Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is climate too much of an abstraction?

[What is the] extinction of a condor to a 
child who has never seen a wren?
Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle
as quoted in Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods

What is climate change to someone who never goes outside?
Something that came to Don's mind as he was reading 

I've been intermittently reading Louv's excellent book, finally.* I'm reading it intermittently partly because it's so depressing that I prefer it in small doses and partly because I'm a distractible boy who just reads books that way.

There's a great deal to ponder about "nature deficit disorder" and much more within its pages.

I read it with some special attention to how our growing detachment from nature contributes to the difficulties of climate change education. I also read Climate Change Literacy Won’t Be Enough, a blog post by David Ropeik this week. Ropeik's post addresses the recent report, “Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change” and notes how that report suggests that one of the reasons that we're not making more progress on climate action is ignorance. As the title of Ropeik's post portends, he doesn't think that's the only reason. Here's a bit of the post:

Some of the psychological characteristics that make a risk feel more or less threatening are common to us all. (This comes from the research of Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff, among others). One of them is the subconscious question we instinctively ask ourselves about any possible danger; “Can it happen to ME?” If not, why worry? Can you name one way climate change might seriously, negatively impact your life in the next ten years? Most people, even the most dedicated environmentalists, can’t. Climate change doesn’t trigger the “ME” factor, so concern about it stays intellectual, and doesn’t hit us in the gut. You can see this in the “Americans' Knowledge” study. Sixty three percent of the respondents said they understand that global warming is real, and happening now, but only 16 percent say they are personally very worried. This mirrors the findings in most surveys of public opinion about climate change — concern about climate change is more broad than it is deep.

For most of us, climate change is an abstraction. I suspect for too many of us, climate itself is something of an abstraction.

As Louv so eloquently describes, we're not connected to nature in the way we once were. He focuses on childhood and, if you read the book (which you should), it will draw memories of your own childhood nature experience. For me, that includes work and play in the backyard tree fort and playing in the several different bits of woods I easily walked to from my childhood home. Some of those woods are gone now. They've become housing developments. The ones that remain don't see as many kids exploring them as fear of various things coupled with the draw of computers and video games keeps kids inside. And schools have less recess time, and more of that time is spent indoors, especially if the weather is very cold or hot. Wimps.

And, if people don't go outside very much, do they really have a deep, visceral knowledge of their own climate? If they don't go outside, do they really know what their climate feels like?

My gut says paying just a bit more attention to that as parents and teachers can be helpful. Watch the weather. Get your kids and yourself outside and talk about how the current weather compares to the typical weather for the time of year. Do this monthly and before too long, you'll build a deeper sense of what you're climate is really like.

Pay special attention to things that make your local climate different from other places. The video at the top of the post highlights one of the things that makes my (Buffalo, NY) climate famous or infamous.

The sky view is looking over the City of Buffalo from my home at the Town of Amherst line.

The time lapse video of lake effect snow from last winter shows one aspect of our climate. The ominous looking lake effect clouds are often visible low on the southern horizon when I look out my office window in late fall and early winter. They often just move like a conveyor belt parked to the south of me and my snowblower sits happily in the garage while folks just a few miles away get inundated. I laugh at them! Ha! Sometimes though, as in the video, those clouds move over me and stop my laughter.

The video was shot using Gawker for the Mac.

I'll note that we ought to also be known for our beautiful summers, where it only fairly rarely breaks 90 degrees F and the hottest day on record was 99 degrees.

What makes your climate special? Get out there and feel it!
*Various folks I trust have been recommending that I read it since it came out, and I saw him speak a few years ago. It's about time I got around to it... You should get around to it too.

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