Gauging Climate Change Vulnerability with Antioch University New England’s Michael Simpson

May 14, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good and today we’ve got Michael Simpson with us. He’s the Chair of Environmental Studies at Antioch University, New England. Welcome to Green is Good, Michael. MICHAEL SIMPSON: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, before we get started on talking about all the great stuff you’re doing at Antioch University in New England, can you please talk, Michael, a little bit about your own journey leading up to becoming the Chair of Environmental Studies there? What was your background like? What was your youth like? What led you to this path in life? MICHAEL SIMPSON: Well, you know, not give my age away but I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in southern Ohio and had a lot of opportunity to get out. We basically lived in sort of an agricultural area but I spent a lot of time outside, going down actually into Kentucky and to the Cumberland Gap area anytime I could to go fishing and hiking and that sort of interest followed me. I always wanted to be a biologist and when I went to college, I actually was on track to be a doctor. I was pre-med but I took an environmental course in the ’70s and once I took that course, I decided my patient was going to be much larger than a person and from that, I started working in the field. I eventually ended up being trained as a wetlands ecologist as a graduate student and did a lot of field work outside, which is where I love to be, but I also ended up getting jobs working for the public sector for state government and also for non government agencies and eventually, I was a partner in two environmental consulting firms and so what I realized from that is that the science basically is important but it’s not the whole picture for decision making and informing policy. As a result, I started teaching, first as an adjunct and associate professor, then finally as a full professor, and at the same time, tried to maintain my practice so taking my ideas that I was talking about in the class that I was also doing in the field. When I talked in the class, it was talking from the trenches as opposed to talking from the ivory tower and then basically, you know, everyone has to pay their dues and end up in administration at some point so now I’m the Chair of the Environmental Studies Department but I’m still keeping a very active applied research agenda. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Michael, is that a nice way of saying no good deed goes unpunished in life? We’re going to be talking about some very fascinating and timely topics today because you are an expert in climate change and you describe yourself as a climate adaptation scientist. What does that mean though in relation to all this talk of global warming and climate change? Explain what climate adaptation scientist means before we get into the greater and bigger discussion of climate change. MICHAEL SIMPSON: Sure. Well, let me start by saying we’ve seen a significant increase in the frequency in intensity or the strength of weather events just over the past 30 years, when compared to the rest of the twentieth century, with storm events such as Irene and Sandy on the East Coast, the extended droughts in the south and west with the associated longer and more intense forest fire seasons, large flooding events in the upper Mississippi and its tributaries. All these things are happening and, thus, as an adaptation scientist, we invest what are the vulnerabilities to this changing climate. We’ve recorded the changing climate and we want to find out what the vulnerability is. That spans the range of what is vulnerable to the built environment or infrastructure that we’ve built and what are the impacts to the natural systems, upon which our society is dependent so that’s what we mean by an adaptation scientist. Mitigation scientists are people who are looking at what are ways in which we can reduce the loading of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which basically heats up the atmosphere, which basically creates more evaporation and puts more water into the atmosphere, thus changing the climate significantly so we talk about mitigation scientists and adaptation scientists. They actually try to come up with solutions that deal with both when they’re looking for solutions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. The issue of global warming and climate change, you just referenced some of the largest issues in recent years. Let’s start by framing the whole discussion. This is really happening. This is really based in science. I want to say just this week I read that one of the biggest icebergs in the world has just broken away from Antarctica or something of that nature and is now floating off into the ocean untethered. Is this apocalyptic or do we still have a chance to reverse what’s going on and what we’ve already set in motion that’s been man-created? MICHAEL SIMPSON: It’s hard to deny that what we have seen in the most recent past is not significantly different from previous recent history and it’s hard to deny that we’ve been breaking a number of different weather records for extreme events across the nation. If your question is will the trend continue, based on the majority of the scientists who study aspects of climate change into the future, the answer is yes, very likely. I say within 95% confidence that the future trend is going to continue and there will always be those scientists who will have a countering argument and that’s part of the scientific debate, especially with scientists that are focused on the specifics of a certain region but it is quite certain that the weight of the overall scientific community believes that climate is changing at an increasing rate compared to what’s been seen historically so basically, we just need to take that into