Heeled over the side of a sailboat and three hours underway, west of Anacortes, Washington, I was drinking beer and laughing hard under the July sun. I was with my closest, oldest friends, one of whom had lost her mother to cancer four days prior; we were having a living, breathing, salty, sea-bound wake. We were comforted by the warmth of each others’ presence and the grace of our surroundings: the silver Puget Sound, the treed and bristly San Juan Islands, the snowy backbone of the North Cascades to the west, and the rip of the wind through our hair and cotton t-shirts. I recount this story because we live enmeshed in a personal fabric of loss; it’s the human condition. As a daughter, wife, friend, and sister, I feel the precious connections that knit me into our world.
Our identities, as families and communities, are tightly coupled to the uniqueness of the landscape and climate around us. Obviously, the context of loss that day on the sailboat was personal, for me and for my community of friends, but as we comforted each other and celebrated together, the salty arms of the Pacific Northwest enfolded and held us. As a scientist, a deeper layer of poignancy resonated with me. The capacity for personal loss does not stop at the door to your home, or your parent’s home, but rather continues out into the landscape of your life. This is the place to find traction in communicating about climate change. We are all connected to the landscapes, the food, the seasons and the iconic organisms of the places where we call home.
Understanding and internalizing climate change, on a personal and a societal level, is all about connections. Connecting our carbon-rich lifestyles to our rapidly changing atmosphere. Connecting disparate fields of science together to answer questions about how our planet has functioned in the past, how it is changing in the present, and what kind of future we look forward to. And connecting what we love and care about in the present, as people, as families, and as broader communities, to what we hope to preserve for the future.
I am an ocean and climate scientist. In my day job, I'm constantly thinking about our planetary atmosphere, deep and surface water ocean circulation, and marine ecosystems. I’m thinking about what our oceans and our coastal ecosystems looked like 10, 20, 100 thousand years ago. And I’m thinking about what these same systems will look like in 10, 50, 100 years from now. But, these ideas are a complete abstraction. They kill cocktail party conversation in seconds flat. And, they have the smack of martyrdom – as if I am the only one thinking about such large questions. This is the problem with communicating about climate science: it’s just not tangible.
However, when I go home at night to water my garden and feed my dog, I am a child of the Northwest. I was raised on salmon and raspberry jam, I drink IPA to the exclusion of all other beer, I am an expert at ordering coffee, and I cried in the bathroom in middle school when Kurt Cobain died. This is my identity – unique to me and tied to the food, the landscape and the culture of my birth.
Think about it: who would you be without those landscapes and seasons from childhood? The beach where you’d build roaring fires in the summer evenings to combust marshmallows? The swimming hole across town that you’d hurl yourself into and always end up with poison oak? The late November snow that would send you home from school? And what about the food! Who would you be without your Grandmother’s cherry preserves and her stuffed zucchini? Or the elk sausage and peaches at that one roadside stand in your hometown?
Every human culture and regional environment is threatened by the impacts of climate change. The cycles of rain and dryness, the summer highs and winter lows, the snowmelt that becomes river water that becomes full aquifers – these are the climatic systems that are being altered. And these are the metrics that, when applied to our local and regional cultures, illustrate the vulnerability of our shared heritage. Crops like raspberries and hops are extremely sensitive to a tight envelope of precipitation and temperature. Salmon – the much maligned and disgraced behemoth of Northwestern ecosystems – is also acutely sensitive to rapid environmental change, in both marine and riverine settings. And, while you might argue that these crops and fisheries won’t be eradicated on a 100-year timescale, they will undoubtedly become atrociously expensive. Functional absence in the market place is the same as real absence for us plebeians.
This means we have a lot to lose. Jack Kerouac said, “Accept loss forever,” a mantra that is especially true for the unraveling of ecosystems, historical agriculture, and regional identities. Why would we ever be willing to pay such a high price? In our frenetic, 24-hour news cycle, we need space to remember what is meaningful and what transcends the polarization of an election cycle, what transcends the polarization of climate science. We need to stand together in our shared vulnerability, finding common ground.
When I sit with my professional mindset, I think about on-the-ground impacts of climate change: ocean acidification, rising sea level, climate refuges, atmospheric pCO2, ecosystem conservation, expanding ocean hypoxia, agricultural sustainability and adaptive fisheries management. Alternately my heart breaks and heals, knowing how skilled and dedicated my generation of environmental scientists is. But most scientists I know are coping, at best, with the moral quagmire of global climate change, personal responsibility, and professional objectivity. There is a deep and unspoken river of fear that runs through this dilemma. Like many scientists who work on large problems, I put those fears away in order to go home, make dinner, and feed my heart with other things.
But late in the evening, bare foot to kitchen floor, when I think I’ve avoided all my demons for that day, waves of loss wash over me. It is the salmon, the hops, and the raspberries. It is the unraveling of my personal fabric of identity. It is the loss of unspoken dreams.
(Sarah Moffitt is a PhD Candidate at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, University of California at Davis. She is a paleoceanographer and marine ecologist, specializing in climate communication.)