Reflections on Climate Change Part 2: The Good News

This post is part two of three of our reflections on the state of climate change impacts and adaptation on the Atlantic Seaboard of the US. If you haven’t yet, please read part one to hear about some of the negative impacts that are occurring.

Now for some good news about climate change on the East Coast!

Deniers vs. Doers

Despite skepticism at the national and state level about the existence and origins of climate change, there are many land managers and citizens out there advancing adaptation efforts. In states like Florida and Georgia, both of which are represented by governors who deny anthropogenic climate change, we were excited to meet with dedicated environmental advocates like Jennifer Kline of the Georgia DNR, St. Mary’s Riverkeeper Rick Frey, and Caitlin Lustic of The Nature Conservancy in the Florida Keys. 

Jennifer surprised us when she shared that “Residents accept that the sea is rising, because they can see it for themselves.” However, in order to receive approval and funding for adaptation efforts to protect residents and property, Jennifer and her colleagues often refer to “long term coastal hazards” instead of climate change impacts. Her department is spearheading a living shorelines initiative to advance soft shore protection from storm surges, and also facilitates the Georgia Coastal Hazards Portal. The GHCP is a valuable tool that shows projections for sea level rise, erosion, and invasive species in great detail along the Georgia coast. The Georgia DNR is also hosting Georgia’s first climate adaptation conference this November.

While in Georgia we also met and befriended St. Mary’s Riverkeeper Rick Frey and his wife Lynne. They volunteer quite a bit of time and money to protect the St. Mary’s River in Georgia from pollution and overfishing. They also spend time in schools and out on the river sharing environmental education lessons with local students.

Finally, Caitlin Lustic’s work for the Nature Conservancy in Florida marches forth despite taking place in a state where state government agencies are banned from even using the words “climate change” in official discourse. The Nature Conservancy however, along with other environmental non-profits, operate on national scale and are therefore able to fill in the gaps in adaptation efforts left by state government denial and inaction. 

Seeing is Believing

As Jennifer mentioned, Georgia residents watching their backyards and highways flood are aware that something is changing, despite denier rhetoric in conservative media and in government. As we traveled down the coast discussing climate change impacts it became obvious that there is no better PSA about climate change than a major event like Hurricane Sandy or historic flooding in South Carolina. Long time residents of these areas are converted to believing in sea level rise as they see the changes first hand.

Though any increase in belief in climate change is a positive sign, many are still skeptical that the changes are caused by human activity and can therefore be reversed. This is where environmental education efforts can play a crucial role.

Environmental Education

Environmental education is growing in popularity in the US and we saw several excellent examples of groups working to share accurate scientific information as well as the local environment with residents. We found the most notable cluster of environmental educators in the Lower Hudson Valley, including ClearwaterHudson River Keeper, the Center for Urban Renewal at Beczak at Sarah Lawrence, and Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Science Barge. Though these groups had diverse missions and modes of operation, each prioritizes environmental education as a key strategy for informing the public about climate change.

As populations concentrate in urban areas and our online personas become as important socially as our offline ones, intentionally connecting citizens with natural spaces near their home is more important than ever. A person will not advocate to protect what they don’t see as important, and each of these groups works to share the importance of natural places with citizens young and old. In addition, there are groups who stand to benefit from doubt about climate change, and they often share misleading information about climate science. Environmental educators have an important role to play in combatting misinformation campaigns in order to foster a scientifically informed public.

Global Mitigation Efforts

Support for managing human-caused carbon emissions at a global scale, also known as climate change mitigation, has spiked in the past year in the United States. For a start, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the number of Americans who believe climate change is happening has increased by 7% since 2014.  Next, the historic climate talks in Paris in December 2015 marked a giant leap forward in the effort to attain global cooperation in reducing green house gas emissions. Though the agreement has not been fully ratified and is said to be difficult to enforce, it still represents a major milestone for climate change mitigation.

In conclusion, we have a long road ahead to adapt to current climate change impacts and mitigate future ones, but there are plenty of people on the East Coast and across the globe working to solve these problems. If I am being completely honest, I am left about 65% pessimistic that impending changes to the climate will be mitigated before major damage is inflicted to our coastlines, and 35% optimistic that we can cooperate long enough to do something to prevent it.

Check out my final post, “What can I do?”, debuting tomorrow, for some proactive steps we all can take to improve the outlook for our country as climate change impacts become more prevalent.