account as we plan and adapt to these changes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’re really excited and honored to have Michael Simpson with us today. He’s the Chair of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England and for those who want to learn more about Michael and the great work he’s doing at Antioch University New England, please go to www.antiochne.edu. Michael, talk a little bit about something that I’ve never heard before, the explanation. What’s the difference between weather and climate? MICHAEL SIMPSON: Oh, that’s a great question. Weather is what we experience on a day to day basis or season to season basis. In New Hampshire, where my campus at Antioch University is based, we have a saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait a day. This just points to the fact that the weather is variable and the variability has an expected range based on people’s experience. We expect what the highs are going to be and how long they’re going to be and what the lows are going to be but climate is looking at the weather and its variability over a long period of time to discern trends and the weather and the range, what we want to know is the extremes changing. Are they going to become more common over time as opposed to being considered outliers or extremes? And so that’s what we do and we statistically look at data historically to determine is there a change in the trend. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right, and you mentioned earlier about the Mississippi and the flooding and Sandy and Irene and Katrina and as you say, there are, of course, always going to be naysayers and scientists who say it’s not changing but I hear that less and less compared to ten years ago, when Al Gore was just really getting all the visibility with regards to Inconvenient Truth and everything like that. The naysayers seem to be quieting down so for this discussion, Michael, let’s assume that you’re 220% right that climate is changing, and the real question now, lots of young people around the world listen to this show. We get hundred of emails from all different parts of the world. What are we to do about it? How do we become part of the solution instead of fretting on the sidelines and worrying that this change is actually occurring, and let’s all finally agree that it is, and how to we become part of the greater change? MICHAEL SIMPSON: Well actually, we already are changing. We are already doing things about it. The previously discussed weather events I talked about and associated impacts to communities throughout this country actually has mobilized better planning and response preparation for similar scale events in the future and this is true from the federal FIMA level and the State National Guard level down to county and municipal coordination. What still needs to be expanded upon at the state and local level is a comprehensive review of what is vulnerable in the communities to these impacts and who is the most vulnerable because often, we forget that the most vulnerable may be closest to the impact and so we need to understand what are the vulnerabilities and where are they going to occur. These what we call vulnerability analyses then become the basis of the knowledge of what we call community and business development planning so that’s the next step is basically being able to assess our vulnerabilities based on the scales of things that we’re seeing already and then really incorporate that into our planning. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This show will be broadcast across Clear Channel across America on the iHeart network, Michael, and then it gets uploaded to the Apple iTunes network and we see thousands of downloads in London, in Shanghai, in Mumbai, in Brazil so for our listeners who are sitting in Ohio and back in your hometown and our listeners who are sitting in Shanghai and in Dubai, talk a little bit about behavioral changes, both domestically and internationally. What are we to do and is it similar actions to be taken or is it dissimilar based upon geographic, political, and climates that are existing where the people are sitting who are listening to this show right now? MICHAEL SIMPSON: I think there’s two parts to that answer. One, in order for citizens and businesses and communities to respond or adapt, as we say, and build resilience into an uncertain future, I don’t think we need to frame it as climate change. I think, rather, we should target those vulnerabilities that those local communities have already seen that have been made apparent by the increased frequency of extreme events that are occurring in their locales. Thus, back in Ohio, in my neck of the woods, how does agricultural and related business community adapt to higher and more frequent flooding? Similarly, what steps we can take now for the farmers who have and may continue experiencing longer periods of low or no precipitation, droughts and so they’re experiencing this. Then if this is going to continue and possibly increase in scale, then how do we get them to respond to those specific things as opposed to thinking about climate change globally. We want them to think about what are the vulnerabilities locally and so this applies to any place. Secondly, basically you can think about and you do need to think about how do you plan from the top down, federal level, state level, et cetera. Implementation and action is always from the bottom up and so to come up with solutions, you need to build participation and capacity from the stakeholders who are going to be impacted by the changes and need to actually implement solutions to mitigate or ameliorate those impacts and so you need to have a process that grows up from the community level, from the ground up, and allows them to come up with the solutions, because there is really no one solution for everybody in response to what’s happening. