Oregon State University climate Scientist Talks About Wildfires and Climate Change Denial

Dominique Bachelet will speak March 1 at PIELC

After years studying the impact of climate change on rice yields in Asia, climate scientist Dominique Bachelet and the team of researchers she was working with gave their reports to an economist.

The final conclusion of all those years of research? The most important determinant in rice’s future was its price.

“It feels like a reality check,” says Bachelet in a slight and effortlessly graceful French accent. “It’s like, yes, climate is definitely affecting this planet, but it’s humans who ultimately have the final say whether or not something is going to survive or not because our actions are so important.”

Bachelet, a senior climate scientist at Oregon State University, studies the post-1989 impacts of climate change and how science is communicated between land managers and scientists.

She speaks 6:30 pm Friday, March 1, at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, which runs through Sunday, March 3, at the University of Oregon School of Law. Download a brochure at pielc.org. The conference is free and open to the public.

Could you tell us more about your keynote presentation?

I’ve worked with the Bureau of Land Management and in sagebrush country. We tried to make web tools that actually deliver data because the land managers who are actually doing something in the field outside don’t have time to read a lot of reports. You need to make something that will be kind of interesting, fun, easy to use for them.

So I worked in the nongovernmental organization world for 10 years, trying to put things on the web, trying to design web interfaces that would be nice… It’s hard for me as a researcher who is on my computer to go to a manager who has spent his entire career managing forests and tell him that he’s wrong. I’m going to have my head chopped off — no doubt about it.

So we thought, trying to find common grounds again, trying to present the view, to explain our position, to sell the case… It’s just trying to approach it with common sense, which seems to be lacking these days dramatically.

How do regular citizens see the effects of your work in everyday life?

I have a colleague who lives in the middle of the woods. She has a beautiful house. She’s an artist, and she was asking me, “I see that you’re going to give a talk about fire. I’m worried about all my trees around, and if there’s a fire on that hillside, my house is going to go up in flames if I don’t do something. Do you have any advice for me?”

It’s really hard when there’s a very specific example like that because I’m like, “Well, if you really do not want to burn, you need to get out of that house.”

Don’t put a house in the middle of trees. If you are worried about fires, it’s not a good idea. Just like you should not put your house in the floodplain because, eventually, it’s going to flood.

But to her, it was about the basic things like how many roads are there to come in and out. She has a single lane to go in toward her house. I’m like, “This is the highest danger possible because if a fire happens, you only have one way to go.”

With your research, do you have a goal that you’re ultimately trying to achieve?

The goal we’re trying to achieve is to try to understand the trends in the future.

Like for fire, we know that the global trend is for a decline in fire because we get more urban area and more agriculture. But if you live on the West Coast and you say that to anybody, they’re going to laugh at you and say, “Come on, We get more fires every summer,” because we live in a country that has a lot of wildlands…

We see that nature responding to the change in climate much more than anybody around the Mediterranean basin in northern Africa or southern Europe. The goal is to explain to people, the reason we see more fire here is because we don’t have all these megacities that exist in China because we don’t have as much agriculture in our state because the climate would not have supported it.

But everywhere else the trend is a decline in fire. We’re going to have these big fires that are going to reset the stage, and then the next vegetation type that’s going to regrow, it’s going to be better adapted to those conditions.

So in the long term, you’ll get less risk of fire, because with less productive vegetation, there will be less fuels, so less fire. Trying to tell them that they need to look beyond a lifetime if you want, they need to think long term. And so we are experiencing a lot of change. But eventually, when the climate stabilizes — hopefully, it will, if people started really paying attention to emissions and doing something about it — society will be able to adapt to the new conditions.

But it’s dangerous right now because there’s been so little done. Scientists don’t want to be doom and gloom because what we say is, the plants and the animals will adapt. But will the human species adapt? That’s the problem.

We see birds that are adapting to new phenologies of the plants that they feed on. We see animals that are actually adapting also to new behaviors, new areas, new food types. But us humans are like stuck in this concrete block and don’t want to change anything. And it’s really frustrating. We need to change the way we live. We need to pay attention to what’s happening and change with everything else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.