Mary Matella: The Reason We Need to be Preparing for Climate Change

Author: Mary Matella
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2014
Host Agency: California Coastal Commission

“If climate change is so obvious, why don’t people get it?”

– Meighen Speiser, ecoAmerica

I’m a scientist, and I think I get it. But I learned at the first California Adaptation Forum in Sacramento on August 19-20 that I’m not the most effective messenger. People don’t trust scientists (or politicians) these days to tell them about climate change. People don’t even respond well to the term “adaptation” because, according to the American Climate Values Survey 2014 [1], that inspires complacency, not action. If we want people to do something about climate change, we need to talk about preparedness, with empowering, positive messages.

Most of the people at the Adaptation Forum were there because they wanted to learn how to adapt to the climate to come, and to the climate extremes we are already experiencing today. We were there to share information, to collaborate, and to learn. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, attendees discussed steps that must be taken to protect against climate change impacts—consequences of increasing temperatures, extreme storms and droughts, and sea level rise.

As a California Sea Grant State Fellow with the California Coastal Commission, I’ve been thinking a lot about sea level rise. As sea level rises and more frequent or severe storms threaten coastal regions, communities will face the need for emergency services, response and recovery capacity, as well as adaptation “preparedness” measures to protect coastal resources, including habitats, public access, and recreational opportunities. I organized and moderated a session for the conference, entitled “Finding Common Ground: Integrating Nature, Infrastructure, and People into Sea-Level Rise Planning,” to address this very issue. Speakers from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coastal Commission, Marin County, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP), and the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve talked about how they are planning for sea level rise. We gave people a chance to learn about the sea level rise planning process and then work in small groups to grapple with real world examples from county, tribal, and natural resource agency perspectives.

While climate change may be construed as a slow moving crisis, the impacts will not be. Extreme storms and massive floods will have immediate effects—sea level rise will only exacerbate these impacts. How are we going to build and sustain our communities on the coast to be resilient to these forces? How can our communities work to prepare by making smarter decisions about what to build where? How can we balance environmental protection with private property rights? While we don’t have all the answers, the conversation has certainly begun.

Connecting climate change preparedness with the mechanisms already in place for addressing challenges in our communities is the path forward. But we will also have to work across scales, share resources, and plan regionally. A network of personal relationships will facilitate these efforts, and the California Sea Grant State Fellowship program has helped me see how these connections are vital. The coast we leave to future generations depends on them. Americans need to see their leaders and people around them addressing climate change in their words and actions, and if I’m a part of that, maybe one day I will be an effective messenger.

[1] Perkowitz, Speiser, Harp, Hodge, Krygsman, ecoAmerica and Strategic Business Insights. (2014). American Climate Values 2014: Psychographic and Demographic Insights. Washington, DC.

Written by Mary Matella