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. When I was reading about you and all the great work you’re doing, one of the things I did read in preparation today was that you’re putting on a national conference for climate change preparedness. Why are you targeting municipal officials as your key audience members for this conference? MICHAEL SIMPSON: Well, you know, I’ve been going over the last ten years to conferences on climate change and climate adaptation and it’s scientists talking to scientists or scientists talking to policy makers or policy makers talking to policy makers and I said, ‘That’s enough. We’ve talked. We need to talk to the people that have to respond,’ so this conference is a three day conference in Manchester, New Hampshire in May. It’s to target those people that need those tools and those resources and the examples and the skills to assess vulnerability, to incorporate ideas into both their planning as well as their capital budgets and they don’t have to do it all at once because we have a normal planning horizon but they need to be cognizant of what they do on a year to year basis and so we are bringing that together and so our catchment areas are from Canada all the way down to the Chesapeake for this conference and we’re taking the lead here but there’s actually on the heels will be a conference in the Great Lakes following and then one in St. Louis area and then one out on the west coast so even though we’re taking the lead here, I think we’re setting an example on how it can be done and other areas of the country are doing it because their areas of vulnerability are different than what we experience in the northeast. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That makes so much sense. Instead of scientists talking to scientists, scientists talking to the people that have to really get prepared and are right on the ground. That makes a ton of sense. Wow and also, I read recently the White House announced in their Climate Data Initiative that our school, Antioch University New England, was listed as one of the 14 private sector partners in this initiative. Share with our listeners, and shameless plugs are fine. That’s why we do this show. We’re here to highlight all the good that great people and great organizations are doing here in the United States and around the world. Share what that’s all about. MICHAEL SIMPSON: As part of my scientific research, what a lot of what I’ve been doing, because I always do it within an area for communities, has always been to bring data down to the point that I can communicate it effectively to the policy makers and decision makers at the state and local level. I do that one off based on the grants I get to do this but that is really what they need. They need to know what is the scale of the change that you’re talking about so that we can effectively plan it. They need to create strategies and this is both states and communities that need to create strategies to be more resilient and the decision makers need the data or information to understand what is changing and the impacts so the Climate Data Initiative, and the White House understands this, has made it a priority to make the wealth of climate information, and there’s a tremendous amount of climate information held by the federal government, particularly kept by NOAA, NASA, The US Geological Survey, even the Department of Defense. They want to make this data more accessible and user friendly so it can inform decisions at the state and local level and with this announcement of this Climate Data Initiative, President Obama wants to earmarked $1 billion in the next fiscal year’s budget to building the resilience of the American citizenry to climate change and, as part of this, Antioch University New England is one of the 14 initial partners, which include such partners as Google, the World Bank, EZRI, which is the lead company for creating software spatial analysis and mapping tools, and MIT and thus, the White House announced the Data Initiative and then our center, which is a Center for Climate Preparedness and Community Resilience, we basically are the ones that have to translate and our trend in this new center is to translate information down to the local level so they can make decisions and so the three day May conference that we previously talked about targeting and training local officials and decision makers to better prepare for changing climate is the first initiative under this new center. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha. We’re down to the last minute, Michael, and so for our listeners in the United States and around the world that want to learn more about what you do and want to become the next Michael Simpson to help effectuate change with regards to the science that you’ve outlined today. Give us a couple parting thoughts on how to do that. MICHAEL SIMPSON: I’d say one of the things is come to conferences like this. As I said, they’re going to be popping up over the next two years around the country that really is a how to as opposed to talking heads. It’s a how to respond conference and we’re the lead one. Secondly, I think our center is going to have a national reach. Antioch University has five campuses, three on the east coast, one in Ohio, and then one in New England, where I’m based and we’re basically going to be providing the kind of expertise service to the communities around the country and that’s actually part of our mission at Antioch is to provide service to the external world and finally, we actually have a master’s program here in Sustainable Development and Climate Change that we are now training people to be the professionals that are going to go out and do this work into the next decades. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Well, thank you again, Thank you, Michael, for being an inspiring science and sustainability superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good.