Forests and climate change: From literacy to action

Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse City, Michigan. Photo by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash.

Early morning on Father’s Day, June 17, 2018, I was in Houghton, Michigan, for my summer forestry field research. As I slept, I repeatedly woke to the sound of booming thunder, so deep it felt as though the ground was shaking, and flashes of lightning, so bright it was as though a light switch had been turned on. The rain was supposed to end early in the morning, so I headed toward my field site for the day.

As I drove toward downtown Houghton, I was surprised at how much water I saw along the road. Reaching Michigan Technical University’s campus, I saw that an academic building was flooded, as were parts of the road I was driving on. Wow — definitely a big rainstorm. Steeper roads made the runoff faster and more intense. Okay — a really big rainstorm. As I approached the main street downtown, I stared in disbelief: business owners had simply opened doors on either side of buildings to allow floodwater to flow through. To drive from one end of the downtown to the other, I had to navigate through parking lots and side streets to avoid the surging waters. The flooding was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. I fruitlessly attempted to drive in the direction of my field sites for half an hour before accepting the reality of the situation and leaving for field sites further south.

As it turns out, over 5.5 inches of rain fell from midnight to 6 a.m. What is now known locally as the Father’s Day Flood was officially a 1,000-year flood, meaning a flood of that magnitude is predicted to occur no more than every 1,000 years, based on our historical climate. Though it’s difficult to attribute a single event to climate change, floods and other extreme weather events are becoming more common in Michigan, and in many other regions, as a result of climate change.

And as extreme weather events become more common, they may spark more conversations about climate change, which is increasingly accepted in the United States. Recent 2019 Pew research indicates that in the United States, 83% of people perceive climate change as either a major or minor threat. Extreme events such as the Father’s Day Flood may nudge people to view climate change as a significant risk, since people who perceive themselves to have directly experienced the effects of climate change may be more likely to take it seriously. As an ecologist and science communicator, I’m passionate about engaging with people to have meaningful conversation about climate change. But how can I use local climate change events to communicate effectively with people who don’t believe that climate change is real or human=caused? Perhaps more importantly, how can I motivate people to act on climate change?

Know your audience

To answer these questions, you need to begin with a clear understanding of the audience you’re engaging with — in this case, a person dubious of climate change science. Let’s imagine Sam (a completely hypothetical person), who lives in a mid-sized town and works as a manager at a local business. Sam enjoys going on hikes in nearby forested areas with their dog, reading mystery novels, and cooking. Sam participates in community events, such as bake sales, and enjoys spending time with friends. When Sam encounters news or conversation on climate change, they prefer to disengage from the conversation and think about something else. That’s because Sam isn’t convinced that climate change is real — what’s called “climate change” seems like a lot of different problems, from floods to dying bumblebees to droughts, and that just doesn’t make sense to him. And if climate change is happening, it must be happening somewhere else — certainly not in Sam’s town. Sam never learned about climate change in school, so it must not be a big enough problem to worry about.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Sam’s beliefs. Sam doesn’t understand why climate change would have anything to do with flooding or bumblebees — doesn’t climate change just mean that the planet is getting hotter? Misconceptions like this one about climate change are a typical communication challenge. Research from the Frameworks Institute outlines some of the most common knowledge gaps about climate change, including the role that humans play in climate change, how climate change works, what impacts climate change will have, and what exactly should be done.

Sam has heard about climate change mostly from their chosen news sources and from friends and family, not in school. Although climate change content is now included in the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 20 states and influenced standards in an additional 24 states, climate change is still not thoroughly incorporated in precollege education in the United States. Sam hasn’t had the opportunity to learn about climate change in a sustained and systematic way, and from a reasonably objective and informed source. According to a review of climate change communication by Susanne Moser, the source of climate change communication efforts can have a huge impact on how information is received.

The source of climate change communication efforts can have a huge impact on how information is received.

Sam also feels like climate change must be happening “somewhere else.” Because climate change is a complex science with inherent uncertainties, it can feel difficult to “see,” according to that same review. Understanding long-term changes in climate and the environment can be difficult; it’s easy to confuse weather and climate. Taking action on climate change also typically does not provide immediate results — instant gratification is not a hallmark of climate change action, making it seem even further removed from everyday life.

Accepting climate change as true could have a big impact on Sam’s sense of security, another common communication challenge outlined in Moser’s review. Because of the disruptions that climate change, and efforts to mitigate and adapt to its effects, will have on nature and society, climate change can be an overwhelming topic. So it’s not surprising that Sam wants to avoid climate science, since it feels easier and safer to hope that the world isn’t threatened by climate change.

