Shoring Up Our Coasts

“The world’s oceans have largely been left out of the mainstream discussion of global climate change.” — United Nations Environment Programme

By Lee Anna Sherman

Sparkling seas wash the Yucatan Peninsula — the Caribbean to the east, the Gulf of Mexico to the west. So it’s more than a little ironic that ocean and coastal issues were mostly absent from the official agenda when the UNFCCC met on the peninsula in 2010. Even as the azure waves lapped outside the Cancun venue, the negotiators inside talked mostly about land-based issues. As one observer grumbled, the delegates “can’t see the ocean through the trees.”

Trust, says Miriah Russo Kelly, is a critical ingredient in coming to grips with climate change. (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)

For Miriah Russo Kelly, an Oregon State University Ph.D. student who was in Cancun for the international climate change conference along with her mentor and adviser Gregg Walker, that oversight was unsettling.

“As the ocean heats up and sea levels rise, many, many, many thousands of people who live in coastal areas are becoming very vulnerable to immense hazards — storm surges, flooding, erosion,” says Kelly. “Quite frankly, if we don’t do something now to mitigate emissions at the international level, many of these communities, many of these cultures, will cease to exist.”

Ocean scientists and NGOs are pushing hard to broaden the UNFCCC dialog from the current emphasis on forests and agriculture to, for example, ocean acidification and “blue carbon” — the colossal promise of mangroves, sea grasses and salt marshes as carbon sinks.

Since Cancun, Kelly has undertaken a bicoastal study of communities that are preparing for climate change. She has four case studies — two in Oregon (Coos Bay and Neskowin) and two in Maine (Ellsworth and Saco Bay) — where residents are engaged in local or regional climate adaptation planning. “Oregon Sea Grant and Maine Sea Grant have collaborated in the past to do survey research on the perception of climate change in coastal communities,” she says. “While there are some significant differences, Maine is not unlike Oregon. They are dealing with a lot of the same issues that we are.”

As a scholar in environmental communications, she’s digging into the interpersonal dynamics of collaboration and cooperation among people who may share little in common except locale — fishermen and hotel managers, loggers and grocers, political leaders and homeowners, climate scientists and climate skeptics. “As more and more communities want to adapt to climate change,” she notes, “it’s going to require people to come together, to work together, from very different parts of the community.”

Her focus is the social psychology behind forging strong bonds among disparate members — the “human process of coming together and engaging in negotiations,” as she puts it. Investigating these “human dimensions” of climate change, Kelly’s research questions range from how climate science is used in decision-making to how individual, organizational and leadership roles best facilitate collaboration.

Trust is critical, she says, especially in the emotion-laden topic of climate change. When scientists listen, when they let group members steer requests for data and other scientific input, they win acceptance where they might have met resistance, Kelly is finding. “In all the projects I’ve been studying,” she says, “there is this ‘co-development of knowledge’ happening, where scientists are truly engaging with the community to find out what information they need.”

As a certified mediator who teams up with Oregon State professor Gregg Walker to conduct conflict-management trainings and facilitate multi-stakeholder dialog, Kelly blends professional negotiation skills with her deep commitment to a healthy planet, a commitment that awakened one day when, at age 12, she was scanning her parents’ book collection for something to read and happened upon Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “That set me on a path to care about the environment and consider how humans interact with the natural world.”

Kelly is a founding member of the OSU student chapter of Mediators Beyond Borders International. “We do a lot of work on environmental conflict management, training students and others in how to deal with conflict effectively and productively.”