Lewis and Johnson on Climate Actions and Attitudes
According to professor of Economics Lynne Lewis, climate change is “one of the most pressing problems we face right now.” Many people can probably agree with that claim, but a few Bates professors have placed climate change at the forefront of their research and teaching. Two of these professors are Lewis and professor of Geology, Beverly Johnson.
Johnson’s current research focuses on coastal blue carbon, which is present in coastal “ecosystems that convert CO₂ in the atmosphere into plant biomass and then store it in the soil through time.” Specifically, salt marshes and seagrass beds in Maine happen to be much better at this process of sequestering carbon than forests, which is the type of ecosystem that is routinely viewed as the best for carbon sequestration. “Approximately 90% of the landscape is forested and the remaining 10% is either water, city or rock,” said Johnson. “When you look at the carbon drawdown in our state, about 6 percent of the carbon the entire state takes up is taken up by salt marshes and seagrass beds, yet these systems occupy less than 0.2% of the total area.” Due to these observations, Johnson is working to try to restore damaged salt marshes and “turn on the sink again,” so these marshes can once again sequester carbon. Johnson explained the idea of purchasing carbon offsets, a process in which people and organizations who contribute carbon dioxide to the environment can pay to invest in efforts to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. These efforts can take the form of reforestation, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, for example. Additionally, it is possible to offset the carbon emissions from a flight by planting trees in certain areas. She hopes these kinds of techniques can soon exist for salt marshes. “We have a great handle on salt marsh extent in the state of Maine. We know that healthy salt marshes are much more effective at sequestering carbon than forests and we know there are many salt marshes that can benefit from restoration. Students and I have been working to create maps of marsh carbon for when we turn these carbon accounting schemes on so certain areas can be prioritized for restoration. We’re gonna be ready to roll because we know which salt marshes in Maine have the potential to sequester the most carbon, so we will be able to put resources into the areas where we know we can turn on the carbon sinks again.”
Lynne Lewis, on the other hand, is currently working with coastal adaptation to sea level rise. “Given where we live and what’s happening and how fast the Gulf of Maine is warming, it’s warming faster than 99% of the oceans, and as for the projections for sea level rise… we always use the metric of 2100 and that’s just getting moved in. Now we’re talking about 2060, so we’re looking at pretty short time horizons and we have to get people away from the coast. How do we do that?” Lewis asked. “There are economic incentives that are working in some places, like buyouts, and there are so many kinds of infrastructure designs that are working and some places are doing it well and some places are sort of head-in-the-sand,” she elaborated. At Bates, Lewis is leading a short term class with professor of Environmental Studies Francis Eanes called In Search of Higher Ground: Sea Level Rise, Flooding, and the Future of the Eastern Seaboard. “We’re going to travel down through Virginia and North Carolina and some of the really vulnerable coastlines and look at communities, “ said Lewis. “There’s an interesting environmental justice component of that, that rich communities can adapt quicker and have federal dollars that come in quicker than poor communities, so there are some inequities there and we’re just going to see what folks are working on.”
Furthermore, Johnson and Lewis have recently become involved with developing an initiative called the Bates Initiative on Climate Adaptation and Resilience (ICAR). According to Lewis, this initiative is “a larger group that is trying to facilitate and foster collaborations and intentional curriculum design about climate change at Bates.” The ultimate goal of this project is to bring forward a proposal for an interdisciplinary minor in climate change that would include classes from many departments, foregrounding the idea that all disciplines are involved in dealing with climate change. “Actually, economics is at the center of this and so is the politics and so is the chemistry and so is the rhetoric,” Lewis explained.
In an effort to bridge one of many gaps between disciplines, Johnson and Lewis recently attended a conference on sustainability and built infrastructure run by The National Council for Science and the Environment. “It was a national conference with representation from all kinds of engineers and architects and academics and Congressional representatives and there were lobbyists there,” explained Lewis when describing the conference. At the end of the conference, Johnson and Lewis participated in a workshop aimed to teach scientists how to effectively communicate with policymakers. Due to their involvement in this conference, The Union of Concerned Scientists thought the two could be useful in their efforts to influence Maine’s delegation regarding bills that were in front of Congress last April. Johnson ended up participating in this and The Union of Concerned Scientists flew her, a scientist from the University of Maine, and an aquaculture farmer also from Maine to Washington D.C. where they talked to Susan Collins, Angus King, and staffers for Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree. “They were really interested to hear what our thoughts were on the budget debates that were going on and what those impacts on Maine would be,” explained Johnson. “One of the things that the Trump administration was trying to do in the 2019 budget was reduce funding for NASA and for the satellites that are orbiting the planet tracking climate, ice, sea level rise, water, carbon and all sorts of things. He wanted to get rid of much of that funding for those satellites and basically redirect the funding for NASA outward into space. I am in support of space exploration, but not at the expense of understanding our earth system.” Johnson and those with her brought forward scenarios of how these changes could affect people in Maine to try to influence these politicians’ views on the issue. “Who knows if we influenced her at all, but those satellites were funded in 2019,” confirmed Johnson, in celebration.
