Understanding climate change as an everything issue

Award-winning climate communicator Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, professor of political science at Texas Tech University, and director of the Climate Center, discusses the importance of effective science communication in overcoming barriers to public acceptance of climate change in a recent interview with Rachel Potter, IIASA communications officer.

© Chris.Soldt | Boston College.MTS.Photography

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your specific areas of research as a scientist? 

I study what climate change means to people, in the places where we live: how it is affecting our water supply, our health, our air quality, the integrity of our infrastructure, and other human and natural systems. Often when people think about climate change they think about polar bears or people who are living on low-lying islands in the South Pacific. I bring climate change down from the global scale to the local level because when we understand that it is an ‘everything issue’, that’s when we understand that we need to act.

Q: You have been widely recognized as a remarkable communicator. What do you see as key to effective science communication?

I believe effective communication begins with connecting and identifying shared values, and ends with talking about solutions. With climate change, sometimes people are overt in their opposition by outright saying the science isn’t real. More often however, it is passive opposition where people feel the problem is too big and there is nothing they can do to fix it. We need to present people with solutions that are practical and viable – in other words, actions that they can engage in.

Q: Why is science communication important?

Science communication explains how the world works. Today we are conducting an unprecedented experiment with our planet, the only one we have. Understanding this is one of the most important things anyone can do as a human being living on Earth.

Q: Can you briefly outline what you see as trends in public and political opinion with regard to human-induced climate change?

Our world is becoming increasingly polarized and we are dividing into tribes. It is happening with many issues and in many places around the world. When the world is changing so quickly, many of us feel uncomfortable with the rate of change, so we retreat to a more tribalized, divided society where we feel comfortable. But by doing so, we focus on the tiny fraction of what divides us rather than the vast preponderance of what unites us, because it makes us feel more secure to do so.

Climate change is a casualty of this fracturing, tribalism, and polarization that is happening – most notably in the US because there are only two political parties, so the tribalization there is much more obvious. In the US, the best predictor of whether people agree with the facts that: climate is changing, humans are responsible, and the impacts are serious, is not how much they know about science, it’s simply where they fall on the political spectrum. This politicization of science is also happening in the UK, Austria, across Europe, Canada, Australia, and Brazil.

© IIASA Katherine Hayhoe with members of the IIASA Women in Science Club

Q: How can this polarization and the barriers to dealing with climate change be challenged?

Climate change is a human issue – it doesn’t care if we are liberal or conservative, rich or poor, although the poor are being more affected than the rich. It affects all of us and almost everything we care about. For that reason, we must emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us. We need to challenge the idea that the solutions to climate change pose a bigger threat to our wellbeing, our comfort, the quality of our lives, our identity and who we are, than the impacts.

We must expose the myths that underlie inaction around climate change and examine them in an objective way. Will it really ruin our economy to fix climate change? Will it take us back to the Stone Age? If we don’t tackle the myths directly, they will continue to thrive in our sub-conscious. For example, in Canada there is an idea that a carbon tax will destroy the economy. I like to point out that there were four provinces in Canada that had a price on carbon before it became a federal policy, and those four provinces have led the country in terms of economic growth and output.

Q: What part do you see IIASA playing in being able to build bridges between countries across political divides? 

IIASA stands in a key position at a pivotal time. It is a truly international organization in terms of its mandate, structure, governance, and the people that work here. Climate change is a global problem and IIASA is a global institution that can offer both big-picture and regionally-specific insights into climate impacts and solutions.

Katharine Hayhoe visited IIASA on 4 October 2019 to give a lecture titled, Barriers to Public Acceptance of Climate Science, Impacts, and Solutions, to IIASA researchers and to meet with the IIASA Women in Science Club. IIASA has a worldwide network of collaborators who contribute to research by collecting, processing, and evaluating local and regional data that are integrated into IIASA models. The institute has 819 research partner institutions in member countries and works with research funders, academic institutions, policymakers, and individual researchers in national member organizations.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Environment and health: Two sides of the same coin

By Luiza Toledo, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2019

2019 YSSP participant Rory Gibb discusses his work at IIASA developing models to understand the effects of future land use, climate, and socioeconomic change on disease risk, focusing on Lassa fever in West Africa as a case study.

