Finding common ground: Climate scientists learn to work
in a “noisy landscape”

Jan. 24, 2014 |

trout stream
Trout streams are one example of a boundary object. They bring together unlikely partners like environmentalists, outdoor sports enthusiasts and local business people on issues such as climate change.

Walk into a social gathering and make a controversial statement. Claim, for example, that Wisconsin’s forestry industry is in trouble due to climate change, and that we’d better do something about it because climate change is caused by humans. Then watch: People who agree with you will join your cause, and those who don’t will form their own like-minded group.

This phenomenon is called “homophily”—flocking to those who share our values and perceptions. It can be a major barrier to solving large-scale problems such as climate change adaptation, where scientific evidence and rationalism brush against traditions, fear of change and economic realities.

Scientists with the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) have shown that Wisconsin can expect more extreme and variable weather in the decades ahead. These changes will impact communities, businesses and ecosystems throughout our state, but simply sharing these findings is not enough.

“Science education makes a lot of assumptions, and one is that science, per se, matters to people,” says Noah Weeth Feinstein, a UW-Madison assistant professor of curriculum and instruction. “But this is not always true.”

Feinstein says simply pounding people with data does not make them think more scientifically or act more logically. He says the average person thinks and learns about climate science in the context of personal and cultural factors, including age and experience, profession, religion and family structure. Geographic location is also critical, and that, says Feinstein, offers a pathway to education.

“It is about understanding the local, natural and social systems at work in a particular location,” he says. “Place-based education is another name for it.”

Feinstein calls his work “engaged scholarship”—moving the pursuit and use of knowledge out of the confines of academia and into the public sphere—a form of the “Wisconsin Idea” embraced by a growing number of UW-Madison faculty and staff. “Opening up scholarship for a wider range of people will enhance its usefulness to society,” says Feinstein. “Our challenge is to get people to focus on the local—place making—and the way to do this is locating the boundary objects.”

A “boundary object” is a sociological term referring to an issue, idea or thing that two or more groups care about, often for different reasons. Employing boundary objects can bring two or more disconnected groups together to try to fix a problem—groups that might otherwise keep their distance due to ideological differences. For example, trout streams, which are at risk due to climate change, can serve as boundary objects: they’re valuable to environmentalists, outdoor sports enthusiasts, and local business people and others.

hatched
Assistant professor Noah Weeth Feinstein urges his students to look at boundary objects when it comes to subjects like climate change.

Last fall, Feinstein assigned graduate students in his Public Engagement with Science seminar to identify boundary objects related to climate change adaptation, serving as a virtual WICCI reconnaissance team. The students chose to examine cross-country skiing, cranberry growing, irrigation in the Central Sands region and urban public health.

Students interviewed industry leaders, recreation participants, farmers and health officials to define the social landscape within each sector, find out whether they recognized climate change as a problem, identify the challenges each faces, and explore how receptive each community is to using climate information.

Their projects revealed that some people in every community were acutely aware of changing environmental conditions, whether or not they thought of them as climate change. Those observations provoked real responses: cross-country ski races had been canceled, moved and consolidated, and cranberry growers reported lying awake worrying about the chance of early thaws. Yet, although most participants expressed a desire for information about the future, the sort of information they wanted—especially the tight timelines and concrete alternatives that would enable them to plan—can be difficult for scientists to provide.

“Coping with climate change in Wisconsin will necessitate the established facts and principles of scientists working with the noisy sociological landscape of communities affected—a geographic, biophysical distribution over social tapestry,” says Feinstein.

University-based research, especially in the natural and physical sciences, typically excludes the “noisy landscape,” according to Mark Rickenbach, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at UW-Madison and UW Extension. He says scientific research usually concentrates on causes and effects.

“A lot of climate-related research is focused on problem identification and scope—saying, for example, how a lot of what we’re doing is not helpful to the environment,” says Rickenbach. “But there isn’t equal emphasis given in academia to collectively address how to move forward; solutions are harder to come by.”

Solutions are usually left to policy makers and managers, who must deal with the fact that new regulations, incentive programs or other measures often have winners, losers and ready-made opposition.

Scientists can help by providing the best possible information and connecting it to the places where we live, work and play outdoors. People are witnessing change in these places, and Feinstein says that represents an opportunity for scientists to communicate across cultural boundaries.

“Everyone’s place is about to become a lot less predictable,” says Feinstein. “Managing uncertainty and incorporating and interacting with experts is happening in a way we’ve never had to do before.”