Education seen as key to public action

On a gray October day in Hampton, New Hampshire, seawater rose halfway up the sides of a doghouse 20 yards from the shoreline. It surged through the basement window of a house further inland and stretched to the street where traffic was stopped. Construction crews directed cars around areas where water covered the road, up to a foot deep in some places.

On this day, water flooded the seacoast because of the King Tide, the highest tide of the year. Such tides are normal and occur once or twice every year. But with global climate warming and sea levels rising, scientists project that tides of this magnitude could become more common in years to come.

Kirsten Howard, Coastal Resilience Specialist for the New Hampshire Coastal Program, helped organize the #KingTide2016 social media campaign this year. The campaign urged coastal residents to post pictures of flooded areas during high tide. More than 50 people submitted a total of 135 photos to the contest. According to their summary report, the #KingTide2016 campaign reached over 4000 people online in the month following the King Tide.

kingtide-photo-1
Parking lot underwater in Seabrook, NH (Photo by Maren Bhagat)

“We want to show areas that are vulnerable to flooding,” Howard said of the campaign, during which people posted their photos and comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. “We want people to see what these areas could look like permanently as sea levels rise in the future.”

Howard is one of a number of Seacoast outreach specialists and conservationists who see public education as a crucial response to the growing threat of climate change. In 2007 the International Panel on Climate Change published its Fourth Assessment Report, which predicted sea levels will rise between 7 and 23 inches between now and the end of the century. In the Fifth Assessment Report published in 2014, scientists reviewed previously unaddressed information on melting ice caps. The report stated that in a worst-case scenario, seas could rise by as much as 38 inches by the year 2100.

Howard and the New Hampshire Coastal Program work with the Coastal Adaptation Workgroup and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reach the public.

The NHCP has worked with regional planning commissions and towns to get them thinking about future infrastructure. Howard among others at the NHCP believe careful planning now can help to avoid unnecessary problems in the future.

“We need a broader public education on how people can change their behavior on a daily, individual level,” Howard said, “This means people need to recognize what they eat, what car they buy, who they vote for; it all matters. They need to be more involved in their own decision making so they can see the impact.”

“When you understand that we as humanity are the problem, then you understand that we can be the solution”

At the boardwalk on Hampton Beach, another site in danger of rising sea levels, Brandy Hardiman performs a weekly cleanout of the animal aquariums at the Blue Ocean Discovery Center. Hardiman, a marine biologist and Blue Ocean Society educator, is part of the staff responsible for teaching climate change as part of Blue Ocean’s ecology and conservation talks.

“You try to make it a community thing,” said Hardiman, elbow deep in a tank full of horseshoe crabs and periwinkles. “When you understand that we as humanity are the problem, then you understand that we can be the solution.”

Hardiman recently attended an education circle put on by the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. The course involved six months of meetings with top educators around the country to create a common language for talking about climate change, regardless of location. She stated the importance of putting out the same information about the climate whether in Hampton, NH or at the San Diego Zoo in California. Hardiman compared it to having the same food available to customers at any location of a chain restaurant.

The NNOCI states that its mission is, “to change the nature of public conversation about issues of climate change to be inviting, empowering, and solution-oriented.”

To create consistency, the NNOCI teaches educators to describe the atmosphere working like an electric blanket around the Earth. The sun heats the Earth naturally, but as humans produce more carbon dioxide, more heat is trapped in the atmosphere with nowhere to go. The sun consistently warms the Earth, and as humans consistently emit carbon dioxide, the Earth’s average temperature slowly grows warmer. Like someone warming himself or herself with an electric blanket, the temperature increase is a combination of internal and external heat sources.

As Hardiman puts it, the educated conversation is a great way to talk about the realities of climate change without the crisis-fueled notion of “the world is warming, we’re going to die.”

In a 2008 study, researchers from San Jose State University published the report Climate Change Education and the Ecological Footprint. They found that college education in particular plays a crucial part in tying knowledge and action to social change. The study, which interviewed more than 400 students, concluded that climate change education should emphasize a personal connection between individuals and the world around them in order to promote social action. Without individual connection to the issues, social action dwindles, and subsequently so does societal change.

