Top scientists, policymakers gather in Portland for NW Climate Conference
Author: Summer Allen
Posted: October 21, 2019

 As the wildfires and hotter summers become more frequent in the Northwest, experts from across a range of sectors including academia, state and federal agencies, tribal communities and municipal governments throughout the region gathered in Portland to discuss the latest research, knowledge and best practices around climate change and associated impacts over the Northwest Climate Conference in October.

Hosted by Portland State University, researchers and resource managers discussed ways to make the Northwest more climate resilient. They tackled topics such as climate science, water quality, agriculture, wildlife ecology, public perceptions of climate change, sustainable cities, ensuring equity in climate action, mental health resilience, marine science, forest management and more.

“Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time,” PSU Interim President Stephen Percy said. “The mission of Portland State University is ‘let knowledge serve the city’ and this conference is exactly the kind of thing we need — engagement of people in the science fields, in higher education working in partnership with local governments and communities and tribal nations and all kinds of different people to work on problems created by climate change.” 

Like our changing climate, the conference has evolved in the past 10 years. The first conference was also hosted by Portland State but under a different name: the Pacific Northwest Climate Science Conference. The conference started strong with 300 attendees its first year. Nearly 465 people attended this year’s conference. 

"The bar was set very high,” said conference chair Paul Loikith, a PSU assistant professor of geography who studies climate patterns. “The diversity of voices included, the diversity of expertise and the interactions across disciplines has been expanded and strengthened over time.”

PSU researchers were well-represented at the conference. In total, 37 PSU-affiliated faculty and students presented their work in panels, oral presentations and poster presentations. 

“We have people from my lab talking about the physical science, model analysis, data analysis, and we also have PSU researchers speaking about impacts, resource management, interdisciplinary projects, snow and ice and the impacts on glaciers from climate change,” Loikith said. “The conference showcases the diversity of climate change related research at PSU.”

A strong theme throughout the conference was the importance of prioritizing equity both when researching how climate change is impacting vulnerable populations and forming policies that support climate resiliency. The conference included several sessions featuring community leaders working with populations who are at the frontlines of climate change, such as agricultural workers and tribal and indigeonous groups. 

In a special session about justice-based approaches to climate action and resilience, Jamie Stroble of the King County Climate Action Team highlighted how the fallout from climate change can magnify already existing health disparities and inequalities. Stoble — and the other speakers on the panel — discussed the importance of working with impacted groups before forming policy. 

“As a northwest region we’re pushing each other to be better,” she said.” We need to build trust before we ask for anything.” 

 In another session entitled, “Believing is Seeing: How Climate Change Beliefs Predict Perceptions of Extreme Weather in Oregon,” Brianne Suldovsky, PSU assistant professor of science, environment and risk communication, discussed her research on how political beliefs and beliefs about climate change influence Oregon residents’ views on extreme weather events. 

“Reality has absolutely no bearing on whether or not someone perceives the weather in their area as being more frequent or more extreme,” she said. “It’s just their belief in climate change that is driving that perception.”

She added that both liberals and conservatives are not very accurate in their perceptions about extreme weather occurrences. 

“We’re all bad at it,” she said, adding that liberals typically thought events were more frequent and more extreme when they weren’t, whereas conservatives didn’t think they were frequent or extreme when they were. 

Suldovsky noted that this has important implications for how people talk about extreme weather. 

“We really urge scientists, experts and people who communicate with the public to stop using the term ‘climate change’ altogether. It’s too charged; people tie it to their identity. Talk about climate change impacts. Talk about things like sea-level rise, drought, flooding. Talk about actual impacts that are localized and that matter to people. We find that to be much more effective,” she said.

The conference included an invocation by Tanna Engdahl, Spiritual Leader and Tribal Elder from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, followed by a surprise appearance by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley. 

“There’s no issue that we face that is more important than the challenge of carbon pollution and climate chaos,” Merkley said. 

He discussed the impacts that climate change is having on Oregon and beyond. 

“Our governments haven’t responded aggressively to this problem,” Merkley said. “We have to move incredibly urgently with whatever passion we have, whatever plans we have. We have to double, quadruple our efforts. We are in deep danger.”

The next speaker, Don Sampson, Chief of the Walla Walla Tribe, shared similar sentiments. 

“We must have the courage to take bold actions as responsible members of a global community because we’re all in this together. We only have one earth,” he said. “The theme of the conference, working together to build a resilient northwest, is what everyone across the planet should be doing.”

Emily Slinskey, Portland State doctoral student in geography, discussed her work on atmospheric rivers, which are long narrow channels of water vapor that can be associated with torrential rain and flooding. The goal of her research is to improve understanding of how atmospheric rivers occur and how they impact the environment. 

One of the final sessions of the conference included a series of talks about snow and ice. 

 Kelly Gleason, PSU assistant professor of environmental science and management, discussed her work on how forest fires impact snow. She found that snow melts faster and earlier in forests following fires. 

“That is persistent,” she said. “Even 10 years following fire occurrence we are not back to pre-fire conditions.” 

The snow and ice session also included a talk by Andrew Fountain, PSU professor of geography and geology. Fittingly, Fountain — who closed out the final session on the last day of the conference — was one of the founders of the very first northwest climate conference. 

Fountain studies glacier change in the Olympic Mountains. In this talk, he discussed Blue Glacier — what he calls a “very climatically sensitive glacier” — that can be used as an index to measure how climate change is influencing glacier size. 

“It’s really the temperature that’s guiding these changes,” he noted. 

If we continue our current rate of carbon emissions, Fountain’s work predicts that glaciers in the Olympic Mountains will largely disappear by 2070. 

“If we’re good stewards, maybe they’ll last to 2100.”