Burn Baby Burn

OSU professor to speak on wildfires, climate change at annual climate law conference

The wildfire seasons of the past few years have been among the most devastating in recent recorded history, with wide-reaching effects: Dozens of fires have devoured more than a million acres of land, gripped horrified onlookers with viral social media posts and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands in California, Oregon, British Columbia and elsewhere.

And according to one Oregon State University professor, politics is slowing down the fight against climate change.

“It’s always about human decisions,” says Dominique Bachelet, a former senior climate change scientist at the Corvallis-based Conservation Biology Institute and current OSU professor. She studies how climate change has affected the globe since 1989.

Bachelet, who holds a doctorate in botany and plant pathology, is a first-time keynote speaker at the 37th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC), where she speaks March 1, at the University of Oregon School of Law. 

The keynote is about the impacts of climate change — including wildfires and vegetation shifts — as well as Bachelet’s experience working with federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, and how science is communicated to the public in an age when misinformation feeds skepticism about climate change.

“The climate change debate has been called a debate, and it has never been called a ‘scientific debate,’” Bachelet tells Eugene Weekly. “We can debate climate change between scientists because we always do that. We find different things, and we have to debate it so that we learn from each other.” 

But debating the nuances of climate-change science is not the same as debating whether climate change exists.

Most of the leading national and global scientific organizations, as well as the vast majority of actively publishing climate scientists — around 97 percent — agree: The Earth’s climate is warming, and “it’s extremely likely due to human activity,” NASA says.

“But with the public, having somebody who will purposefully tell you [that] you’re wrong in front of the TV screen — it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Bachelet says. “To deny climate change for so long in this country is just unreal.”

Bachelet also studies fire modeling, which uses computers to simulate the flow of gases and heat through environments, and how to best communicate scientific research between land managers and scientists through interactive web tools. These programs take data from scientific research and transform it into interesting, fun and sometimes colorful visualizations.

She’s worked on online interactive maps that forecast how much temperatures could change in your area according to different levels of carbon dioxide emissions, as well as decision trees that help land managers make choices based on their specific land conditions.

“It’s mostly between the people who do something in the field and us, the ivory tower,” Bachelet says of her research. “Trying to get rid of all the jargon, not writing thick reports, but actually doing workshops, developing web tools so that we have more effective ways to share what we know to the people who can do something about it.”

Bachelet’s been involved in several reports on the state of climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning United Nations body that compiles comprehensive assessments of climate change’s causes and potential impacts, as well as responses to it.

She says the ultimate goal of her research is to try to understand future climate trends.

“Fire is wild, and there’s very little we can do to control it,” she says.

PIELC’s theme this year is finding common ground in a time of extreme political divisions — even among groups with similar values and goals — to pursue a common goal for humanity: combating climate change.

For Bachelet, finding common ground among those involved in fighting climate change is the “holy grail” of her career.

“One thing that I’ve found in terms of common ground that I could talk to absolutely everybody about was wine and winemaking — because everybody loves the wine,” she says.

Bachelet speaks 6:30 pm Friday, March 1, in Straub Hall, 1451 Onyx Street. PIELC runs Thursday, Feb. 28, through Sunday, March 3, at the UO School of Law, 1515 Agate Street. More at pielc.org. The conference is free and open to the public.