Using blogs and new media to tell the story of climate change and adaptation (Q&A)

Climate change is happening, and its impacts — warming temperatures, melting ice caps, ocean acidification, etc — are being felt around the world.

Environmental systems, regions, people, plants and animals are all affected by climate change. People, organizations and governments have begun to realize that some degree of climate change is inevitable and that we have to begin focusing on mitigating those negative effects, as well as trying to slow greenhouse gas emissions. Climate adaptation focuses on how to adjust to climate change’s current and future effects.

Eliot Levine, a member of the Adaptation Program at WWF, runs ClimatePrep.org, a blog focused on climate adaptation. He stopped by this week to answer a few questions about climate adaptation, how communication is important for conservation and environmentalism, about using new media technology to tell these stories and more.

What is ClimatePrep.org?
ClimatePrep.org is blog that focuses on telling climate change adaptation related stories. We have entries that focus on adaptation projects going on around the world, others that attempt to deconstruct and add clarity to complex subjects, and increasingly we have entries that attempt to provide guidance on a particular aspect of adaptation related work.

ClimatePrep.org was developed to fill a gap. Myself and members of the adaptation team at WWF-US have been traveling and working with members of our network as well as with conservation and development practitioners from other organizations, decision makers, and natural resource managers. The one theme that became apparent very quickly was the need for adaptation stories that illustrate projects on the ground. By stories I don’t mean another paper in a scientific journal, or your standard two-pager you hand out to potential donors. I mean stories that describe the problems, successes, and lessons learned while attempting to do good adaptation work.

We are lucky in that because our adaptation program works in so many places around the world, and with so many dedicated people, we run into new ideas for entries all the time.

What is Climate Change Adaptation and how is it different from conservation work that has been gone on in the past?
It’s funny, I bet if you ask 10 people that question you would get ten different but probably similar answers. The simple definition, that we use here at WWF,  is that adaptation is a set of actions taken to reduce vulnerability to actual or expected changes in climate. However, while the communicator in me tells me to keep things simple, the other side of me cringes thinking about all that is left out in that definition.

So here is the trickier bit that I would add to that definition. Understanding and preparing for the impacts of climate change can be rather complex. That is because climate change will most often have synergistic effects with the traditional drivers of environmental degradation. That is, it can make traditional environmental threats more severe, less severe, or result in something completely new. Therefor adaptation requires very holistic view of whatever it is you are concerned about; be that a species, an ecosystem, or a community of people. Simply looking at trends and variation in climate for a particular region will not provide you with the type of information needed to implement adaptation efforts successfully. To really understand the transformations that might be occurring one needs to understand how different climate and non-climate processes are interacting.

But how is this different from business as usual? This is a question I get asked all the time. In a recent article that I wrote on ClimatePrep I said that adaptation is “a means not an end.” What I mean by that is that adaptation is not necessarily about “what” you do but more about the “why.”  For example, I would argue that establishing protected areas in order to safeguard habitat for species can be both climate adaptive or simply business as usual conservation work. In order for the establishment of a protected area to be climate adaptive, the process through which one goes through figuring out the location, size, and management of the protected area needs to be informed by a planning process that includes current and future climate impacts.

Why should people care about climate adaptation?
There is a very simple answer for this one. Climate change is already having severe impacts on people around the world and as climate change becomes more severe things are not likely to get any easier.

Climate change is going to alter the amount of water available for drinking and sanitation, effect the efficiency of agricultural production, alter patterns of human migration placing new pressures on human built infrastructure, really the list could go on and on.

Adaptation is about finding ways of dealing with the impacts we are currently experiencing (like those mentioned above) and preparing for those that we have not yet experienced. How could you not care about that?

How does ClimatePrep and the work that you do further WWF’s mission?

As a network, WWF understands that adaptation is something that must be integrated into its conservation planning if we want to continue to be successful in our mission of conserving nature. However as with anything new, and climate change adaptation is definitely relatively new for most organizations, things take time. WWF, like many institutions around the world, is still learning how to do this right. We have learned a lot already, though, and we want to spread that knowledge!

At WWF-US, a big push has been made by the adaptation program to train and support members of our own network as well as decision makers, natural resource managers, and conservation and development practitioners at other institutions. ClimatePrep was a tool that we always envisioned would speak to those audiences and provide them with the necessary examples needed to inform their own work.

Who is the target audience for ClimatePrep and how does the format of the project help you reach those people?
Anyone interested in adaptation. That may seem broad, but we honestly think that these are lessons that many  individuals in all sectors would find useful to some degree. Because climate change effects so many aspects of society and the environment, and because adaptation requires such holistic thinking, we really are provided an opportunity to connect people who might not normally not speak to one another.

As such ClimatePrep’s goal is to try and develop stories that speak to wide array of audiences. Sure, some articles will only really resonate with a particular fraction of our readers, but many of our articles have information that would be useful to anyone who is interested in adaptation.

Climate Prep is a blog, not a journal or other traditional-style publications. Does being a blog help you spread your message further? Is there a reason you choose this form a communication to talk about climate adaptation?
Those of us working in the adaptation program here at WWF-US get really excited about working in small groups with individuals who are also working on adaptation or who are out in the field trying to implement a particular project on the ground. Myself, and I bet most of my colleagues, would probably say that you learn more on these occasions than at any other time.

In creating ClimatePrep we really wanted to try to keep the conversational tone and informal atmosphere that fosters so many the informative experiences we all have in the field. The blog format is the closest I think you can come to that sort of an experience online, at least when it comes to the written word.

Additionally, we knew early on that it was very important to convince individuals from outside of WWF to write for us as well. We also knew that if we really wanted these potential authors to write about their lessons learned than they would need to speak to their failures and challenges as well. This is not something we are used to documenting, especially in a  public forum. However we knew that a blog, rather than a site filled with “case studies” would help make potential writers feel more comfortable.

What role does communication play in helping to further conservation and environmentalism?
Communication is key to successful conservation work. Whether we are talking about informing the general public or providing a forum for practitioners, decision makers, and experts to communicate with one another.

It is because of the importance of effective communication that I think the personal tone in our articles is absolutely necessary. The way climate change is often written about can make it feel very abstract and disconnected from the people, species, and ecosystems that are experiencing it first hand. Many of our entries are written by individuals who live, or have been working, in the regions they are writing about for many years. As such they are intimately involved in these places and the people they work and live with. I think its important that the personal aspects of their work come out in their writing.

ClimatePrep has contributors from all over the world from inside and outside of WWF. How important is that to telling the story of climate change and adaptation?
I am confident that the experiences that are presented in entries written by individuals at WWF have some very real benefits to others who are grappling with similar issues. However, we can only offer so much. WWF is only one institution tackling the problems associated with climate change, and ClimatePrep was not designed to be a marketing tool. It was designed as a tool to increase communication and learning across institutions and sectors.

The reason for this is simple- climate change is not only an environmental issue, or a development issue, or an energy issue, or a water issue. Climate change has begun, and will increasingly continue, to impact every aspect of our lives. As such adaptation really needs to be mainstreamed across all sectors of society. One way to get that started is to increase the communication across these sectors.

So, really, the multi-institutional nature of ClimatePrep is absolutely necessary. Which is why when I think about how I would like to see the site grow over the next year that is the aspect I most often come back to. I would very much like to see us take on more partners and bring in a larger number of stories from outside of the WWF Network.