A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll states that roughly half of registered voters say climate change is either “very important” or “one of the most important issues” in their vote for Congress this year. However, many citizens struggle to understand their place in this global issue. Applied Research Institute senior research scientist Ann-Perry Witmer, also a lecturer in agricultural and biological engineering, spoke with News Bureau physical sciences editor Lois Yoksoulian about a more digestible approach to the climate crisis and encouraged readers to participate in a public panel discussion this week.
Research on adapting to climate change is taking off as we are starting to see the tangible effects almost daily. Your research states that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Why is that?
While climate change isn’t exactly “new news,” its impacts on food, energy and water are becoming more apparent, and most research focuses on using high technology to address them. We’re hosting a summit Oct. 10-13 that takes a different approach, recognizing that place-based knowledge can contribute significant insight into dealing with farming, power systems and water supplies as the climate changes.
Place-based knowledge is particularly important because it fits a solution to a need, rather than the other way around. The impacts of climate change for farmers in Illinois, for example, are dramatically different than the impacts seen by the Navajo Nation in Arizona, so it would be foolish of us to think we could address issues of flooding, changing growing season and extreme weather using exactly the same tools as we’d use to adapt to drought, loss of grazing land and wind erosion. That’s not even considering the traditions and identities that are uniquely different between Illinois farmers and Navajo ranchers.
We’re trying to address this issue of place-focused solutions by taking little bites of knowledge from around the world that’s hidden from – or ignored by – us. The summit will focus on the Andean region to create a hub that can store research and share Indigenous practices that could be useful to others. One of our delegates comes from Zambia, which allows us to plant a seed for another hub in southern Africa that we hope will germinate and draw additional insights and approaches to adapting to changes in the global climate.
What is your research team doing to address place-based climate change adaptation?
Our contextual engineering research group is actively engaged in a host of activities associated with climate change adaptation based on place. We’re currently funded by the National Science Foundation to work with the Navajo Nation in investigating and developing place-based solutions to cope with water shortages within the territory. We’ve submitted a proposal for funding to explore how U.S. rural farm-based communities can anticipate their agricultural constituents’ actions in responding to climate and crop productivity changes. We have a team investigating the stabilization of Great Lakes coastlines as climate impacts wreak havoc on recreation and environmental systems, applying context to determine practices and technologies that best align with community needs and capabilities.
With our summit, we’re also hoping to take that first important first step in creating a network of institutions around the world that can act as repositories for Indigenous technologies and practices, sharing information and offering alternatives to advanced Western technologies in addressing food-energy-water needs for societies that can’t or don’t want to adopt industrialized practices. This is the start of an Indigenous revolution!
What inspired you to pursue this more globally inclusive approach to addressing the effects of climate change?
As a professional engineer and former consultant in the drinking water sector, I had the opportunity over the past 20 years to travel to nonindustrialized communities around the world and work with marginalized populations to address safe water needs. During that time, it became apparent that many of these societies have drawn on generations of Indigenous knowledge to develop really smart, really robust solutions that Western engineers simply dismissed because they weren’t technologically “modern.” As an academic and researcher, I’ve tried to convey to our engineering students that good engineering doesn’t necessarily mean dreaming up bigger and better solutions, especially when those solutions simply don’t fit with some societies’ values, needs or capabilities.
I had the good fortune of meeting many of the delegates to our summit through these travel experiences, and I want to bring their thoughtful minds and creative insights together to see what can happen when we’re all in one place. These are brilliant scholars and practitioners who respect each other’s contributions to engineering. What better place to do this than on the campus of a world-class university?
Is there anything that regular people can do to help in this effort?
Absolutely! Just as I tell our engineering students not to fear the challenge of learning context through engaging with our client societies personally and nonjudgmentally, I’d tell the nonengineers of the world not to fear the challenge of talking with technical people and reminding them that we’re all working toward a common goal. The brightest engineer can learn something from a 5-year-old child, and the most math-phobic adult can learn something from an engineer.
We’re offering the community a chance to give this a try Thursday, when we host a community panel discussion with our summit delegates. It’s my deepest hope that the program engages people beyond the technical sciences in a roll-up-your-sleeves discussion about how we can all learn from each other to adapt to the conditions that global climate change inevitably will bring.
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