Johnson said she learned a lot from this experience, mainly because she had to learn to suppress her own emotion about the matters at hand while discussing with policymakers and representing The Union of Concerned Scientists. This suppression of personal emotion is a fundamental factor in the relationship between academics and activism. When asked if they considered themselves to be environmental activists, Johnson and Lewis both paused. “There’s an emotional element to that term that I have for sure. As a person I feel super strongly about all this stuff, but I know I have to… ,” Johnson explains, adding another pause. “As a scientist, it’s really important to maintain your credibility by not getting emotional about it.” Jumping up and down and waving your arms about issues might get people’s attention, but she worries that it might not really get anything done. “If the environmental regulations are lax, so maybe we’re allowed to dump whatever we want into water bodies and problems are created, you can’t just say ‘you can’t do that because it creates problems’ and expect for change to occur,” Johnson elaborated, suggesting tackling policy issues is a critical step to moving forward. With regard to activism, Johnson concluded, “yes, I’m an activist, but I’m doing activism in the form of communicating the science instead of protesting emissions.”
When asked if she considers herself to be an activist, Lynne Lewis initially contributed: “I do, in that I am passionate about what I do and I want to make a difference and I want to do the right thing for the right reasons.” She went on though, to wrestle with the same issue as Johnson. “We’re getting to the point where we need to be louder, but it’s very challenging as an academic when you’re expected to be objective and neutral,” she explained. “It’s a very interesting place to be right now, especially in the classroom, where there’s some urgency around some things and there’s some misinformation being spread by the current administration, and I feel it’s very important to point out errors and fallacies to my students and help my students to be better prepared to sift through all that noise.”
Beverly Johnson echoed a similar sentiment about the classroom setting in 2019. “Every time I teach Global Change, students bring more and more knowledge about climate change into the classroom,” she explained. “When a new climate record is set during a semester, the students are now less outwardly concerned because they have heard about record-setting trends for years now, and there’s a little bit of ‘yeah we’ve heard this before,’ understandably.” Students are shown facts and figures that are becoming increasingly more threatening, but urgent reactions are becoming fewer and farther between. This perceived apathy could be rooted in the feeling that climate change is such a looming problem. “It feels so big to me and so unsolvable,” explained Lewis. “We can’t stop what’s happening but we can do some things and there are some exciting developments and there are some communities working together that are mobilizing and doing good things.” But how do you continue doing climate change work when this lament of unsolvability is hiding behind every climate statistic? “If I go hopeless, I go fetal. It’s like I can’t do anything and I’m not going to do anything and that’s just a really bad space for me to occupy, so I don’t let myself get there,” noted Johnson. In part to combat this fetal state, she has changed the primary focus of her research. “I’m trained as a paleo-climate type researcher. I seek to understand how the earth system works and fluctuates through time. I have worked on reconstructing the Asian monsoon over the last 60,000 years, for example, but there are now more immediate needs for someone with my background and perspectives. I now spend most of my time seeking to understand the climate mitigation potential of coastal wetlands.” In the classroom, Johnson tries to empower students to stay out of that hopeless place and use their voices to build up solutions people put forward instead of putting them down. Lewis also strives to motivate her students to start taking immediate action. The action she sees to be most valuable is collective. “I get a little bit personally frustrated with the ‘everybody needs to turn off the lights or everybody needs to do this or everyone needs to make their individual difference and everyone needs to be a vegetarian,’” she explained. “All that stuff is important but we really need collective action and we need it quick… I hope I am training people to make a difference.”
Both professors are taking responsibility for motivating students to take climate change action and they both think this is accomplished in part by avoiding the abysmal outlook. To summarize this sentiment, Lewis mentioned a tweet she recently saw from climatologist Michael Mann, which claimed that the doomsday narrative about climate change is the same as climate change denial. “He was saying that the catastrophic narrative, that there’s going to be a big methane bomb when the ice caps melt and we’re all doomed and humans are going to die in ten years, is just giving a free pass to polluters” explained Lewis. “Since it doesn’t matter, burn all the fossil fuels you want.” Both Lewis and Johnson ground their work in the belief that there are things that can be done, but they have to be done quickly. From presenting science to Susan Collins to empowering students to use their own voices, Beverly Johnson and Lynne Lewis are engaged in immediate and admirable climate change actions and Bates can look to them to take the lead on climate change action in the future.