Going to Extremes

Michel Boudrias


A consortium spearheaded by USD faculty is using a hefty grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to try to redefine the way San Diegans learn about climate change and how they prepare for and respond to its effects. The Climate Education Partners, led by Associate Professor of Marine and Environmental Studies Michel Boudrias, was recently awarded $4.93 million for the second phase of its project. The grant was one of just six bestowed across the country, and the only one given to a group based on the West Coast. The team is looking at climate change from a strictly local perspective, and focusing its efforts on those with the potential for changemaking within their specific communities.

“The reason this started is that NSF, NOAA and NASA have all been funding climate change education nationally for many years and the needle wasn’t moving,” Boudrias says. “There seemed to be some disconnect between the efforts and the responses from the general public.”

The partnership involves collaborators from USD, California State University, San Marcos, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, The San Diego Foundation and the Steve Alexander Group. Its plan is to move the needle by working with so-called “key influentials” to disseminate information about San Diego’s changing climate, demonstrate local evidence of its effects, and have them spread the word throughout their various circles.

“The goal of all of this is to have a more informed set of leaders,” Boudrias explains. “What we hope to have is a continuous system that will work now and in future generations … a cascade of information that gets across.”

From polling conducted in the first phase of the project, the group already knows that San Diegans are more aware of climate change and more concerned about its effects than many of their fellow Americans. The challenge the partnership faces now is how to spread that awareness throughout local communities and channel those basic beliefs into action. Team members are considering and testing out a variety of methods. They’ve already taken community leaders on water and beach tours to show them the effects of swelling tides, changing rainfall patterns and longer droughts. And they’re preparing videos, planning workshops and considering a wide array of other educational tools as part of their project.

“Working with the [Native American] tribes, for example, we’re going to use the latest research from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on heat waves,” says Nilmini Silva-Send, a co-principal investigator and a senior policy analyst with the USD School of Law’s Energy Policy Initiatives Center. “We know that heat waves are a big concern for them, how they affect their land, public health and agriculture. We want to create resources for tribal leaders and educate them, so they can educate their people and help them make informed decisions.”

The partnership has also recruited a veritable who’s who of influential community members to its advisory board: business, political and religious leaders, representatives from the Navy as well as key players in education, health care and local government. Work is well underway.

In collaboration with SDG&E, researchers are launching a project involving electricity usage that will place real-time monitors in people’s homes. “We’re going to look and see if that has an impact on the amount of electricity they use or not,” says Mica Estrada, another co-principal investigator, and research faculty in the department of psychology at Cal State San Marcos. “Some people are going to see an educational video before they get the monitors and some are not. We’re going to see whether that has an impact as well.”

In fact, every tool the group develops will be evaluated objectively after it is used, to measure the impact on its target population. During the next five years, the partnership hopes to create a tried-and-true formula that works not only in San Diego, but can be taken to other communities across the country.

“What we want to do is develop a model that works,” Boudrias says. “How do we get information across? Who should be the messenger? Should it be a scientist? A community leader? Mothers? Grandfathers?”

Members of the team are adamant about one point. They are not, they say, trying to convince skeptics that climate change actually exists. Their only aim is to give San Diegans factual information, show them evidence, and help them make adjustments if they want to.

“There are decisions being made (by leaders) today that are really going to have an impact in the next 20, 30, 40 years,” says Silva-Send, pointing to a long-term regional plan for public transportation and roads as an example.

“We are really trying to get to the community as a whole,” she says. “As Changemakers, we have a very strong environmental perspective. It’s at the core of who we are.” — Karen Gross

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