Adapting to Climate Change in Alaska
In the first of three posts, an ecologist looks at how citizens and planners are responding to the threat
By Lauren E. Oakes | July 16, 2019
[NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts on adapting to climate change by Lauren E. Oakes originally published at Scientific American. Some of the content is adapted from Oakes’s book In Search of the Canary Tree (Basic Books, 2018)]
“When you think about this problem, what’s your outlook-there’s not much we can do; there’s some things we can do; I don’t know if there’s anything we can do; there’s a lot of things we can do?”
In the off-grid homes of Alaskan hunters, naturalists and Native weavers —and in the offices of land managers working in America’s largest national forest — I asked this question over and over again. We were talking about climate change.
The answers were across the board:
“There are some things we can do. I would hope that there’s more we can do if we discover even better, cheaper energy sources.”
“There’s a lot we can do, and we’re not doing it.”
“I’m an optimist. There are a lot of things we can do. Politics and greed can get in the way of making some of the tough decisions we need to make as a country and as a world. But we’re already seeing some recognize, from a social standpoint and an environmental standpoint, businesses have a role to play.”
“I don’t think there’s anything I can do.”
Places close to our poles are getting hotter quicker. Temperature increases in the north have doubled the global average since the mid-20th century. As a young scientist pursuing my PhD, I thought that understanding the ways in which the old-growth forests of southeast Alaska were changing, and how people were coping with those changes, could provide insight into how people might respond to climate change in other parts of the world.
Places close to our poles are getting hotter quicker. Temperature increases in the north have doubled the global average since the mid-20th century.
In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore rejected adaptation as “a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skin.” The argument was a call to cut emissions, but it rested on the perception that adapting would be failure. Nearly three decades later, as wildfires and drought events hit hard and the emissions persist, it’s becoming the imperative.
I did, in fact, make scientific discoveries from my research in Alaska. From thousands of plant measurements, I found forests flourishing again in the wake of the dead and dying yellow cedar, a species impacted by climate change. From hours of interviews with Alaskans who value this tree, I found a community of people developing new relationships with the emerging environment.
Any scientist will tell you that some questions linger.
“When you think about this problem that concerns you, what’s your outlook?”
I never used the data from the outlook question in any paper that I published. When I tested for what might cause someone to feel like there’s still so much we can do in the face of climate change or totally hopeless, I found nothing. The scientist in me said, “Well, maybe the sample size was too small. Maybe if I designed a new, large-scale survey of citizens who are knowledgeable about climate change and its effects, then I’d get a better understanding of the future outlooks they hold, how they live their days-what they do or don’t do.”
“That’s what I like about Greta Thurberg’s approach: ‘I want you to panic,’ she says. ‘Our house in on fire.’ You would be crazy not to panic.”
I remember lying in bed the night after my doctoral defense, thinking maybe those questions lay outside the realm of science. And maybe they should reside outside the realm of science. If I couldn’t predict who held an optimistic outlook and who embraced the doom and gloom, that could also mean we each have a choice. I have a choice.
In the face of the daunting news headlines and dark future projections, I still want to know what leads some people to innovate and take action, while others do nothing at all. Awareness is increasing, but it’s only action that can alter the future trajectory.
Nearly 20 years ago, Anja Kollmuss, now a climate policy analyst, published a seminal paper that explained the troubling chasm between knowledge of environmental problems and what researchers call “pro-environmental behavior” — actions like recycling to address waste problems, or reducing water use to combat drought. Knowledge alone wasn’t enough to motivate action.
When I recently asked Kollmuss how she thinks of her earlier work in the context of climate change today, she said that she could only hypothesize: the people taking action, in whatever form, simply feel it’s the right thing to do.
“Some degree of denial about the scale of the challenge and action required can be useful, she argued, as it enables people to focus on addressing one component of the issue.”
“It’s an incredibly complex problem that permeates every level of life and society,” she told me. Some degree of denial about the scale of the challenge and action required can be useful, she argued, as it enables people to focus on addressing one component of the issue. “And it would be naive to think there’s one way to address it. We need them all.”
“What about optimism versus pessimism? What about hope?” I asked.
“Hope minimizes the urgency and severity of the issue. It lulls people into a false reality, which we don’t have. That’s what I like about Greta Thurberg’s approach: ‘I want you to panic,’ she says. ‘Our house in on fire.’ You would be crazy not to panic.”
The recent IPBES Global Assessment paints an ominous portrait of the eroding health of our ecosystems and all the species-including people-that depend on them.
“The animals I used to catch as a kid are no longer there,” said Kollmuss. “A lot of anger, grief, and hopelessness comes with that. But the way I personally deal with it, well, I think, the world doesn’t care how I feel. If I feel depressed or happy, optimistic or pessimistic, well, what? The most important thing is what I do.”
Lauren E. Oakes is a conservation scientist and adaptation specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and an adjunct professor in the Earth System Science department at Stanford University, where she earned her PhD.