Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election has put many environmentalists and scientists on edge about U.S. commitments to fight climate change, since the president-elect has previously called climate change a "hoax" and vowed to "cancel" the Paris climate agreement.
Among the nervous scientists is Missouri Botanical Garden ethnobotanist Jan Salick, who has studied the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples since the early 2000s. Earlier this month, Salick attended the United Nations annual climate change meeting in Marrakech, Morocco.
She spoke to St. Louis Public Radio's Eli Chen about her research and the challenges scientists face in the current political climate. Here is the conversation:
Eli Chen: You came back to the states from the Marrakech climate talks early for the election. Can you talk to me about how it felt to come back and find out that we've elected Donald Trump, who's considering having the U.S. withdraw from the Paris climate agreement?
Jan Salick: Well, his election affected the whole tenor of the meetings. It just overtook a lot of the discussion once people realized that he was elected. We were trying to make progress up until that point. We were trying to make progress on the specifics of the climate change agreement in Paris. We were trying to lower the acceptable limit of warming, and we were trying to look at specific programs that could counteract climate change. It was a meeting of negotiation on detailed plans for the future until Donald Trump was elected and then all of a sudden we were back in the mentality of how can we convince climate change deniers that yes, in fact, it's happening? And that made us all feel like we were stepping back 10 years in time.
I am doubling down. I will study climate change and I will produce results and talk to people like I am to you today to try and convince people that climate change is a fact and we are seeing the results of it.
EC: You've been studying the rituals of indigenous peoples for many years. So why did you start having conversations with them?
JS: I think the beginnings go back to my parents. My mother in particular worked with Native Americans. So I grew up from a very young age seeing the ethnic diversity in this country and elsewhere in the world and being fascinated by it. In my own work, I guess I probably started in the Peace Corps. I was in Malaysia, in the Malay Archipelago and we were working with Orang Asli. It translates into the "original people." They were what the British called "tree climbers." But they were so much more than tree climbers. They were the people who knew all the plants in the forest, and they knew what they were used for. They knew what we could eat. At the time, I was training as an ecologist, but that was really the beginning of my interest in ethnobotany.
EC: How do you talk to these tribes about climate change?
JS: I try to let them talk to me, rather than vice versa. I would like to get their views on it and see what they are understanding and seeing, rather than trying to impose my views on them. But I usually talk about it in terms of change. Have you seen change? What do you think is causing it? You don't want to lead a conversation. You don't want to put ideas in people's heads. That's always tricky.
EC: Tell me about some of examples you're seeing of the big changes these indigenous peoples are seeing in their environment.
JS: In the Himalayas, there's very rapid warming to the point where their whole ecosystems, environments, land use and agriculture are changing without them really realizing what's happening. But in the high Himalayas, they used to herd yaks and grow barley and a few crops. They had very, very limited diet and very few crops they could grow. Now, all of a sudden, they can grow vegetables and fruits and their whole subsistence living is changing under them and they're becoming forced into the cash economy, without really realizing what's happening to them.
Now I'm working in the northeast coast of the U.S. That's the area of the world where sea level rise is happening the fastest, there and the South Pacific. When climate change is causing sea level rise, then all of a sudden, their land is decreasing, the sea bottom is changing so that the fish and the clams, shellfish and so on that they depend on are being threatened by these changes. The effects on their lives are very direct. That's a large part why I study indigenous peoples. We always say they're on the forefront of climate change. Their lives and their livelihoods depend so much on the environment that they're affected much more directly than we are here in St. Louis.
EC: You're one of the few researchers that looks at the nexus between climate data and indigenous knowledge. What's the value of studying that?
JS: Well, climate data—it's a matter of scale and perception. Climate data is great at predicting what will happen on a large scale, what's happening in the world. Meteorological data can predict very well. They really are spectacular at predicting what's going to happen with weather. Indigenous people are on the ground in one location and see the effects of these larger patterns on the environment. A meteorologist doesn't understand what's happening with a plant in a particular area, doesn't know what's happening with the trees when there are droughts in California. But the people who are on the land very much do realize this. So with scientists working together with local people or indigenous people, you get the combination of scales that brings meaning and more local data into the picture.
EC: There are many Americans who are very skeptical about the subject of climate change and a lot of them are very mistrustful of scientists generally, so how are you and other folks at the Missouri Botanical Garden communicating the importance of science to the public?
JS: It's a real weakness with scientists in general that our education does not teach us how to communicate with the public. We have none of those skills, so we depend on people like you to take our message and to help us learn how we can talk about it. We do what we can. We do write articles, we do interviews, but it's really not our strength, our strength is in data gathering and analysis. So we're caught on the back foot a bit when it comes to communicating about climate change.
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