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Creating Change at the Intersection of Climate and Preservation

Interview with Brenda Ekwurzel, Ph.D

Director of Climate Science Climate and Energy Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

How did you find your way to climate science and science communication?

I had no intention to become a scientist, but in college, I fell in love with Earth Sciences, and just kept going all the way to a PhD and a postdoc. During my PhD, I did my research in the Arctic Ocean of all places. I spent a lot of time up there, and it was very clear that the changes we were seeing were largely influenced by global climate change. I realized that living in a temperate climate in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere in the US, I really never thought about the polar regions and how fast they were changing. And I realized that that's probably a lot of people. Even though I did my research on the Arctic, I realized I had to really tell people about how climate change was affecting their backyard and places they cherish.

I ended up working on many different types of climate impacts. I started in the water resources out west in California during my postdoc, and then I went to Tucson, Arizona as a faculty member working on wildfires, and post wildfire flooding, interactions with climate change, as well as water resources. But I always kept the Arctic in mind. I was a little surprised at the time that people were even questioning the science at that time in my life. There was a real need for the translation of that science into really relevant, real world practical applications and getting people to care about the consequences. I decided to primarily work on that translation step and policy-relevant research, and I am now at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

I went from doing international research with scientists from around the world to a science-based nonprofit that was basically saying, it's people and policy makers in the United States who aren’t paying sufficient attention this issue, but who are the largest contributors to the problem through US historic contribution to heat trapping emissions. We started producing products that translate the science into people's backyards, in their communities.

When did you make the connection between climate change and preservation?

I was invited by my colleagues Adam Markham and Kate Cell to join their work with cultural heritage experts at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, Society for American Archaeology, Gullah/Geechee Nation, U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites and others. Primarily to look at how climate change is affecting cultural heritage, to see how communities are dealing with it and learning from each other how to improve community resilience. I was such a scientist geek. The older I get, the more I spend time on history and learning what stories we tell, what stories we don't tell, and how we have to tell all stories that are relevant. After meeting with many community leaders, I began to learn from cultural heritage experts that scientific assessments the world and the US had been generating for governments hardly ever mentioned cultural heritage. And that's a problem, because ancient and recent history, regarding how communities have dealt with risks and global change in the past, could have lessons for today. So the heritage community created the Pocantico Call to Action on Climate Impacts and Cultural Heritage, which says “cultural heritage is a human right” and “neither the costs of addressing climate impacts on cultural heritage, nor the knowledge we gain from understanding our cultural heritage, has been comprehensively addressed in climate policy response.”

Traditionally, the field was initially resistant to maybe even thinking about reducing emissions or energy demand on a property–if the changes were going to change perhaps the aesthetics or use material that wasn't original material, for example. It really was through conversations, and when the awareness was raised about some places really being at a higher risk within decades, then more people were open to changing some of the guidelines. The National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) really were emphasizing some of these aspects. For example, NTHP often highlighted that the greenest building is one that you're not tearing down in order to build something new. There are many principles that go hand in hand with the goals of these institutions to protect our cultural and natural resources.

People are talking about loss; how do we deal with loss? What are we willing to lose? And what are we not willing to lose? And what are we willing to cherish and save? And how do we save it and what is considered worth saving? I'm fascinated by that because that's what all communities are figuring out, and it's not just a cultural heritage problem. Yet cultural heritage experts can contribute to local community discussions grappling with how to change, what to save, and what to let go of.

Do you do work mainly in policy or in communities?

I and many scientists and analysts at UCS and other institutions that we collaborate with conduct scientific research that helps inform policy. For example, in heritage, we investigate what the scientific risks are of a particular place. We and especially community outreach colleagues, listen, learn, and ask questions to find out what is most cherished by members within a community. I usually present a community with climate science information about the projections of future change that would be most relevant for the particular region of the community that I'm giving a presentation to. For example, we just participated in a recent project with the World Heritage group of UNESCO initiative for cultural vulnerability index rapid assessments with World Heritage professionals who manage World Heritage sites. The cultural vulnerability index includes metrics of intangible heritage, natural resources, cultural heritage, and cultural practices. If it's a physical site, what are the structures? What are the risks, and how might a changing climate be affecting them?