© Seth Doyle | Unsplash

Climate change is a fact and one of the most important environmental changes that populations will face in the coming decades. Changes in areas such as agriculture, energy, economics, and biodiversity, together with other natural and human-made health stressors, influence human health and disease in numerous ways. This is evident in the fact that the emergence and spread of many infectious diseases is on the rise, many of them transmitted from wildlife to humans – a trend that has been associated with the environmental changes we are currently experiencing. Warmer average temperatures can mean longer warm seasons, earlier spring seasons, shorter and milder winters, and hotter summers, during which the prevailing conditions may affect the population cycles of hosts, vectors (such as mosquitoes and ticks) and pathogens, thus increasing the incidence of certain vector-borne or zoonotic diseases. Changes to land use, such as expansion of agriculture, can impact ecological communities and bring people into greater contact with wildlife, again potentially facilitating the spread of pathogens.

Rory Gibb, a 2019 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant, is doing research to understand how global environmental changes – and in particular interactions between land use and climate change – affect zoonotic (animal-borne) infectious diseases. He applied for the YSSP this summer because of the institute’s research portfolio in different dimensions of human wellbeing, including poverty and inequality, food security, and water resilience. He hopes to contribute a dimension about infectious diseases.

©Liebentritt_Christoph | IIASA

Gibb is interested in understanding how the same kind of environmental pressures that affect biodiversity and ecosystems, such as agricultural expansion, intensification and urbanization, may also impact human health. He points out that even though many infectious diseases are widely studied, such as dengue fever and malaria, we still have a patchy understanding of the environmental factors driving many more neglected or recently emerging diseases – as is the case with Lassa fever, which occurs only in West Africa.

Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness recognized by global health institutions as an important rodent-borne disease, however, many important aspects of the disease’s ecology, epidemiology, and distribution remain poorly understood.

“We know that the spread of Lassa fever is very dependent on the environment, so it is sensitive to climate change, land use change, and other ecological changes, but we don’t have a very clear understanding of where it occurs and how many people are being affected every year,” Gibb explains.

Gibb aims to use current knowledge of the local ecological processes that drive the disease, including spatial modeling to determine the extent of the disease’s rodent reservoir host and its interactions with people, to develop a better understanding of the number of people infected with Lassa fever in West Africa. His YSSP project is focused on understanding how sensitive current patterns of disease risk may be to plausible future agricultural, climatic, and economic change in the region. To do this, he is projecting disease risk over large geographical areas using remotely sensed data on climate and landscape factors, and evaluating the effects of future socio-environmental scenarios on the predicted incidence of human disease. Ultimately, he is interested in how to develop better models to understand the relationship between environmental change and diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites that spread between humans and animals. He hopes that his research outcomes can help to guide disease surveillance efforts for policymakers.

“The spatial modeling work that I am doing will hopefully be useful in terms of giving some insight into regions of West Africa that are predicted to have a very high risk for Lassa fever, both now and under expected environmental changes, to assist in targeting public health interventions such as improving diagnostic test access. We can also identify important knowledge gaps, such as areas that are highly environmentally suitable for Lassa transmission, but in which the disease is apparently absent – these may be useful locations for intensified surveillance, or for showing that there are other ecological or epidemiological processes occurring that we are not accounting for.”

The impacts that environmental changes have on our health remind us how dependent we are on nature and how our own health depends on that of the environment. Environmental and human health cannot and should not be seen as two separate things.

“I want to do work that highlights the importance of understanding human dependence on nature and the necessity of understanding how we can preserve the health of both ecosystems and people,” Gibb concludes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

What we’ve learnt from measuring flood resilience

By Finn Laurien, research assistant at the IIASA Risk and Resilience (RISK) Program, and doctoral student at the Vienna University for Economics and Business.

A major challenge in understanding community flood resilience is the lack of an empirically validated measure of it. To plug this gap the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance (ZFRA) developed the Flood Resilience Measurement for Communities (FRMC). In the first phase of the Alliance we applied the FRMC tool in 118 communities in nine different countries. This is what we learnt from it. 

What is the Flood Resilience Measurement for Communities?

The FRMC approach holistically measures a set of “sources of resilience” before a flood happens (e.g. household savings or whether a community has a flood recovery plan) and looks at the post-flood impacts afterwards (e.g. level of loss and recovery time). The FRMC framework is built around the notion of five types of capital (the 5Cs: human, social, physical, natural, and financial capital) and the 4Rs of a resilient system (robustness, redundancy, resourcefulness, and rapidity). The data is collected and assessed via an integrated and hybrid platform. Each source of resilience is graded from A to D (best practice to significant below good standard) providing communities and decision-makers with an overview of the level of resilience capacity.

