July 18, 2011 | General

Climate Change Connections: Keep Talking

BioCycle July 2011, Vol. 52, No. 7, p. 42
Sally Brown

SOMETIMES in this discussion on residuals and climate change it seems like we are focusing so intently on the single leaf that we fail to realize that there is a forest all around us. In my mind this is the fault of the arborists (scientists) as well as the public and politicians with the fixed focus.
For example, I spoke with a reporter from Hermiston, Oregon where they are talking about using Class A reclaimed water to irrigate crops. Let it be known that in Hermiston, the average annual rainfall is less than 10.5 inches. You are more likely to die of thirst in Hermiston than of exposure to possible organic contaminants (e.g., from personal care products) in reclaimed water. But people are concerned and this reporter was doing his job.
I tried to do my job and answer his questions – to take these concerns seriously and provide answers with sufficient technical muscle to alleviate those concerns. I explained that chemicals in this highly regulated source of water can be detected in the parts per billion to parts per trillion range. These compounds have been shown to harm fish in streams at concentrations lower than one part per billion. A lab study found that synthetic estrogen (birth control pills) could make fish produce more vitellogenin (a protein responsible for egg production) at concentrations as low as 1 nanogram per liter.
But we aren’t talking about streams. The question was about irrigating crops. I told the reporter about a new publication on the safety of reclaimed water put out by the WateReuse Research Federation that places risks into perspective. An agricultural laborer – someone who would be considered a very highly exposed person to this synthetic estrogen – in a field irrigated with reclaimed water would need to spend 16,000 years working in the field to get the same exposure to the estrogen as you find in one birth control pill.
I related a version of this to the reporter, fully expecting him to chuckle when he realized that there was no threat. Instead he asked me about plant uptake. The straight forward answer would have been to continue with the comparison, i.e., that plants take up very little if any of these compounds and that they will degrade in soils, and that you would have to eat nothing but those plants (e.g., salads) for decades and decades to get to one birth control pill. But instead, I told him about studies that we’ve done showing no plant uptake and I did talk to him about that one paper out of Toledo where they had to add chemicals to the water to get concentrations high enough to even see them in the plants.
I should have brought up the comparison of how many salads you would have to eat and how reclaimed water was a safe source of a precious resource in a very dry area. But I didn’t. And so at the end of the call, it was clear to me that either I had failed to communicate science or that or he really couldn’t distinguish parts per trillion and risk assessment from deep sea monsters. Or maybe both.
It seems as though people in general are unable to distinguish or care about the difference between the one in a billion chance that the household chemical with some potentially unknown side effect will get them versus the 100 percent chance that climate change will get them. How do you get people and policy to recognize that difference? Science alone doesn’t seem to be the answer.

My job routinely involves trying to bridge the gap between scientists and other people. I had always admired science and scientists because I had always thought that science gives you real answers. Science has been my gold standard. I still trust answers from scientists in response to scientific questions above all else. However, now I am a scientist and have realized that yes and no are often words that are absent from the scientist’s vocabulary. No black and white, just endless shades of gray calling for additional study. Or expressing things in terms that no lay person could understand.
Similarly, I’ve seen a disrespect and mistrust of scientists on the part of lay people. Research is often suspect, the peer review process is not regarded as valuable, and with the plethora of publications and Internet access it is always possible to find that one study that casts doubts, that one person who disagrees.
It is also true that science education and literacy within the general public are at a very low level. I’ve heard reported that only 1 to 2 percent of adults in the U.S. are environmentally literate (Coyle, 2005). I recently read in the New York Times that people are much more concerned about contaminants than climate change. Another survey found about a 50:50 split on whether climate change was something to worry about with a majority of those responding suggesting that there is no scientific certainty on this one. In fact, climate change is one issue where scientists can say black or white, with no gray even mentioned. There is consensus, certainty, within the scientific community on climate change – manmade climate change. For the general public though, more are worried about that part per trillion in the reclaimed water than the catastrophic flooding, droughts, and so on.
So why is this and how do we change it? We are busy swatting the mosquito and remain unaware that we are about to be trampled by the herd of elephants. Because if it isn’t climate change that gets us first, how about overtaxing the planet with the need to feed and fuel however many billions of people?

The big answer we need is increased understanding and outreach on both ends. Scientists, or people that deal directly with scientists, can take out some of the hyperbole and likely still get published. They/we can learn to speak in sentences and not dismiss concerns of nonscientists without showing some common courtesy and listening. We can learn to say yes or no rather than qualifying all of our conclusions. Nonscientists, including journalists, can do their homework before publishing alarmist articles or drawing rash conclusions. Due diligence would be a big help; additional education on environmental processes and basic science would do a lot to take fear and hysteria away from the small stuff and potentially raise concerns about the big stuff.
These are both great goals, but will take time and effort. More immediately – and in your community – we need to get scientists working and communicating with nonscience types. Google translator can let you speak Japanese. We need science translators to help bridge the gap between scientific information and general public awareness. If you are relying on science and science alone to push organics reuse, you need to branch out and start talking. Here are some tips to get started, using reclaimed water as an example:
1. Put a face to your cause. Let people see and touch what you are talking about. Show a glass of that reclaimed water. Grow plants with the reclaimed water so people can see that they look just fine – and taste fine too.
2. Talk first about what we know about reclaimed water and why it is wise to use this resource. Don’t start with how safe a practice is.
3. Start listening as well as talking. Often times, people just want to express their concerns, to be listened to instead of laughed at.

Sally Brown, Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, authors this regular column. E-mail Dr. Brown at slb@u.washington. edu.

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