With the Washington Higher Education Sustainability Conference right around the corner, we jumped at the opportunity to interview one this years Keynote speakers: Nancy Lord, Author, Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North. In our Q+A, Nancy shares her observations on the real impacts of climate change and where we should put of our focus concerning solutions as well as a preview of her keynote address taking place on February 6th.
WAHESC: What was the one thing in particular related to the environment and human relations that surprised you while writing Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North?
Nancy Lord: I don’t know that anything particularly surprised me, but a couple of things definitely impressed me. Much of my research involved Native communities in Alaska where climate change is clearly present and acknowledged. I discovered that there’s so much change happening—not just environmental but social and economic—that it’s difficult to isolate climate change from the rest. For example, where people are trying to grow their own food and are implementing alternative energy projects—these are definitely related to climate change but also to the high cost of importing food and fuel.
And a second thing that became very clear to me was that global warming/climate change issues are really human rights issues. The people suffering the most are most often those who’ve contributed the least to the problem. There are basic human rights to life, health, subsistence, and not to be forcibly evicted from homes and homelands. Many coastal Alaskans—not to mention people in other low-lying parts of the world—are being forced to relocate because of climate change.
WAHESC: How does global warming affect the livelihood of fishermen, indigenous people and beyond in Alaska that is normally overlooked by mass media coverage and climate change studies?
NL: The media tends to focus on extreme cases, such as communities flooding. When the immediate event is over, they move on to the next and the problem disappears from public attention while still being acute to the people affected. Climate change studies have historically focused on science, which sometimes seems abstract or futuristic. More recently, studies have been increasingly directed to social aspects and adaptation—with more focus on people and communities.
Global warming is neither abstract nor only a future threat—it’s here and now, very much endangering the lives and livelihoods of people. If we begin to consider the costs of not addressing it, the costs of mitigation seem much more reasonable.
WAHESC: As an active leading member of several conservation and community-building organizations in Alaska, how do you advocate climate change awareness that reaches beyond the choir?
NL: That is indeed the challenge—to reach those who are not engaged or who are even active skeptics. We need more environmental education, more science literacy, more attention to the real costs and the effects on people’s lives. In Alaska, we’ve found that just about everyone has attachments to salmon, so that’s a good rallying point. People want salmon to be healthy and plentiful—not dying in overly warm streams or starving in the oceans because the food web is upset by acidification or full of mercury from coal burning.
WAHESC: Based on your first hand experience of seeing the threats of the global warming to fresh water resources and marine lives in the North, how can humans change our interaction with environment and what climate change adaptation strategies we can implement to slow down these effects?
NL: This is a big question. We’re rapidly getting to the point where, regardless of what we do, we’re facing a disastrous situation. We need a tremendous movement, right now, to avert the worst. The change needs to happen at all levels—personal up to international. It’s hard to see how we can achieve some stability without putting a price on carbon—a tax or however you want to design it, but something that will quickly and dramatically reduce emissions and move us into a more sustainable future. Adaptation doesn’t address the problem but only helps cope with it. We can adapt to coastal flooding, for example, by building seawalls, but that’s a temporary and costly strategy that doesn’t reduce emissions and warming—in fact, transporting rocks, making concrete, and so on just adds to the problem.
WAHESC: At this important first annual event, please tell us a little about what your Keynote will address at WAHESC. How do you hope to enlighten WAHESC attendees?
NL: In my keynote I’ll try to make the case for why we need to move toward a more sustainable way of life overall, why we need sweeping cultural change. I come from a place that can provide lessons from both sides of the equation. In the north, we’re experiencing climate change sooner and more dramatically than in places farther south; thus, we can demonstrate some of what’s at stake if we, as Americans and citizens of the world, don’t move quickly to more sustainable practices. And on the other side, I come from a place with intact Native cultures that have sustained themselves for hundreds and thousands of years. I’ll share some stories for how and what we might learn from them.
About The Washington Higher Education Sustainability Conference
The Washington Higher Education Sustainability Conference (WAHESC) is a regionally-focused opportunity for those teaching, working or studying within higher education to come together and learn about sustainability in academics, operations, and research. Through facilitated conversation, workshops, presentations and networking opportunities, participants will play a role in advancing environmental performance at Washington State institutions of higher education, support regional policy goals and initiatives, and drive the development of a generation of professionals for whom sustainability is a core tenet of their work and life philosophy.
We hope you will join us Thursday and Friday, February 6-7, 2014 at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington for WAHESC 2014!