The 5 Capitals and 4 sources of resilience © Paulo Cerino

What did we learn from this large-scale analysis of community flood resilience? 

Human and physical capital had the most sources assigned an A or B grade. The highest rated sources are education (value and equity), flood exposure perception, knowledge and awareness, communication, water, personal safety as well as health and sanitation. This could be a result of flood mitigation interventions traditionally being focused on building people’s skills and knowledge and/or physical structures.

Overview of frequency of grades for the sources of resilience by capital. Note: Number in bracket of capitals indicates the number sources in that capital. (Source: Campbell et al., 2019)

Despite the source-specific guidance and standardized data, grading is largely a judgment-based process and the FRMC includes a box where the assessor indicates how confident they are in the assigned grade. Since the trained assessors are practitioners with local understanding of the community the grades are influenced by their field expertise. The assessors were generally confident in the assigned grades and we found that their confidence increased the more data collection methods that were used.

Linking flood resilience and community characteristics

The FRMC was used in a range of different communities in developing and developed countries in contexts ranging from urban to rural and with some difference in past experience of flooding.

We discovered a correlation between poverty and lack of flood resilience and also found that having experienced very severe floods reduced a community’s level of resilience while experiencing frequent but less severe floods could help contribute to resilience, potentially by providing communities with relevant experience to adapt.

Does the FRMC process result in different interventions? 

A key question we asked is whether the process of carrying out the baseline measurement and sharing results with the community resulted in interventions that were substantially different from what would have been implemented anyway. We find that it did, though to somewhat varying degrees.

Country teams overwhelmingly reported that the process helped them, their stakeholders, and communities to see flood resilience in a much more holistic way. For example, by broadening the perspective of flood resilience beyond that of physical infrastructure to also include social capital. The FRMC process influenced the implementation of a wide range of interventions, showing the breadth of the underlying conceptualization of resilience. The purpose of the FRMC approach is to help communities holistically strengthen their resilience and the broad range of interventions shows that this has worked.

Many country programs revised their project plans, log-frames and budgets as a result of the baseline measurement. Program staff highlighted how welcome it would be if other funders followed Zurich’s lead and allowed for similar in-depth analysis prior to intervention design and flexibility to act on the learning coming out of it to ensure the most effective intervention design.

What’s next for the FRMC? 

This testing and data analysis has fed into the revision process for the development of the Next Generation FRMC which is currently being scaled to many more communities.

As the tool and measurement gets used in more communities and as part of more decision-making processes for flood resilient investments, we hope the usefulness and relevance of the tool will be demonstrated and adopted by many more organizations working to build community flood resilience.

Abel from Practical Action interviewing Consuelo, a community member in San Miguel de Viso, Peru as part of FRMC data collection ©Giorgio Madueño –

Reference:

Campbell KA, Laurien F, Czajkowski J, Keating A, Hochrainer-Stigler S, & Montgomery M (2019). First insights from the Flood Resilience Measurement Tool: A large-scale community flood resilience analysis. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 40: e101257. DOI:10.1016/j.ijdrr.2019.101257. http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/id/eprint/16027/

Access available resources on the FRMC here.

This blog is reposted from a Flood Resilience Portal blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Exploring urban-rural differences in health risks from extreme temperatures

By Kejia Hu, PhD Candidate at Zhejiang University, China and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) 2016 participant 

Kejia Hu, an alumna of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, discusses a recent study on how extreme temperatures affect the health risks experienced by urban and rural communities in China. 

Hot and cold temperatures are associated with increased risks of cause-specific mortality, in other words, deaths that result from, for instance, cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. Due to the urban heat island effect – where an urban heat island is a city or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activity – it is commonly assumed that urban residents are at a higher risk of exposure to extreme heat than their rural neighbors are. Very few studies have explored the urban-rural differences of temperature-related health risks, often because of the lack of sufficient meteorological and health data in rural areas.

Today, 45% of the global population – nearly 3.4 billion people – still live in rural regions, and based on the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects 2018, there will still be more than 3 billion people living in these areas by 2050, despite current trends such as urbanization.

