Leshner Leadership Fellow Kirstin Dow engages climate stakeholders in North Carolina

The 2016 Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference brought together stakeholders from North and South Carolina. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

“My vision is to promote research that is responsive to people’s needs and to influence individual and collective action and behavior in preparing for climate change.” Kirstin Dow puts her research into action by convening local and regional decision-makers and community members to jointly explore solutions to climate change impacts.

Dow is a geography professor at the University of South Carolina and principal investigator of the Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments (CISA) research team. CISA is one of 11 NOAA-supported Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments teams helping communities prepare for and adapt to climate variability and change through collaborations among climate scientists and decision-makers.

Dow’s recent outreach activities include the 2016 Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference, held September 12-14 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and local workshops that focus on climate adaptation planning. The conference featured formats that promote audience participation and feedback. To ensure local participation, 20 scholarships were provided to community stakeholders, including city managers. Through planning scenario workshops, CISA works with community leaders, scientists, and decision-makers to explore possible impacts of climate change and options for managing them. The approach engages participants on a topic important to the local community, such as sea level rise, stormwater management, or flooding.

Kirstin Dow (right), principal investigator of the Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments (CISA) research team, chats with Jim Fox, director for University of North Carolina Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, during a break between sessions at the 2016 Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference this Sept. 12-14. | Brooke Keppy, USC Media Arts student

To understand how best to engage, Dow and her CISA colleagues studied the information pathways used by decision-makers in North and South Carolina. Although government and nongovernmental organization staff used federal sources for climate data, researchers found that the majority of decision-makers relied on informal networks and trusted relationships for regional information. Conferences and workshops were also considered important sources of climate information. In a region where climate policy has shifted, Dow has learned to avoid hot button topics like the causes of climate change. Instead, she notes that it is “most useful to engage those who need to prepare for public safety and the impacts of pattern changes in the weather.”

Participation as a 2016-17 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow has inspired Dow to think creatively about ways to encourage faculty, graduate students, and government agency staff to participate in more proactive science and society engagement. The fellowship trains 15 mid-career scientists each year to lead high-impact science communication and engagement, increase confidence in their skills, develop relationships with policymakers and other audiences, and build capacity for more scientists to engage with public audiences.

During her fellowship year, Dow is organizing a brownbag series, trainings, and web events related to climate communication for university faculty, government agency staff, and graduate students. “It’s time to start working on adaptation to climate change,” she says. In community-based exercises, she often raises questions about community vulnerability and options. Dow is eager to include dialogue related to risk tolerance and priorities, and approaches to address the uncertainty in climate adaptation in ways that everyone – local community members, regional decision-makers, and scientists – can understand and participate in.

The Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015, and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner, who established the program. Learn more about what the Leshner Leadership Fellows are doing in ScienceAAAS Leshner Fellows help confront climate impacts.