Though Sam and I have come to different conclusions about climate change, I can relate to how Sam feels about the topic. I can distinctly remember learning about climate change for the first time. I was sixteen years old, attending a weekend youth leadership conference that happened to include a panel on business and environmental sustainability. The panelists spoke candidly about global warming (as it was referred to at the time) — the magnitude of the problem, the fact that human activity was the cause, and the potential for businesses to innovate solutions and implement eco-friendly practices. I was scared by the magnitude of the problem, shocked that I had never learned about this before, and determined to do something about it. But it was a lot to take in, and I can empathize with those who are tempted to simply look the other way.

Regardless of whether a person chooses to lean in or look the other way, climate change is affecting the world around us. Whether or not someone believes the Father’s Day Flood was connected to climate change, ecosystems are being impacted by novel conditions. To develop an effective strategy for communicating with Sam about climate change, we must first understand what aspect of climate change we want to tackle. And as a graduate student in the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University, I’m particularly interested in the impact of climate change on forests.

The impact of climate change on forest ecosystems

As outlined in a recent review article in Science, climate change poses three major types of stressors for forest ecosystems: climate stress (particularly drought), biotic agents (pests and pathogens), and wildfire. Human disturbance is also an important stressor interacting with the climate-change-related factors. While all of these factors are a necessary and inherent part of healthy forest ecosystems, under climate change, these stressors are becoming more intense and more frequent, which can disrupt the ecosystem’s balance. Multiple stressors occurring simultaneously can also have even greater impacts.

Climate stress in turn affects the capacity of forests to mitigate, or minimize, the impact of climate change. As outlined in the Science article, forests are a huge source of carbon storage by sequestering carbon dioxide from the air and storing it as biomass. Promoting forest carbon storage is a key climate change mitigation strategy to reduce our carbon footprint. This can be accomplished by avoiding deforestation, promoting reforestation, using better forest management, and implementing best practices in forest plantations, according to the Science article. These mitigation strategies tend to have positive effects on biodiversity and habitat conservation. At the same time, the capacity of a forest to store carbon relies on healthy, growing trees, meaning the fate of forests and climate change are uniquely intertwined.

Fortunately, humans have been managing forests for hundreds of years. Silviculture is the practice of applying forest ecology to promote desired management outcomes. While we may not be able to forecast exact details of the future, the rich history of silviculture provides us with the tools to promote healthy forests with diverse species. We can adapt our understanding of the impact of disturbances on forests, outcomes of competitive interactions among species, and optimal growth conditions to respond to future conditions. While the climate change threats are powerful, so are the forestry tools to combat it.

Getting cutting-edge forest research into the hands of managers requires effective climate change communication. "We're currently a little bit more on the synthesis side of things," said Lauren Cooper, Program Director of the Forest Carbon and Climate Program (FCCP) at Michigan State University. "There's a lot of great research happening, of course — field data collection and really site-specific papers coming out — but it's really hard to get that to a decision-maker and have it help inform decision-making."

The FCCP works to facilitate conversation between science and policy to direct climate-smart forest management, which inextricably links climate change mitigation and adaptation. Recently, Cooper and the FCCP have been employing a new theoretical framework for organizing management practices, which identifies seven strategies to organize management tools. This framework can help to clarify what strategy is best under a given management challenge or goal. Organizations such as the FCCP which facilitate effective climate change communication to managers are critical in maintaining healthy forests to continue sequestering carbon.

Because of the clear, actionable climate change solutions already developed for forest ecosystems, forests and climate change are a uniquely advantageous combination for communicating about climate change with the public (including Sam). This is because, according to Moser’s review, messages which may increase worry or fear — common when talking about climate change — must be accompanied by solutions and actions the audience can take. When talking about forests and climate change, not only can we use management strategies to adapt forests to climate change but we can use them to mitigate climate change as well.

Connecting the local to the global

Let’s get back to Sam. The pine-dominated forests in Sam’s town were recently impacted by an invasive pest that led to widespread tree mortality. The pest typically is found further south and rarely impacts Sam’s area, but unusually warm conditions in recent years has coincided with the pest's moving further north. The people in Sam’s town are concerned with how the forest will recover from this infestation, and some people have been talking about how this event is related to climate change.

With a thoughtful approach, this event can be used to spark conversation, education, and action around climate change. Effective communication involves carefully considering the audience (in this case, Sam), purpose of communication, message, the messenger (in this case, me, a scientist and communicator), and the framework, according to Moser’s review.

The purpose of communication would be to connect local events with the global phenomenon of climate change and empower action to combat climate change through forestry. With this goal in mind, how the issue is framed determines the context from which the audience (Sam) considers the information. Framing has an enormous impact on persuasiveness of the message. In the review, Moser offers the example of the contrast between a framework that portrays climate change as a threat similar to terrorism and a religious framework in which coping with climate change is portrayed as part of the human obligation to protect and care for the earth. Let’s remind ourselves of what we know about Sam. Sam enjoys going on hikes with their dog — forests are valuable as recreational opportunities. We also know that Sam cares about their community. An effective framework to use with Sam might be protecting our environment and mitigating climate change preserves natural habitats for us and future generations (our community) to enjoy.

