Rising sea levels for some, and catastrophic droughts and wildfires for others, are imminent unless immediate action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report from the United Nations. Yet in Wyoming only 60 percent of adults believe that global warming is actually happening. University of Cincinnati Anthropologist Daniel Murphy has studied how humans make decisions in the face environmental changes, from Mongolia to the Mountain West. He says the key to starting conversations about what to do about climate change is not to mention it all. Wyoming Public Radio's Tennessee Watson sat down with Murphy to find out more.
Tennessee Watson: If you're having a conversation about adapting to something in the future, to what degree do people need to be on the same page about the fact that there is change on the horizon?
Daniel Murphy: This is one of the interesting things that came out of our first research project that we did in southwest Montana in the Big Hole Valley, in a couple of towns there: Jackson, Wisdom and Wise River. Predominately these are ranching communities but there is small business; there are outfitters, hunting outfitters, fishing outfitters. So a lot of activity in that particular landscape. And what we noticed was . . . for one, we didn't need to come out and say that this is climate change because everyone we talked to recognized that there is change. And we spoke to ranchers who would give us stories about . . . when they were kids the snow was up above the fence. Every year snow above the fence and that they don't see that anymore. They talked about how they have much bigger herds of pronghorn. There are no moose anymore down in the valley. They notice these changes and so that's an entry point for them to start thinking about the future: 'Oh you know what? I've seen this.'.
And people, once they are able to see themselves in that, then they're able to craft meaning and establish that [they] have continuity in this landscape. This isn't the end of the world. [They] can do things here. And I think that's empowering.
When you're talking about iconic changes. Iconic -- whether it's these massive hurricanes like you just saw in Florida or sea level rising -- that is a different way of attaching onto and putting meaning on and establishing understanding with this larger global process. When you live on the land and you make your living from the land like many people in Wyoming do, and in the West do, [the iconic change] is less meaningful because it's kind of one signal in the environment, when they know that there are many signals, that there's a lot going on. So there are these different ways you attach meaning to those things that I think are really really important, and are different for different people when you live in different places, and interact with the world in different ways.
TW: That idea is really interesting, of the way that we emotionally respond to something that is apocalyptic. Where we are like 'ooh we're not going to make it.' The doom and gloom versus . . . imagining a future that might change, but where I can envision how I would survive. What I hear you saying is that doesn't shut us down in the same way. That if we can see ourselves adapting, that we stay in the conversation. If we're told we're all toast then we check out and we don't do anything about it.
DM: If you're told you're all toast and you already don't believe in this particular narrative about climate change then you've hit a bunch of walls there. And so I think framing the conversation in the right way gets people to stay in the game and less likely to put up those walls and put up those barriers. For example, let's go back to the father and son who go out elk hunting every year, right? And they're noticing changes in the size of the elk herd, and they used to have a favorite hunting spot and that's radically changing. And then they go home to their ranch and they see the irrigation ditches are not filling up like they used to. The snowpack is lower than it used to be. And they start putting together things. They see these things because these things are not just resources. These are things that they have attached memory to. Attaching memory to that relationship with their father. You know, I had a rancher who talked about how much he loved his cows and how like these changes affecting his cows broke his heart. And so it's those memories and that meaning that's attached to these things that you see changing. And that's an entry point.
TW: And I guess for me my big takeaway from your work and what you've observed is that the better starting place is not the question: 'What are you going to do about this?' It's: 'What are you seeing in the place where you live?' But I guess I'm wondering, is that going to save us?
DM: For me, that's the only way to have the conversation. If you disagree with somebody, what you have to do is sit down face-to-face, and you listen, and they convey those sentiments and that emotion and that feeling. Most people they empathize and start to see the world through somebody else's eyes. And I think when you have those personal connections, that's the beginning of something. Now that's small, right? And this problem is really big. So I get the sense of that this seems like a huge scale issue. We're not at the right scale, but to me, there's no reason not to have those conversations. And you talk to that rancher who says 'you know this year has been a bad year.' Talk to them: 'Well what have you been doing about it? What do you plan to do about it? Is everybody else you know seeing this?'
If you go straight into saying: 'well that's climate change buddy!' Yeah that could be the end of the conversation. I mean why would somebody want to talk to you about that. You just told them what their world is and you just finished their story for them. And I think that's a problem. And so good listening is a very good habit to get into.