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A Digital Farmer’s Almanac – How Communities Track ‘Microchanges’ in Climate

This interview was originally published by New America Media on February 11, 2013.

Colorado climate change

Source: New America Media

Question & Answer, Ngoc Nguyen, Interview with Julia Kumari Drapkin.

The iSeeChange almanac allows people to make observations about climate change in their own backyards and ask scientists questions directly. NAM’s Ngoc Nguyen spoke with the project’s producer, Julia Kumari Drapkin, about how this experiment in crowd-sourced environmental reporting is spurring conversations about climate change in rural Colorado and elsewhere.

What is the idea behind the iSeeChange almanac?

I’ve worked closely with scientists, had personal conversations with them and written stories about scientists and why they think the way they think. After all this time, we’re still struggling with communicating climate change … You can’t narrow down very easily global climate change to individual community experiences. Like when Hurricane Katrina slammed into my hometown of New Orleans…. could you attribute it to climate change?

We are afraid to go into local experiences and attribute climate change to local experiences because we don’t want to make a mistake. That’s a good fear to have, but it prevents us from having conversations with citizens who may have climate change affecting their lives.

As a journalist, what were you trying to change about the way environmental news is communicated?

I realized that part of the problem is the structure of the way [journalists] report. Traditionally, a science story begins with a scientist making observations and asking questions. They answers questions in a research paper, and if I [the reporter] have time, I find a local anecdote to make that experience seem familiar. What if we reverse that process? What if we provide tools and mechanisms to make observations about what is changing in their lives?

How does the website work?

People go online and make observations and ask questions, and the questions are answered by the community, which includes scientists. As questions get asked, we come through every week and review the postings. Either the questions are answered by the community or scientists or we call a scientist and get them to answer specific questions. For example, if there’s an early spring, what happens?

It’s a socially networked almanac — half journalism, half farmer’s almanac. People keep detailed notes about farms and ranches, in the same way that a biologist would keep field notes. It’s relevant to their bottom line. They derive their livelihood off the land so they pay attention to the way it changes. Even on Facebook, there’s a weather journal. It’s never been curated and shared.

What have you learned and what’s been surprising about the project so far?

I learned that when you give the community the power to ask the questions, it’s one of the most empowering things you can do. It’s a powerful [reporting] tool and allows me to see what is happening in the community months before things break in the mainstream [media]. Communities could tip off their news if they had the tools to do it. I do believe in that process. When we launched the website, I remember, I received texts about wildfires and droughts in April 2012, long before wildfires and droughts made mainstream news and headlines. In Colorado, we saw a historic wildfire season and …half the country is in a drought now.

The face of the environmental movement has been traditionally white, despite the fact that ethnic communities and immigrants have long championed environmental rights and protections, and polls find they want cleaner air and water and clean energy. How could the iSeeChange project change that?

I would say that immigrant communities are the ones who are the best positioned to see these microchanges in the climate because of their relationship to the land. One of the reasons iSeeChange works so well is because in Paonia, Colo., you have a natural resource community. People here live off the land. They derive their livelihood off the environment. Immigrant communities know that really well. In a way, it would be really interesting to have an ISeeChange in a Vietnamese community in coastal Louisiana who are attuned to microchanges in the environment over time.

You’re in rural Western Colorado, so how do you talk about climate change there?

In ironic, because in Paonia, half the town are miners and the other half are organic farmers. We have a coal mine in town owned by Bill Koch. When we first started to promo iSeeChange, the radio station heard from some listeners that it was a misuse of resources. [In Paonia], there’s a part of the community that doesn’t believe in climate change. Mostly, people I am working with are white…they may not be wealthy, they may not buy into climate change, but they do pay attention to how the weather’s affecting water [supply]…we all have common ground. Weather – it’s a little bit ‘Eliza Doolittle’ — you can talk to anyone, anywhere about the weather.

Right now, iSeeChange is locally focused [on Paonia, Colo.], but could it have a global lens as well?

Yes, right now, it’s geared for the community. The weather feed has info relevant to the community. But we’re getting clips everywhere. We got a post from Baltimore, saying that spring flowers were blooming earlier in Baltimore.

We envision websites for three environments – rural, urban and coastal. We’re exploring how it could or should be modified for urban climate change, how it can be adjusted for coastal climate change.

Climate scientists say that weather is not the same thing as climate, but there’s so much mingling of extreme weather events and climate change now in the minds of the public. There seems to be value in talking about climate change through weather, but is it also misleading?

Scientists are much closer to saying the weird weather is indicative of climate change. That’s what the almanac is about. Extreme variability in the environment. This tool allows us to map the noise…we can see that sustained number of bizarre events at the same time is telling us something. For a drought series we did, we looked at the changes in the behavior of the jet stream has on heating temperatures in the Artic. Jet stream is the river of air and as it slows down…it can contribute to the weather pattern persisting. If dry weather is what we’re seeing lately, it is more likely to continue to be dry and if it’s more wet, it will continue to be wet.

So iSeeChange is recording what you call microchanges in the environment. Is it also mapping how people are adapting to the changes?

We’re interested in that too. Scientist and ranchers and farmers are all seeing the same thing…farmers and ranchers are making a decision. What do they do on their farms and ranches? We’re interested in mapping the decisions. That’s a core question that … iSeeChange tries to answer … as the environment is changing, how are we changing too? That’s the whole point of the project. A digital almanac…to document what 2012 has done to us, how it changed us.

We had a earlier spring, flowers grew earlier, markets weren’t ready for some of the food, people ran out of water, they decided not to plant…people selling off [farm] animals right and left. This has been an epic year.

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