Last December I took on a new challenge. I was asked to speak to a large Canadian audience of agricultural producers about climate change. ‘Bout time I stepped into a controversial area. I’m used to getting hassles and public records requests from lefty food activists that think my acceptance of scientific consensus in genetic engineering is dictated by multinational corporations. Now I can get hassles and FOIA requests from the multinational corporations that think my acceptance of scientific consensus in climate is dictated by lefty food activists. Good times.
Like just about all scientists I recognize that carbon dioxide levels are increasing along with ambient temperatures, and it is due at least in part to human activity. Humans have been mining carbon from one side of the earth’s crust and moving it to the other, so the math is pretty simple. While there is an ongoing discussion among climate scientists about the magnitude of the change and the timing of consequences (is the hockey stick or a golf club?), it is clear that anthropogenic climate change is real and happening.
There also is a range of opinion, scientific and otherwise, about what should be done about it. Those discussions have edges in politics and economics, and some feel these impacts are more important than consequences in nature or on the farm.
Back to the challenge. How to best talk about climate change? It was revisiting communications 101—know your audience. I was speaking to farmers and ranchers, a crowd with diverse thoughts and politics. There are a few general trends. They are folks that that tend to vote and align with political leadership that rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. At the same time they are not easily snookered into a position when they can see the facts for themselves. They are a community tends to be skeptical of all inflammatory claims, and is always on high alert for government over-reach. Again, sweeping generalizations.
So what was the best strategy to provide a compelling presentation? I decided to appeal to their keen observation skills and our common-core values.
Canadian farmers see the trends. Today’s farmer in the Great White North has two more growing weeks than farmers did back in the 1950’s. The crops that can be grown are changing, with corn and soy replacing other grains. Horticultural crop production is thriving. In general, the effects for the farmer have been overwhelmingly favorable, at least in Canada.
Not everything is rosy. Some of the negative trends include increasing incidence of new pests and pathogens that have moved in along with the warmer temperatures.
Other farmers suffer consequences from warmer weather trends. Farmers in Florida see lower yields in fruit crops like peaches and blueberries. Warm winters have affected other production during this important production window. Fruit trees have not had ample chilling in recent seasons, and that affects flowering and fruit set. California’s recent dry seasons have been exacerbated by warmer temperatures.
There are many other trends observed in forests, as trees cannot evolve fast enough to meet the rapid changes in temperature. Changes in forests are being seen in British Columbia and other Canadian regions. Migration patterns, retreating permafrost, so many measurable metrics—there is clear evidence that the change is real.
This was the basis of the discussion. Changes are apparent and temperatures are undeniably increasing. We have to start with the obvious and the place where we can all agree.
After that we can go in two directions. The wrong way to go about it would be to lay blame or discuss mitigation. While there is sufficient evidence to pin the increase in greenhouse gasses on humans, pointing a finger at the culprit in the mirror does little to bring an agreeable outcome. While remedies to reverse the trends have been suggested, it can turn a conversation into a confrontation. If we can agree on a problem without moving to blame or a solution involving sacrifice, the first step of the conversation is in place.
The next step -- talk about how we’ll adapt to higher temperatures. What is science doing in response to alterations in climate to help agricultural producers?
In my case I spoke about the need to protect farmer profits and the necessity for food security. Again, focusing on common concerns.
I discussed plant breeding for stress tolerant varieties. Scientists are actively seeking new varieties that can survive and produce in the presence of weather extremes.
I covered new breeding technologies like gene editing, sometimes known by their technical name CRISPR/Cas9. These new approaches to genetic improvement might lead to new varieties faster.
In other words, it was an optimistic and forward-looking presentation about how to meet the imminent change, with a priority on farmer profit and food security.
A week before the talk I was unsure about what I’d discuss. However, time would show that the audience was accepting and amenable to this message. Free of politics and blame, this approach showed conference goers that scientists were taking the threat so seriously that they were actively searching for solutions for use on the farm.
The fact that I emphasized my concerns for food security and profitable farming showed that my values aligned with theirs. From there I earned trust, and a message could flow.
It was an important exercise. Science communication in the area of climate change can be fruitful, but it has to start from observations, and discuss forward-thinking adaptation. It is a way to start a conversation, and at least lay a foundation to express concerns, and eventually transition into discussions of mitigation.