seeing and touching was the best way to learn about Science.
And the best way for a room of 10-year-olds to learn about mountain lions.
There are many Americans who have a deep love and respect for the outdoors. Yet many of them are still disengaged or doubtful when it comes to climate change.
This presents a golden opportunity for science communicators — because pro-climate action aligns with many of their core values. In fact, mitigating climate change is nothing short of necessary for preserving the beauty and health of the wildlife and ecosystems that are valued by so many.
In short, taking action on climate change is in everyone’s best interest — but especially so for those who hunt, fish, camp, paddle, hike, and are otherwise enjoying the natural world. We can all be on the same side here.
I didn’t have the heart to tell my grandpa that calling people “fools” is a foolish way to do science communication.
He would probably retort that I need to foul more.
Dr. Abel Gustafson is a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University in the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He specializes in developing communication strategies for topics related to climate change, sustainability, and clean energy.