February 25, 2013

The human side of climate change

By adcomweb

Graduate student will build a case for stronger global warming legislation with personal stories from Alaskans

Aronson headshot

Rachel Aronson, UW grad student

In the 700-person native village of Unalakleet, located on the western coast of Alaska, locals once hunted caribou just steps from town. Fishermen could predict the timing of the salmon run on the adjacent river and the tundra was a reliable source of berries. But over the years, global warming has pushed the caribou population into the hills beyond town, the salmon are running at a different time of year, and the growth of invasive tree species makes berry picking significantly difficult.

For people who define their cultural heritage, lives, and livelihood by the land they call home, Rachel Aronson wanted to ask the question: What happens if climate change forces you to leave this place?

To search for answers, the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs graduate student spent six weeks interviewing the people of Unalakleet. She wants to use the personal stories of climate refugees—people whose land and culture are at risk of disappearing because of climate change—to make a case for climate issues.

“Of course I don’t like climate change, but I didn’t feel like I had the tools to do anything about it until I came to grad school,” she says. Now Rachel is in the process of writing her master’s thesis about the ways that people in Unalakleet have learned to adjust to their changing environment.

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Support more research like Rachel’s by contributing to the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs Graduate Student Fellowship Fund.

When Petridish.org approached her advisor in search of research to feature on its new science crowdfunding website, Rachel was able to raise $3,400 to support her fieldwork in Unalakleet.

Half of Rachel’s supporters were friends and family, and the other half were people she’d never met. The common thread they all share is a belief in the mission of her research: to shift people’s mindset about climate change through the power of storytelling. With her crowd-sourced contributions, as well as the SMEA Graduate Student Fellowship Award—a fund supported by UW professors—Rachel was able to gain exposure to ideas she’d never really considered.

As many of the locals told Rachel, Alaskans have adapted with their landscape for 2,000 years. She says, “The people in Unalakleet are much better adapted to their environment than I am to Seattle. If you took away my electricity and heat, I wouldn’t do so well. I can’t hunt caribou. I don’t know how to fish for salmon.”

But living off the land is part of the traditional knowledge that Alaskans value. With climate change affecting their natural environment, some residents are concerned about the risk of losing this knowledge for future generations.

By using Unalakleet as an example of the connection between people’s experiences and climate change, Rachel hopes her work will contribute something new to the UW’s climate science research.

“The problem with climate change is that it’s hard to make that link between driving your car, or turning on the lights, to extreme weather and permanent environmental changes. The causal chain isn’t easy to see,” she says. “But if preserving and sharing people’s stories can help convince others that climate change is real, then maybe we can start making some progress on a solution.”

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