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Ogmius Newsletter


Ogmius exchange


This issue of Ogmius features an article by climate change adaptation expert Dr. Susanne Moser, Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, in Santa Cruz, CA. She also is a Social Science Research Fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and a Research Associate of the Institute for Marine Sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz. In her current research and work with local, state and federal government agencies and non-governmental organizations, she focuses on adaptation to climate change, especially in coastal areas, resilience, decision support, and effective climate change communication in support of social change. Dr. Moser is a geographer by training (Ph.D. 1997, Clark University). Previously she served as a Research Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, has worked for the Heinz Center in Washington, DC, and served as staff scientist for climate change for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Susanne Moser is co-editor with Lisa Dilling (University of Colorado-Boulder) on a major anthology on climate change communication, called Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change, published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press. She contributed to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Nobel-prize winning IPCC and has been selected as a Review Editor for the IPCC Special Report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” and as a Lead Author in the Fifth Assessment. She is a fellow of the Aldo Leopold Leadership, Kavli Frontiers of Science, Donella Meadows Leadership, and Google Science Communication Programs.

Comments welcome! info@sciencepolicy.colorado.edu


Science For Climate Adaptation:
Reflections From Behind The 8 Ball

by Susanne C. Moser

I came home from summer vacation the day Tropical Storm Irene pummeled its way up the Eastern Seaboard, leaving washed out bridges, roads, flooded homes and businesses, and destroyed crops in its wake. The media have been following closely the hardship and responses of hardy Yankees. For those of us interested in resilience, the Northeast is the place to watch! And for the rest of us tired of the “business-as-usual” politics in Washington, anti-climate science diatribes, or just plain head-in-the-sand avoidance of the realities of our day, hearing folks think hard about their future is about as refreshing as a crisp fall day in New England. Get this: Vermont’s Governor has publicly made the link between extreme events and climate change, and asked – much like his Catskills neighbors – whether we should be rebuilding in the same way, in the same places, yet again. There are people thinking about rebuilding with adaptation and climate change in mind; people wondering how to rebuild better, safer. THIS should be business as usual, but because it is not, this is a place and a time to behold.

Researchers interested in adaptation should be concerned about what states and communities are doing, what gets them started, and what science can do to support them. Communities around the US that are beginning to tackle adaptation often start doing so by dealing with today’s vulnerabilities. They integrate thinking about climate change into their existing priorities and long-term plans; they form consortia and think about governance; some are beginning to engage stakeholders on the issue (though many are hesitant to do so in this volatile political climate). Interestingly enough – uncertainty and imperfect information about the future is not a show stopper for these pioneers. They make do with what they can get despite uncertainty (only the laggards seem to need certainty). After all, change in mindset is the hallmark of leaders, not the possession of perfect knowledge.

The question then is, how do we scale up from the handful of communities that are leading the way on adaptation? And how can we scientists help? Communities are asking: They need people providing more specific information and access to that which exists but seems beyond reach; they need credible experts who can translate what the science means; and they need good communicators. So what then is being asked of us scientists? I have three simple answers, none of them easy to do.

  • Get out there! Most Americans can’t name a living scientist; they don’t know who we are, and so it’s easy to either view us as strange lab coat-wearing nerds or as money- and ideology-driven spin doctors. Be out there in your community and help where help is most needed.
  • You don’t have to reinvent the wheel about how to do it right. Yes, you have to get your own “street cred”, but much is known already about how to work effectively with practitioners, and what practitioners need from you. Read up a bit and go!
  • Meet the need, don’t just name it. So: apply what we know that works; actually fill the needs identified; and then leap-frog to the next generation of adaptation work.

And what is that next generation of practice-relevant science on adaptation? What do we need to do research on so that we don’t find ourselves behind the 8 ball in ten, 20, 50 years again? I have a going list of topics on which I believe we need to make progress to get out in front of the challenges as they inevitably will arise.

Successful adaptation – How would we know it, if we saw it? How would we measure it? What are the triggers along the adaptation pathway that would tell us we’re no longer successful, we need to switch to something different, better? How would we assess and adjudicate among trade-offs?

Imagining transformation – There is increasing talk about “transformative change”, but what does that actually mean compared to garden variety adaptation? What capacities do we need to more deeply transform? By what processes? How do we deal with the legacies of institutions, values, and paradigms? And how do we engage anyone on transformative change in this age of short planning horizons, limited attention spans, and pressing needs? Unpacking governance – Governance theories bump up against reality and we need to understand it better and give people advice on how they can improve it. The idea of mainstreaming climate change into everything communities already do is an oft-heard suggestion, yet shouldn’t we ask: mainstreaming into what? Adaptation often means increasing flexibility, but legal experts cringe as that often means loss of accountability. So, how do we build a more adaptable and accountable governance system?

Communicating adaptation – This is both a practical task and an area in need of concerted research. How do we increase and yet also manage risk perceptions as we talk about climate change impacts on things we value close to home, not just the iconic polar bear? How do we name the unnamable – the inevitable losses and the many taboos that got us into the problems in the first place? How do we grow the capacity of local leaders to do all that communicating with their constituents?

Overcoming polarization – Last but not least, or maybe even first, how do we get moving on the tasks ahead in an environment that has made climate change such a politicized subject? How do we create space for a real dialogue in the face of more immediate pressures? What other forms for communication are really useful? What are the political and social strategies that help to overcome societal divisions once opinions have become so divided?

Maybe more frequent crises will make communities more receptive over time, but disasters don’t always yield future-oriented change. The chance to build adaptive capacity into communities is only as good as the plans in the drawer, ready to go, to rebuild for a more volatile future. Go out and help create those plans. The next town hit could be yours.

Susanne C. Moser, Ph.D.
Susanne Moser Research & Consulting