There Once Wasn't a Puffin Anymore
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
In their continuing efforts to warn us of the threats of climate change, researchers regularly note new harms being produced by a rapidly changing biosphere. Sometimes the threats are personal and concrete; tornadoes and hurricanes and floods and droughts and forest fires and other severe weather which, though no one event can be directly tied to climate change, are the kinds of things anthropogenic climate change are likely to cause. And sometimes the threats are less direct, less threatening to humans, but emotionally compelling nonetheless and worth noting as part of the bigger picture.
You know how cute puffins are? The puffins of Maine are starving, according to new research which suggests the warming waters off the Maine coast are chasing away the fish the birds rely on as food. Never mind that puffins in Maine were nearly hunted to extinction (by humans), and that only a few thousand breeding pairs have returned to a few places in Maine where they’ve been reintroduced (by humans – a great story in and of itself). Never mind that puffins in Maine are living at the edge of the environmental conditions they need in the first place…making the birds there more vulnerable to any perturbation in their ecosystem.
Puffins are cute. And our industrial world is apparently causing some of them to starve to death. So to add a bit of emotional punch to this latest bit of climate change bad news - since emotion is often more important for effective risk communication than just providing the scientific facts - may I offer this variation on Florence Page Jacques’ wonderful kids poem There Once Was Puffin. Make sure you get to the last verse.
Oh, there once was a Puffin
Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!
He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.
But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile,
and He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.
Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”
But Maine’s fishes said the wah-ter
was getting kind of hotter
So they had to say goodbye
And head off for colder seas
So the Puffin starved to death.
Just don’t tell the kid in this video, who will be inheriting the real impacts of climate change, what’s happening.
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