This made us wonder whether there could be a rural-urban gap in extreme temperature induced health risk. We decided to conduct a study to address this question in Zhejiang province in eastern China employing high spatial resolution data on temperature, death registrations, air pollution, and population density across 89 counties in Zhejiang from 2009 to 2015.

Based on an epidemiological analysis of more than 2 million death cases, we found that rural residents are more sensitive to both cold and hot temperatures than urban residents, and that extreme temperatures especially affect the elderly. Our results indicate that extreme cold temperatures increased the mortality rate by 98% for rural populations, and by 47% for urban populations, while extremely hot temperatures increased the mortality rate by 18% for rural populations and by 14% for urban populations. When considering both human exposure and vulnerability, the attributable deaths from cold and hot temperatures were 4.8 and 2.6 times higher in rural than in urban areas, respectively.

© Elwynn | Dreamstime.com

But why do rural populations tend to have higher mortality risks in the face of both cold and heat? Our results suggest that age, education, income, access to health care services and air conditioners, and the types of occupations that residents in these areas engage in, are among the potential sources. We found that counties with higher percentages of elderly and agricultural employment, lower levels of education, lower income levels, fewer hospital beds, and fewer air conditioners, had higher mortality risks related to both heat and cold. This could mean that socioeconomic vulnerability may play an important role – even more important than temperature in the determinants of temperature-related health risks.

Ours is the first study to find an urban–rural disparity in both heat and cold mortality risks. Importantly, it challenges the general assumption in previous studies in developed countries that urban residents are at a higher risk to extreme high temperatures. Our findings suggest that previous studies, which mostly investigated exposure-response associations using data from urban areas, may have underestimated the mortality burden for the entire population.

Although the Chinese government have standards in place regarding thermal comfort in residential buildings and highly recommend that they are implemented for rural houses, unfortunately, until now, this has only been enforced for urban apartments in China. In addition, due to lower income, rural households are more likely to fall into “fuel poverty” compared to urban households, which will limit the use of air conditioners for rural people. Targeted measures such as financial assistance for paying electricity bills will help build rural residents’ resilience to extreme temperatures.

Our findings have important implications for policy, particularly in developing countries. Overall, no single action will be enough to reduce the temperature-related mortality risks in rural areas. More efforts should be made to narrow the urban-rural gaps that persist in access to health care by, for example, increasing investment in health care facilities and health care professionals in rural areas. Improving rural people’s general awareness of temperature related risks, such as to popularize preventive knowledge and to develop early warning systems is also needed to prevent temperature-related deaths.

Reference:

Hu K, Guo Y, Hochrainer-Stigler S, Liu W, See L, Yang X, Zhong J, Fei F, et al. (2019). Evidence for Urban–Rural Disparity in Temperature–Mortality Relationships in Zhejiang Province, China. Environmental Health Perspectives 127 (3): e037001. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15773]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Rescuing the world from drowning

By Julian Hunt, IIASA postdoc

Possible location where the barriers could be installed © Anna Krivitskaia | Dreamstime.com

Sea level rise is one of the most challenging impacts of climate change. The continued rise in sea levels, partially caused by the melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, will result in large scale impacts in coastal areas as they are submerged by the sea. Locations not able to bear the costs of implementing protection and adaptation measures will have to be abandoned, resulting in social, economic and environmental losses.

The most important mitigation goal for sea level rise is to reduce or possibly revert carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Given the time lag between emission reductions and the impacts of climate change, new adaptation measures to reduce sea level rise should be proposed, developed and if possible, implemented.

A proposal that I developed during my D.Phil degree ten years ago, which resulted in a paper on the Mitigation and Adaptation to Global Change Journal1, shows that submerged barriers in front of ice sheets and glaciers would contribute to reducing the ice melt in Greenland. Edward Byers and I propose the construction of ten barriers at key glaciers in Greenland to stop the flow of warm salty ocean water reaching glaciers in Greenland and Atlantic, which are the main contributors to ice melting. This could reduce sea level rise by up to 5.3 meters at a levelized cost of US$275 million a year. The cost of the barriers is only a fraction of the estimated costs of adaptation measures to sea level rise around the world estimated to be US$1.4 trillion a year by 21002.

