Framing climate change with culture

Apr. 30, 2014 |

lake delton flood
Rose Haveri investigating G-WOW's Discovery Center exhibit on climate change and culture. (G-WOW photo)

Climate change is touching every community in every country in diverse ways -- and yet, the effects can be subtle enough that signs of change are either missed or argued away. To combat this challenge, experts suggest ‘framing the issue.’

Framing simply means setting boundaries on the scope of a topic to help audiences mentally beeline to the issue at hand. This is the strategy that rests at the heart of G-WOW, a climate change literacy initiative focusing on the environment, people, culture, and economy of coastal Lake Superior.

“G-WOW is shorthand for ‘Gikinoo’wizhiwe Onji Waaban,’ which means ‘Guiding for Tomorrow’ in Ojibwe, the name given to the project by a tribal elder,” says Cathy Techtmann, UW-Extension’s environmental outreach state specialist based in Northern Wisconsin. Techtmann initiated this project four years ago, wanting to understand how to frame climate change in a way that people could make sense of—not just presenting the science, but anchoring it in everyday experiences. Her efforts have created a flexible service-learning model that triangulates climate change with scientific research, real-world evidence, and, in this case, Ojibwe traditional ecological knowledge.

In the G-WOW climate literacy model, Ojibwe traditions provide the cultural perspective, and research from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) provides the scientific core.

“Our goal is to use climate impacts on Ojibwe traditional ‘lifeways’ as an indicator to help people of all cultures understand how climate change is affecting their community and economy, and what they can do about it. This is different than climate change technological information transfer,” says Techtmann. “If you present climate change the other way around, people’s eyes usually glaze over.”

To create G-WOW, Techtmann joined forces with other agencies concerned about climate change impacts—in particular, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Ojibwe tribes concerned with protecting their treaty rights within the Ceded Territories—a geographic region of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan handed to the United States by tribal nations over a century and a half ago—already recognized that climate change was impacting the environment and cultural traditions and potentially impacting their treaty rights to hunt and gather. The federal agencies were concerned about the warming climate and its impacts on land management.

Midwest Ceded Territories
Map showing the Ceded Territories and member tribes. (GLIFWC map)

Ceded Territory treaties stipulate that the intrinsic natural resource quality and ecology of ceded lands must be preserved and made available to tribal communities for maintaining their traditional lifestyle. The sustainability of Lake Superior ecosystems, and the cultures that rely on them, is being challenged by the influx of exotic species, urban encroachment and mining operations, compounded by the superimposition of climate change.

The Ojibwe face a dilemma: fight to preserve the historical baseline, or adjust to a new ecosystem with the accompanying regional economic and cultural impacts. Solutions must be agreed upon between the Ojibwe and U.S. federal agencies, and educating all parties involved about the issues is essential for developing acceptable and plausible solutions.

Wild ricing, fishing, maple syrup production and birch bark harvesting are central to Ojibwe culture. Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns due to climate change are affecting the sustainability of culturally important plants and animals. Untimely rains can drown wild rice plants; warmer winters can make trees more susceptible to pests; and hotter summers can harm critical wildlife habitats.

“The G-WOW model deliberately links scientific data with a select set of culturally significant species central to the Ojibwe community in the Lake Superior region,” says Techtmann. “Using the sustainability of key species connects it all—habitat, environmental conditions, place-based observations and climate science projections from WICCI.”

G-WOW educational outreach includes a concept exhibit and interactive kiosk that make up the G-WOW Discovery Center at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland. About 130,000 people visit each year. The full G-WOW curriculum is featured on a comprehensive and user-friendly interactive web site ( Summer teacher institutes provide professional development training based on the G-WOW model and features WICCI scientists, Ojibwe cultural and land management specialists, UW-Extension educators, and Apostle Islands National Park rangers dealing with climate change impacts.

Because climate change evidence is presented in the context of culturally important species, the G-WOW model is adaptable to other cultures and communities. This component has yielded additional successes and partnerships. The Fond du Lac Tribal Community College in Duluth, Minnesota, recently received a $1 million NASA Innovations in Climate Education – Tribal (NICE-T) grant, which incorporates the G-WOW model in climate change training for teachers and tribal youth. The scope includes expanding the model throughout the Ceded Territories.

Techtmann envisions opportunities for adding other culturally important species, such as blueberries that are important to Lake Superior Ojibwe communities, to expand the G-WOW curriculum’s place-based and scientific scope. She and members of the G-WOW Team are beginning work with the community college and NASA climate scientists to add more science and expand the model to new communities. Techtmann and her team also received a 2014 Wisconsin Coastal Management Grant to support this summer’s teacher training institute and expand digital outreach.

“This is such an intuitive way to look at climate change,” says Techtmann. “One of my goals is to see the model get into the hands of more people, more cultures—teaching more students and adults.”

So far, the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center staff report that a broad swath of audiences are attracted to the exhibit and the kiosk’s accompanying digital features.

“I think people recognize that the Ojibwe have been living on Lake Superior for centuries and have a long relationship with its environment. They are sounding the alarm over a changing climate, it’s making all of us more aware that something really is going on,” says Techtmann. “Increased awareness is key.”