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In addressing climate change, don’t forget the locals

In addressing climate change, don’t forget the locals

One day last week, nearly 30 people filled a virtual Zoom space; two groups composed most of the attendees: fishermen and scientists. This “fishermen-scientist roundtable”, the third one conducted since 2016, provided an opportunity for fishermen, who are out on the water every day, to share what they see, and for scientists to share what they know, from field observations and laboratory studies.

The conversation started with a focus on ocean acidification (when the water becomes more acidic) and hypoxia (when oxygen levels drop below levels that can support sea life) and inevitably turned more wide-ranging. This group talked at length, discussing not just the changes that they are collectively seeing, but also what they can do, together, to understand these changes and help address them. From previous roundtables grew projects to examine the impact of ocean acidification on pink shrimp and Dungeness crab— two critically important economic species—and understand the extent of hypoxia by putting oxygen sensors on commercial crab pots.

This is an ideal example of how local stakeholders are working together to address the challenges of climate change and associated environmental impacts. Climate change is impacting our ocean environment in unpredictable ways, causing changes to temperature, acidity, and circulation patterns, disrupting fishing and aquaculture industries in ways that we barely understand. Each of these, and more, reflects not just a total, collective cost, but the very personal impact to individual and communities.

President Biden’s FY22 budget proposal is packed with initiatives to address causes and impacts of climate change. These initiatives are a massive investment to address what feels like an overwhelming problem. These include spurring innovation in clean energy, creating a new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Climate, expanding climate observations, research, and services, and investing in climate resilience and disaster planning. The momentum is high to address this global challenge. However, in our zeal to invest some big bucks in the problem, we shouldn’t forget the people on the ground.

Behind every statistic about the impact of disasters lies a local story—what a family lost, the impact to a local business, how communities were disrupted. Superstorm Sandy wasn’t just a $65B disaster, it also devastated families and communities for years. The slow-moving disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where a lethal combination of sediment loss, subsidence, sea-level rise, and storm impacts is causing a football field’s worth of land to be lost every 100 minutes in Louisiana, raises questions about how communities need to think and act about relocating.

The people on the ground who are impacted by these threats and events want to understand the issue and be part of developing the solutions.

But having these conversations is difficult work. It takes a lot of time and energy and investment. For every day a fisherman is sitting in a conference room talking about issues, that’s one less day that they aren’t on the water. For events like the roundtable, not as many fishermen will attend when the weather is good, because they will be out on the water, making a living. The same can be said for any other industry: farmer, teacher, or banker. Their time needs to be acknowledged and supported the same way researchers’ salaries are paid on a grant, but not at the expense of reducing the scope of the work that needs to be done.

These conversations also require people who can successfully work with a broad range of audiences, including community members, researchers, and policy makers; these “boundary organizations”, which operate at the intersections between groups, without a vested interest in the outcomes, can facilitate dialogue between stakeholders, scientists, and policy-makers.

Perhaps most important is that effective engagement among all these groups, each of whom has a vested interest in knowing what the future might bring and planning accordingly, requires relationships and trust. This takes time. Changing expectations about how much time collaborative processes “should” take to account for what they “will” take when community voices are included is key.

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