The barrier consists of several plain sheet modules of marine grade steel around 200 mm thick connected to cylindrical steel tubes with air inside to keep the barrier floating. The depth of the barriers varies from 30 – 500 meters and the required length to stop the sea water from entering the fjords, where the glaciers are located. As no such barrier has been developed before, we propose three main steps for the construction of the barrier:

  1. The barrier components should be transported to the designated location during the summer, when there is no ocean ice cover and the access to the location of the barrier is less challenging. Also during the summer, mooring structures should be added.
  2. During the winter, the barrier is assembled over the frozen ice cover.
  3. During the next summer, the ice cover will melt again and the barrier will float above the place where it is should be fixed. The mooring chains attached to the barrier will pull the barrier into place, using the mooring structures in the ground.

The concept of reducing the contact of seawater and glaciers to reduce ice sheet melting was first published by Moore in Nature3, and Wolovick in The Cryosphere4 with the construction of submerged dams. A graphic representation of the concept is presented in Figure 1. As you can see the barriers should be positioned just after the glacier cavity, where the depth required for the barrier would be the smallest. Our cost analysis shows that using submerged barriers would have one or two orders of magnitude lower costs when compared to submerged dams. Additionally, submerged barriers could be easily removed, if the need arise.

Figure 1. (a) Proposed location of the submerged barrier or dam, (b) submerged barrier characterizes, (c) submerged dam characterizes.

There are several issues involving the implementation of these barriers that should be considered before they are built. The reduction of ice melt in Greenland glaciers will contribute to an increase in seawater temperature and salinity of the Arctic Ocean, which will have a direct impact on the region’s biosphere, climate and ocean currents. The superficial ice cover in the Arctic will be considerably reduced. This would allow a new maritime route for ships to cross the Arctic Ocean, increase the absorption of CO2 by the Arctic Ocean, due to the increase in the ice free surface area and the cold seawater temperature, and the increase in radiation heat from the Arctic Ocean into space. Ice is a strong thermal insulator. Without the Arctic Ocean ice cover the temperature of the region and the heat radiated from the Earth to space will considerably increase, which could have a higher impact in cooling the Earth than the ice cover’s albedo effect. Thus, the reduction of the Arctic Ocean ice cover could contribute to reducing the overall CO2 concentration of the atmosphere and reducing the Earth’s temperature.

This solution, however, should not be used as an excuse to reduce focus on cutting CO2 emission. If the world continues to warm, not even submerged barriers in front of glaciers would be able to stop ice sheets melting and sea level rise.

References:

  1. Hunt J, Byers E (2018) Reducing sea level rise with submerged barriers and dams in Greenland. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change DOI: 10.1007/s11027-018-9831-y.   [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15649]
  2. Jevrejeva JS, Jackson LP, Grinsted A, Lincke D, and Marzeion B (2018) Flood damage costs under the sea level rise with warming of 1.5 ◦C and 2 ◦C. Environmental Research Letters DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aacc76
  3. Moore J, Gladstone R, Zwinger T, and Wolovick M (2018) Geoengineer polar glaciers to slow sea-level rise. Nature: https://go.nature.com/2GoPcGp
  4. Wolovick M, Moore J (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere DOI: 10.5194/tc-12-2955-2018

Dance and science: A graceful partnership for change

By Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Co-Artistic Director of Boston Dance Theater

I recently had the privilege of artistically collaborating on Dancing with the Future, a project spearheaded by Gloria Benedikt and Piotr Magnuszewski of IIASA with Martin Nowak of Harvard University. The process involved five dancers joining two scientists to create an evening-length performance-debate that toured to Harvard University’s Farkas Hall and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University this fall. The essence of this interdisciplinary project was a product of Nowak’s published research on altruism and evolution. Nowak proposes: “Evolution is not only a fight. Not mere competition. Also cooperation, cooperation is the master architect of evolution. Now that we have reached the limits of our planet, can you cooperate with the future?”

The cast from left to right: Hannah Kickert, Gloria Benedikt, Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Mimmo Miccolis, Henoch Spinola © Daniel Kruganov

What can I do to contribute to a global effort to create sustainable practices that yield cooperation with the future? Why do I dance and what kind of impact does my dancing have on my environment and myself? As a co-artistic director, entrepreneur, choreographer, and performing artist of the young and fast-growing contemporary dance company Boston Dance Theater (BDT), I am turning to projects that are on the innovative cross-section between the arts, technology, and other disciplines because they have the most potential to have meaningful impact on the level of the creative team, the audience, and beyond. I too, am searching for practices and partnerships for BDT that yield pathways for collective problem solving, or ‘super-cooperation’. As Nowak notes, “[evolutionarily speaking] humans are super-cooperators.”

