As Chicago Adapts to Climate Change, the Need to Focus on Communication as a Structural Problem

Yesterday, the New York Times launched the first in a series of stories focusing on the challenges of adapting to climate change.  The feature profiled the city of Chicago which joined by New York has taken the lead among major municipalities already engaged in adaptation planning and initiatives.

As political leaders and journalists pay increasing attention to climate change adaptation initiatives, still overlooked is the role of the media and communication in this process.  To date, we have tended to think about climate change communication mostly as a message problem — either focusing tactically on how to explain components of the science, training scientists to be effective bloggers etc.

But beyond these tactical approaches, climate change communication is fundamentally a structural and institutional challenge that requires broader strategy and focused investment to manage.  In a city like Chicago, the media ecosystem in that city is in serious distress, weakened appreciably by the precipitous decline of theChicago Tribune.

It is unlikely that citizens and stakeholders in Chicago have the regionally-focused media and communication resources they need to effectively participate, plan, connect, and manage the threats posed by climate change.  In a commissioned white paper last year to the National Academies Roundtable on Climate Change Education, I outlined “three communication pillars,” initiatives that government agencies and foundations should invest in that would significantly bolster the communication infrastructure within a state, region, or city.  In a paper led by my colleague Ed Maibach, he outlines a similar view of climate change communication as both an individual and structural challenge.

As I reviewed in the white paper, three structural pillars to focus on include:

a) Carefully designed public meetings that provide social spaces and incentives for a wider net of citizens to come together to learn, discuss, plan and provide meaningful input on policy measures, government initiatives, and private and non-profit sector planning.

b) Digital news communities that provide independently produced news and information about climate change and energy tailored to the local and regional needs of an area such as Chicago and that provide a social media platform for aggregating local bloggers, news from other outlets, information from agencies and universities, and for discussion by citizens and opinion leaders.

c) The training and recruitment of everyday opinion leaders who can pass on information and resources to others and who can recruit their neighbors, friends and co-workers to turn out to public meetings, volunteer for initiatives, and take advantage of the resources available at the regional digital news community.

With each of these initiatives, past research provides a scientific grounding and understanding for their careful design and implementation.  Formative and ongoing evaluation will also lead to new knowledge and the increased effectiveness of these initiatives that can eventually be modeled and replicated across regions or municipalities.

In the National Academies white paper, after drawing on existing resources in a region such as universities, public media, and science museums and centers, I estimate the high end cost for funding these three types of initiatives at an intensive level at $1 million annually.

The money is readily available to launch such an initiative in an area such as Chicago, both from government agencies which in recent years are investing more than $20 million annually in climate change education initiatives and from private foundations which as I detail in the Climate Shift report invested more than $360 million in climate change and energy initiatives, but only a little more than a $1 million of this funding went to direct support for media organizations or projects.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.