The National Extension Climate Initiative: Expanding opportunities for learning and sharing best practices

By Paul Lachapelle, Professor Montana State University

Collage of three articles from news outlets - The New York Times, Scientific American, BBC News - on the megadrought paper
Headlines following publication of Williams et al.’s 2020 paper describing a ‘megadrought’ that might be worse than any in 1,200 years.

Increasingly, the impacts associated with our changing climate are taking a dramatic toll on our communities, not only across the Pacific Northwest, but also around the world. In the western United States, we have experienced dramatic examples of climate-related impacts. A ‘Megadrought’ is reported to be emerging in the region that might be worse than any in 1,200 years, with half of this historic drought blamed on man-made global warming (Williams et al. 2020). Meanwhile, the worst heat in 70 years threatens to take down California’s grid (Aleem, 2020). According to Eilperin (2020), a cluster of counties on Colorado’s Western Slope and in eastern Utah have warmed more than 2° Celsius, which is double the global average and impacting the potential to produce, use, and export water. Agricultural, energy, forest, and aquatic systems are in many cases being impacted and stressed to the near breaking point for parts of the year or longer.

Extension professionals are recognizing the critical importance of reaching citizens with current and accurate information about the impacts of climate change and methods of adaptation and mitigation. In 2012, the Land Grant-Sea Grant Climate Extension Summit took place in Maryland and produced the report titled The Role of Extension in Climate Adaptation in the United States to address the growing call to confront climate education and research needs. However, since this one event, there has been no coordinated national effort to initiate a comprehensive and inclusive climate change program across the Extension system that is open to all faculty, staff, and interested constituents.

The “National Extension Climate Initiative” is a new collaborative effort to link professionals currently working or interested in climate change-related education and research across all Extension program areas and their national associations. More importantly, the initiative is open to all extension faculty and staff and colleagues working in the Sea Grant system as well as interested constituents and partners. This initiative is supported by the Western Rural Development Center and is open to anyone interested in community climate outreach.

To date, over 135 individuals have subscribed to the NECI listserv. Meetings take place each month and with updates on new programs, resources, and information. The group also highlights several members on each month’s call. Among the many interesting and informative presentations have been Allison Morrill Chatrchyan with Cornell University who provided an overview of Cornell’s Climate Smart Solutions Program and Climate Smart Farming Program. Monthly calls have also featured Sabrina Drill and Susan Kocher with the University of California Cooperative Extension and David Kay with Cornell, who discussed their NSF-funded CONVERGE Working Group and recent priority of natural hazards and the pandemic. Other highlights include Sara Via with the University of Maryland Extension discussing her “Climate and Sustainability Webinar Series”, Rachel Steele with the USDA Agricultural Research Service on the USDA Climate Hubs, Amulya Rao with the University of Wisconsin presenting on their ongoing climate change educational efforts, and Natalie Carroll with Purdue University on her weather and climate curricula for youth. In January 2021, Patricia Townsend at WSU Extension will talk about the Shoreline Climate Champion Series. Overall, the monthly meetings, as well as the prolific use of the email list have proven to be an informative and rich opportunity to share, learn, and network on a variety of climate change related topics.

Map of the Pacific Northwest, with pins showing location of NECI members.
Over 135 individuals are subscribed to the NECI listserv. Descriptions of the programming they are involved in are available at https://www.montana.edu/communitydevelopment/NationalExtensionClimateInitiative.html.

The NECI is an attempt to address the increasingly polarized and politicized world of climate science, policy, and communications for educators working to reach constituents across the United States. The outcome is already becoming clear: an increasingly larger group of outreach professionals who have a better understanding of the concepts, processes, and educational resources associated with climate change science and policy in their states, regions, and beyond. The initiative has also worked to establish a coordinated network of professionals who, through their knowledge of climate science and policy, are better connected, prepared, and motivated to provide educational outreach and research to their respective constituents and communities across the Extension system.

Presumably, some of you reading this article will live to see the year 2100. This initiative will help us ask questions that will carry us forward to this milestone year, such as: have we as outreach educators done everything in our power to prevent what is increasingly referred to as an existential threat? How can we be most effective at addressing the social, economic, and environmental challenges associated with a warming world? What types of career opportunities and lifestyle choices are available in our communities now and for our children in the future? How will we, as educators working with our partners, other outreach educators and concerned citizens, work together to navigate this increasingly uncertain and unprecedented future? The NECI serves to explore these and other questions as we lay out our collective roadmap through the Anthropocene.

For more information, go to the website and to subscribe to the list serve, email the author at paul.lachapelle@montana.edu. You can also join the related eXtension Connect group. The monthly meetings are the first Thursday of the month at 12:30pm PT. Please join us!

References:

Aleem, Z. (2020) California’s heat wave caused rolling blackouts for millions. Vox. Aug 15.

Eilperin, J. (2020) This giant climate hot spot is robbing the West of its water. Washington Post. Aug. 7.

Williams et al. (2020) Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought. Science 368, 6488, pp. 314-318, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz9600.

This article originally appeared in the WRDC Rural Connections, Volume 13 Issue 2, Fall/Winter 2020, titled “The National Extension Climate Initiative: Expanding opportunities for learning and sharing best practices on climate change education and research.” It has been modified and shortened, with permission, for AgClimate.net.