Overall, Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that scientists, dancers, and policymakers can successfully sit at the same table (or in the same theater or conference hall), tackle the same issues, and productively collaborate toward unearthing sustainable solutions.

We all had to be open to compromises — this is not an easy task in a room full of expert-leaders. I set a mantra for myself to remember that we were creating something completely new. Each time my choreographer-dancer brain sent up a red flag, I chose selectively when to share my opinion with the group. I elected to practice the Buddhist teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, captured poetically in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This choice opened others and myself up to creative and peaceful solutions that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

Conversely, I was able to offer constructive solutions at moments when working with the scientific material seemed to overwhelm the studio process, for example, dividing the existing text and music into segments and giving each of those segments a specific choreographic task that related to the content of the scientific text. This was a very simple concept that had to do with pacing and sculpting time. Once we counted out the music, it was easy for us to construct the movement score and see the overall arc of the piece.

Rehearsal with Martin Nowak © Daniel Kruganov

I learned not to be afraid of using my voice and also listening deeply. It was, at first, very intimidating to be seated across from experts in fields outside of my own. I learned that scientists and policymakers can understand, respect, and respond to the decisions I make through a process of peaceful negotiation, even when we speak different languages, were born on different continents, and may have varying political opinions. My fear was ultimately unnecessary because the very nature of this project appeals to the humanity in us all.

This form of cross-disciplinary collaboration allows participants to see our own work in a new light and to discover new languages that are exciting because we have co-authored them. For the work to be successful, the dance, science, and debate components must all have equal weight and value. Otherwise, the movement and its choreographic structure becomes the visual representation of the science rather than an equal partner. When that happens, the magic of innovative collaboration falls flat into familiar territory.

During the process, we often referred to this Chinese proverb: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Dancers understand this concept in a very concrete and visceral way. For scientists, policymakers, or the general audience to understand too, they must be involved as much as possible in the process of what we are doing. If we cannot for reasons of practicality, have them with us in the studio, then we must bring them into the process in another way. It is only by involving them as collaborators that we can generate large scale, super-cooperation.

Sometimes it feels like my dancer colleagues and I exist in a vacuum: we rehearse in the confines of the studio and historically perform on stages that make us appear as ‘other’ from the people we are performing for. Western concert dance has received criticism for being an inaccessible art form and according to the 2016 report from The Boston Foundation, is the most under-funded of Boston’s performing arts. Dancers aren’t typically trained to speak about their work, and often have a hard time receiving criticism. Contemporary dance in particular, can be challenging to general audience members because the language of the art and its conceptual frameworks are sometimes not evident in the work itself — many choreographers feel creatively stifled when asked to explain their work in language and wonder why the art work can’t speak for itself.

I have come to learn that these problems are not unique to dance. After our premiere of Dancing with the Future at Harvard University, scientists thanked me for helping them to understand new meaning within the scientific research presented through my performance. Their experience of live performance elicited a keen sense of empathy that drew them into deeper understanding of the scientific findings. This collaboration yielded a tri-fold, reciprocal impact for the artists, for the scientists, and for the public.

The cast in action © Daniel Kruganov

Our work helped to bridge the traditional gap between creative team and general audience member. It can be that when a member of the public enjoys a performance, they leave the venue with a good feeling and a nice memory as a souvenir. I believe that our art form has the power to do more — to make a greater impact and to be appreciated as an inherent and necessary aspect of our society and culture.

It is our civic responsibility to continue workshopping solutions toward global cooperation and cooperation with future generations. Dancing with the Future has encouraged me, on a micro scale, that this is a reasonable and plausible endeavor. With continued care, attention toward our common goals, compassion, listening, and risk-taking, we can understand one another through the process of creation regardless of what language we speak or where we were born. The next steps may be small, but nonetheless crucial. Next season, Boston Dance Theater will commission new works by three international choreographers with the stipulation that the pieces must speak to pressing global issues, and cross-disciplinary collaboration will be a cornerstone of that production.

Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that partnerships with super-cooperators such the teams at IIASA and Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics can bring meaningful potential to catalyze change in me as an individual and in Boston Dance Theater as an organization, while enabling us to reach our extended communities. I can’t wait for the next project!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.