Memory Transplants and Climate Risks

Guest post by Lisa M. P. Munoz

Fourteen years ago, I visited the small town of Orting, Washington. Sitting in the shadow of the magnificent yet menacing Mount Rainier, it resembles other small Pacific Northwest or even midwestern towns, but something there was different. The residents, more than any other group I have met, have a profound understanding of risk.

Lahar, Mount St. Helens eruption (public domain)

While Mount Rainier is an active volcano that will eventually erupt, the residents there fear something more hidden: lahars. These massive mudflows – often triggered by glacial melts – have raced down Mount Rainier and buried the valley before and will likely do so again. Orting residents face a 1 in 7 chance that lahars will occur in their lifetimes. But unlike many people who live near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico who don’t think a life-threatening event will ever truly threaten them personally, Orting residents seem to truly believe a lahar could take their lives.

What makes Orting different? Why do its residents relate so uniquely to the risks in their environment? And do their approaches generalize to other risks and populations, in particular,  global climate change risk? The key, I’ve come to believe, is a kind of cultural memory transplant.

Some observations: 1) Mount Rainier is a large volcano whose steep slopes they can see from virtually anywhere in town; 2) people who live there frequently talk about the lahars that buried the valley in the past (the most recent one being 500 years ago, leading to the layers of hardened mud flows upon which the town was built a few hundred years later); and 3) the community includes many geologists who study Mount Rainier and take an active and direct role in educating and informing the community.

When someone first moves to Orting, the seeming serenity of the mountain may not ring any alarm bells. As one resident told me, the thinking initially is that there would be weeks of warning with tell-tale steam and bulging from the volcano before any volcano-related events. But as residents quickly learn from neighbors and friends and the significant outreach from local geologists, a lahar can happen with little to no warning.

I have been reflecting a lot lately on Orting and Mount Rainier in contemplating the global risk we all now face of climate change. As a science writer, I have written many stories about climate change and have struggled with how to convey risk without resorting to fear or hyperbole, while still communicating the very real emotional urgency Orting residents seem to naturally feel.

A consistent challenge is this: Climate change cannot be understood by single moments, no matter how powerful. Moreover, those single moments can be misleading, as we see every time an abnormal snowfall or cold snap happens and climate change deniers hold it up as proof that global warming is a hoax.

Climatologists study climate risks by examining the long-term history of Earth and identifying patterns over time. It is a laborious process that takes time and perspective that most of us don’t have. And, by and large, transmitting the facts that result from that process directly to the public does not work. It’s not enough to transmit facts; we have to transmit experience. It’s our experiences and our memories that shape what we know, who we are, and how we make decisions.

A number of neuroscience studies are suggesting that memories’ core function is to help us plan the future, not dwell in the past. At a recent cognitive neuroscience conference in San Francisco, Mark Stokes of the Oxford Centre for Brain Activity said he thinks about working memory as more about future goals rather than past experiences; less about the past and more about the future. A study by neuroscientist Sylvia Hatch of the University of Auckland and colleagues found that impaired memory in depressed people makes it difficult for them to imagine different outcomes. And in a study of 3- to 5-year-old children, Janie Busby of the University of Queensland and colleagues found that “the ability to recall past events and the ability to predict future events emerge in tandem.”

So if the past informs how we think about the future, what does that mean for how we learn about climate change?

I remember the first time I saw the Keeling Curve as an undergrad: It is an amazingly simple visual that shows the surge in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 1950s.

Keeling Curve (Creative Commons)

Keeling Curve (Creative Commons)

It was enough to stoke my interest in climate but not to fully understand the implications. As I dived in more, I could study ice changes at the poles with radar and satellite images. And eventually I would talk to Charles Keeling himself and to paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson who has drilled deep into Earth to retrieve the ice core history of Earth going back thousands of years. I would see those ice cores in a 30-degree Celsius freezer at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. And I would read countless stories about Inuit people and others whose livelihoods are already being affected by the changing Arctic.

These experiences have become part of my personal memories, and because of my profession and interests, I have prioritized these memories in my worldview for thinking about the future.

Most of us, though, understand climate through the narrow lens of weather and weather patterns in our living memory. Where we live, how long we live there, and the frequency of extreme events become our anecdotal evidence of the existence or absence of climate change. And the power of the anecdote is strong. When the flowers started blooming early this spring because of an unusually warm early spring, Twitter was full of people heralding that this spelled the end of the world; it was global warming in action. While scientists have found that spring is happening 2.5 days earlier every decade, most people didn’t know that; they just reacted.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

As extreme weather events accelerate with climate change, we may be able to increasingly assign odd weather patterns to global warming with confidence. For example, this month, ecologist Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and colleagues published a new report on heatwaves, like the recent one in Phoenix, saying that by the end of the century, 1 in 2 people will likely face at least 20 days when extreme heat can kill them:

We reviewed papers published between 1980 and 2014, and found 783 cases of excess human mortality associated with heat from 164 cities in 36 countries. Based on the climatic conditions of those lethal heat events, we identified a global threshold beyond which daily mean surface air temperature and relative humidity become deadly. Around 30% of the world’s population is currently exposed to climatic conditions exceeding this deadly threshold for at least 20 days a year. By 2100, this percentage is projected to increase to ~48% under a scenario with drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and ~74% under a scenario of growing emissions. An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced.