Both Hardiman and Howard attempt to reach the public through social media and in person talks. During the #KingTide2016 campaign, Howard encouraged those that submitted photos for their contest to share their submissions online to raise awareness about sea level rise. Blue Ocean added discussions about individual ecological impact into its conservation efforts like beach cleanups, and have begun educating tourists on whale watches. Both groups hope to inspire the public to see the connection between their actions and their community.

David Burdick, professor of ecological conservation at the University of New Hampshire, has been working in conservation on the Seacoast for more than 25 years.

“I think some of the most valuable outreach is to teach people about the changes around them,” Burdick said. “Then, when they observe these changes, they don’t reject them [changes] or blame others, but recognize their observations are the new reality. With this knowledge they can teach others and become ‘converts’.”

In his own work, Burdick has already seen changes in conservation efforts as educated individuals plan for an uncertain future. He said that now conservation has shifted from restoration to identifying what properties of select ecosystems would be most valuable to conserve.

For example, when working in a coastal marsh, he and colleagues are more likely to protect a relatively flat slope than a steep incline. When the system becomes intertidal in the next 50 years, the steep incline will collapse while the flat slope will remain valuable to the marsh. They base their modern conservation work on predictions of what will be most beneficial to ecosystems in the future.

“Our programs are all about how to empower people to take care of the ecological systems that they benefit from.” Burdick said. “In the near future we will be leading these types of programs in habitats that do not exist yet as we will be preparing these systems for change.”

Continual advocacy and public outreach can be essential for groups trying to make changes in their communities.

In 2013, UNH Divest, a student organization advocating that the University of New Hampshire divest from fossil-fuel interests, was in danger of falling apart due to lack of support and internal struggles. In an attempt to save UNH Divest and to educate its own members, the Student Action Environmental Coalition sent UNH Divest core team member Griffin Sinclair-Wingate and three others to the second annual Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence held at the University of San Francisco.

The conference hosted more than 300 students from over 75 universities in order to strengthen the power of students through regional and national networks. Many student divestment movements were still relatively young at the time, and the convergence provided a network to see how groups around the country were fighting for universities to divest funds from fossil fuels.

“Training is essential,” says Sinclair-Wingate. “That conference gave me the base knowledge I needed to start a divestment campaign, and fostered relationships that I use to this day when organizing events.”

UNH Divest hosted the Northern New England Divestment Convergence on November 12 this year in order to teach young divestment activists how to take careful legal action. Different sessions throughout the day focused on how to recruit interested students, as well as how to organize events and how to frame the conversation when talking about fossil fuels and climate change. Representatives from Dartmouth College, Bowdoin, Keene State, and UNH attended, sharing knowledge and experience among fellow student activists.

At Blue Ocean, Brandy Hardiman teaches discovery center customers the importance of their actions on the area around them. It’s a plan that Executive Director Jen Kennedy says has only taken flight since sending their employees to the NNOCI study circle. Lately, they have stressed the importance of recycling, buying locally, and planting trees as some methods of protecting one’s environment.

“Yeah sure, you get the guy who drives a Prius, great,” said Hardiman, “But how can we go further? What else can we show people they can do to help?”

After staff members read the Portland Press Herald’s climate change series Mayday: Gulf of Maine in Distress, Blue Ocean invested in a large framed map of the Gulf of Maine in hopes of showing people how far one’s impact goes. The Press Herald series features 6 articles, each focusing on a different aspect of the changing ecosystem and political environment around the Gulf of Maine. Featured articles include looks at species migrating to colder waters away from the coast, journalistic limitations on climate reporting in Canada, and statewide climate data collection in Maine.

For now, groups like Blue Ocean and the New Hampshire Coastal Program hope to change the conversation about climate change as individual efforts turn into communal changes over time.

“We’re trying to make changes now, before the next big Noreaster or something else,” said Kirsten Howard. “Eventually we won’t have a choice, and then it’s too late.”

(Header photo by Will Brown)

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