What have you found are some of the best practices in communicating climate science?

A lot of the science is a bit abstract, so I bring it down to the metrics and measures that people are used to thinking of. I often will ask people to talk about what kind of change they’ve seen in the past couple decades. Once people start talking, I can get an idea of where their level of concerns are, what their interests are. Then I can modulate every talk and share what is more aligned with their greatest interests and their needs for further understanding in this topic. If community members are already saying they have detected a change, it's much easier to tell them, yes, in this area, that has changed because we've had this level of climate change exacerbating other human factors and natural factors. Attributing which factors are dominant versus those that are minor can help with planning actions to address root causes of a local impact. We have a choice in future pace of change because we're driving the climate so much. The differences in our future are a result of our choices locally and globally.

How do you convince individuals that their actions or even just actions in their community can make a real difference?

I had the opportunity to be a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment. The chapter, reducing risks through emissions mitigation combines economics and climate in the United States. Basically, it illustrates this general question people are asking. Should I do personal adaptation, or should we do community adaptation? Should we do community emissions reductions, or should we focus more on global emissions reductions? The figure I present most often is the projection of the annual damages to the United States in different sectors under a higher and lower emissions scenario. It shows that where you decide to put your resources depends on the type of impact that you're most concerned with. The top two impacts for the United States deal with extreme heat. The highest cost impact is a loss of labor hours due to extreme heat. The second highest is extreme heat mortality. The third highest is coastal property damage. If you are most worried about saving lives from extreme heat, put slightly greater proportion of your resources on global emissions reduction and the balance on adaptation to extreme heat. If you are worried about sea level rise, the majority of your money would be spent on adaptation, and the rest on global emissions reductions, because that will slow the pace of sea level rise so you can buy more time for your adaptation. Basically, economics that reflect the interplay between Earth systems responding to climate change. Lower emissions globally make a greater difference toward the end of this century with regard to extreme heat than to sea level rise which has a lot of change locked in for the future from past emissions. The balance in avoided damages has to be made up through adaptation in all cases.

I also show the future climate change we have in a world where we stick to the Paris Agreement, and in a world where we didn't, knowing that people are already suffering through events like hurricanes in Houston or Puerto Rico, and unprecedented heat waves in Pakistan or the Pacific Northwest. Multi-year droughts and crop failures in parts of the Middle East, Southern Africa, and Southwest US. We have plenty of incentives to honor the Paris Agreement. Those of us who work on climate change consequences and solutions can at times feel a bit overwhelmed, but hope returns each time you know that there are communities around the world coming together working toward a common goal. If you're in a high emitting nation, then you really have a great opportunity. Because you can influence institutions and vote in your country, and you can do a lot to help the world. People who are not even of voting age are doing more to change things, and that is inspiring to me. And they're going to be voting soon.

How did you connect with Lisa?

It was through the report, National Landmarks at Risk. She was clearly a leader, really leading the way in Annapolis, and one of the UCS reports looked at sea level rise at tide gauges. One of the major cases we featured was Annapolis, and Lisa Craig was a great ally in the Landmarks at Risk report. Now Lisa is helping more communities in many other coastal places using the lessons she learned at Annapolis. She is one of the biggest change makers out there, really putting it all together, getting the communities to talk about these tough issues, and letting them know about the practical and policy opportunities. She connects what the science says and what the cultural heritage aspects are, and really shows communities how it all ties together. Lisa Craig is one of the climate champions and cultural heritage champions. This kind of effort will have ripple effects for probably decades and beyond. In some of these places, communities may be creating change that can let something last for much longer were it not for steps taken today. Saving stories that people can continue to learn from in the future.


National Landmarks at Risk (Union of Concerned Scientists)

World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate (Union of Concerned Scientists)


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