Human conversations about climate change

Human conversations about climate change

Climate change may be a scientific phenomenon, but the responses to it are going to be human and emotional. Climate change is going to increasingly affect the things we love and the places we call home, and these things are not easily dealt with via formulas and numbers.

Climate Access got an insight into human conversations about climate change when we launched the Here.Now.Us. project in Marin County, California this May. I got to spend several days sitting beside the sea level rise viewers talking to passersby and watching people’s responses to seeing their bike path underwater.

Luckily(?) for us, the location picked with the County of Marin along the Mill Valley-Sausalito multi-use path had flooded just last December, only a few weeks after we decided to put the viewfinders there, which proved to be an excellent starting point for conversations. Most people I spoke with were concerned with the flooding the area is already experiencing; while it may be funny that someone paddle boarded along where the path should have been during the flood – paddle boarding to work is not feasible every day.

It was fascinating to talk with long-time Marin residents who had a wealth of local knowledge and could tell me about how often it traditionally floods in the area, how the December 2014 king tide was exacerbated by rainfall coming down off nearby Mount Tam, and the changes they had seen in their lifetimes.

However the conversations with school-aged people were the ones that I found really striking. As someone who has only just turned 30, I often make the point while talking about climate change that the changes that often get spoken of in abstract terms happening in 2040 or 2050 will be my reality. So it was refreshing to speak with the engaged teenagers of Marin County and be able to say ‘this will happen in our lifetimes’ and have them understand that, rather than dismiss it as many Boomers are want to do.

I spoke with one teenager who lives in one of the nearby houseboat communities who was not only worried about flood risks in the area, but also the inability of the adults in his community to deal with change. When the adults can’t even decide who’s houseboat can move to which dock, he wondered how they were going to even start having the conversation about climate impacts changing their homes and community.

The openness to radical change that I heard from many young people in Marin was also fascinating. Most older residents, who own property or had lived their whole lives knowing a stable climate were fully invested in keeping the community unchanged, while most young people who looked through the viewfinders to see the potential impacts from sea level rise in Marin immediately suggested that permanent retreat from floodwaters was the best option.

This should not have surprised me; I often talk with friends jokingly about how we’re going to have to choose the location we retire in based on what parts of the world have water and agriculture left. So to know the youth of Marin are not looking at our climate challenges and working out how to dig in deeper to the same systems gives me great hope.

In the first three months of the installation, almost 3,500 people have looked through the Marin viewfinders and in October we will be continuing the conversation with a community dialogue session on what a future of living with water could look like. One thing we can be certain about is that the important conversations won’t be about facts and figures; they will be about what community means and what a future that takes local values into account can look like.


image via (cc) Leslie Alden