With the recent heatwaves happening in highly populated areas like Phoenix and Las Vegas, the abnormal weather is more likely to make a dent and create a shared memory linked to climatic changes. As David Wallace-Wells wrote in a recent (somewhat hyperbolic and, in parts, misleading) New York Magazine article: “In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them ‘weather.’”

We will be building new shared experiences, starting our own oral tradition of what weather should or should not look like in our own areas – like the Orting residents telling the stories of how their town was built on a mega mudslide. But that will take time. And there will be a lot of cold snaps and high snowfalls to potentially conflate the anecdotal evidence in the meantime.

So how can we get the experience that comes from long-term exposure over a shorter period of time? It might look something like a memory transplant – borrowing experiences from others to speed up the climate change risk learning curve. We are then creating an expanded capacity for imagination based on new shared experiences – the very way our brains work to connect the past to future planning.

In the New York Magazine article, Wallace-Wells called out the lack of ability to imagine a future impacted by climate change as a leading reason for inaction:

Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias…and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was… the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty…the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. “

Orting has the volcano as a constant visual symbol to remind its residents of the possibilities, to give them a specific springboard for their imaginations. What kinds of visual reminders might work for telling effective climate change stories over differing populations? Real-time Keeling curves on a screen in Times Square? Images of ice loss on cereal boxes?

Some of the most vulnerable populations for climate change are outside the United States in areas with low literacy, compounding the challenge. Discussing the compounding variables in this “visual divide” in Nature, communications researcher Alfons Maes of Tilburg University wrote:

Firstly, pictures are optimistically worth 1,000 words. Yet visual messages are packed in a conventional code that must be learned, not fundamentally different from what we know and acknowledge about language. Secondly, despite many studies on differences between experts and novices in carrying out cognitive tasks with visual representations, we know little about the extent to which audiences with low levels of literacy are able to make use of such representations in general and with respect to climate change communication specifically. What we know predominantly comes from other fields, in particular health — a field that compares well with climate change in terms of importance.

A recent study of indigenous people in Ecuador found that conceptualization of vulnerability must be tailored to individual experiences:

Interestingly, we find no support for the expectation that more vulnerable populations – such as those who rely upon rain and river water for home consumption –  are more likely to believe in climate change. We believe that this is because proximity to oil extraction is a more appropriate and context-specific measure of vulnerability among Ecuadorians. Furthermore, political ideology does not matter for predicting an individual’s climate change belief, which differs significantly from analyses of the United States. This finding indicates that belief in climate change is not as highly politicized in domestic politics in countries outside of the U.S. –  or at least not in Ecuador.

In thinking about new ways to communicate climate change to a variety of populations, I also wonder how can we go beyond the echo chambers of social media where the only people we’re likely to reach are already in the choir.

What if “climate stories” were categorized in other ways? For example, stories about the challenges vanilla plant or banana growers are facing could be filed under the “economy” vertical, and stories of health impacts of climate – like the spreading of Lyme disease and other vector-borne illnesses – in the “health” vertical rather than labeled as science pieces. (For example, this piece about climate change aggravating regional economic inequality in the U.S. was categorized in the Atlantic under “science”.)  Seeing these stories in unexpected places could both simultaneously create new visual symbols and make them more accessible to broader audiences.

Looking to the storytellers themselves, I think back again to Orting residents’ unusual levels of interactions with geologists, and my own personal experience interacting with climate researchers. Would more direct and frequent discussion between climatologists and affected communities also expedite the creation of shared experiences?

Despite the potential anecdotal pitfalls, extreme weather events – even if not yet linked to climate – can help capture the attention of local residents long enough to explain how the events fit into the long-term patterns. In Orting, having regular interactions with geologists, like Pat Pringle of the Washington Department of Natural Resource, led to the construction of a pedestrian bridge residents can use when the lahar warning sirens go off, allowing people to quickly get to higher, safe ground.

I view climate change like many other issues that people don’t care about until it happens to them – like the neighbor who vehemently supports deporting illegal immigrants until her neighbor is taken away. Public support for interventions and solutions will only come from robust shared experiences. In Orting, no one has yet fallen victim to a lahar or a volcanic eruption, yet they live like they have. They can imagine it. Transplanting memories from rich and diverse stories may be able to similarly spark our individual and collective imaginations, and then tip us in a new direction.  Symbols and stories will help bring the climate change mountain to the valley of the climate inexperienced.

Lisa M.P. Munoz is an independent consultant and science writer. You can find out more about her work at lisampmunoz.com and on Twitter.

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