Within a given framework, there are a variety of messages — the idea you’re hoping to communicate — that can be conveyed. Moser suggests that effective messaging employs carefully chosen mental models, ways of thinking about the world in simple terms, to overcome the challenges with communicating about climate change. Sam felt that climate change was a distant concept; using a local event to highlight the impact of climate change helps to bring the message home and make it feel more relevant. Accepting climate change would certainly threaten their sense of safety and security; pairing challenges with actionable solutions helps to provide a sense of empowerment. Last, Sam was confused how climate change influences the earth beyond rising temperatures; the messaging needs to make clear the connections between greenhouse gas emissions, rising temperatures/changing climates, and impacts on forest pests.

Communicating the basics of forest and climate science is a familiar challenge for Lauren Cooper and the FCCP. “The fundamental concepts are actually not that complex, but it feels super complex to people starting up. So getting over that initial hurdle of just getting an intuitive sense of ‘what are we talking about?' is the initial piece,” Cooper explains.

Frame vs. Messaging chart

Examples of frames versus messaging that may be used in climate change communication.

Putting it all together, the message, framing, and messenger must be chosen carefully with the intended audience in mind to create a cohesive communication approach. As a forest scientist, I could authentically share a message about the science behind the impact of climate change on forest pest ranges and the outcomes of species interactions (pests and host trees). This could be accomplished through an interactive game modeling how pests move through their environment and the optimal conditions for pests and trees to survive. My message would also include direct actions that people can take — partnering with a local non-profit or conservation organization could offer opportunities for the participants to donate money or time in support of planting diverse tree species in their forest, which would strengthen the forest against future invasions. The framework through which I would communicate this message would be caring for the community by preserving our ability to enjoy recreation in the forest for years to come. While Sam may or may not change their mind, this approach has the potential to share information and inspire change by focusing on local issues and making science hands-on.

This hypothetical approach to discussing climate change with Sam mirrors effective communication being done by the FCCP. The FCCP employs a four-pronged approach which includes a graduate certificate program, non-formal education (including webinars and short courses), collaborative partnerships, and stakeholder engagement. Its approach synthesizes science across different levels, from soil carbon calculations to large-scale vulnerability assessments, and connects policymakers, managers, and the general public to forest mitigation and adaptation science. From my conversation with Cooper, I learned that the FCCP’s strengths lie in meeting people where they are, determining what information needs to be taught to whom, and sharing the tools people can use to meet the challenges they are facing. According to Cooper, FCCP also uses visual communication and strong graphic design to make their messages clear and their audience more comfortable. They tackle common climate change communication challenges, including distilling complex science and pairing knowledge with solutions. Their diverse offerings of courses and topics ensures that they provide localized knowledge and solutions for a variety of forested ecosystems.

And while the outreach scenario with Sam was hypothetical, over the past year I’ve had the opportunity through my science outreach fellowship with NCSE to merge my knowledge about forests and climate change communication to create tools for effective communication. This summer, I developed an app, which will be released soon, "Trees of the Lansing Regional Trails.” The app introduces people to the basics of tree identification for common species along a popular multi-use trail, a fun source of localized information. In the app, successfully identifying a tree leads to a fun fact about climate change and/or forests in Michigan with a focus on the benefits provided by trees. I’m also currently developing a cooperative board game that teaches about forest management for climate change. Players will work together to maintain the integrity of their ecosystems, which are challenged by the stressors that are increasing due to climate change.

The app and board game are examples of how communication must be flexible to meet people where they are. When I started the fellowship year in January, 2020, I anticipated a year full of in-person outreach events that would enable me to directly interface with my community. I had no idea that face-to-face outreach would be off the table due to the spread of COVID-19. These activities provide opportunities for no-contact outreach while still making the content place-based and personalized.

More than a decade since I first learned about climate change, my passion for talking about climate change is still strong. And though I am realistic that not every science outreach event will be life-changing, I do know, first-hand, the power that a single hour can have, since the panel I attended when I was sixteen years old changed the trajectory of my career forever. Local events related to climate change can be powerful opportunities for effective communication, especially when we carefully consider our message, framework, and chosen messenger. Though as a forest scientist I may be a bit biased, I believe that the connection many people have to forests make them particularly powerful avenues for sparking interest and action for climate change. When I asked Cooper what her top take-home message for climate change and forest communication would be, she said: "We just really need more trees." I think so, too. Effectively communicating about forests and climate change can make that goal a reality.

NCSE Graduate Student Outreach Fellow Catherine Henry
Short Bio

Catherine Henry is an NCSE Graduate Student Outreach Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Environmental Science and is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University. Her dissertation research explores the impact of management practices on patterns of tree recruitment and growth in northern hardwood forests.