Tue February 7, 2012
Health, Science, Environment

Local "environmental hero" calls for creative solutions to climate change

Today we begin our series of conversations with the Bay Area’s 2012 “environmental heroes.”

The Berkeley-based Bay Nature Institute recently named Ellie Cohen as conservation advocate of the year. Cohen is president of PRBO, which was originally the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with Cohen to talk about her work.

ELLIE COHEN: We have actually measured changes in the response of birds in the spring and in the fall so when they return from migration, the dates that they’re returning at have changed. Mostly it’s in the spring. They’re coming earlier. Those that come in the fall to over winter here are coming earlier but some are coming later, but we do have statistically significant changes in these arrival dates both in the spring and in the fall for a majority of birds that we study in Central California.

BEN TREFNY: What’s the significance of that? I mean can’t we just sort of change the calendar to accommodate that?

COHEN: I wish we could, but unfortunately these species are tied to a complex ecosystem. Their food sources for example have to do with seeds from a plant and when it flowers, and then when they seed from insects and when they emerge, such as butterflies. If those are emerging at different times or available at different times then when the birds need them and how they’ve been timed over millennia, then it could have big impacts on populations.

Another major impact that we see here in the Bay Area is related to extreme weather events. In May of 2008, you might recall, we had 100-degree temperatures here in San Francisco – highly unusual for that time of year. Normally, we would have heavy thick fog. Birds on Alcatraz, breeding sea birds on Alcatraz, and on the Farallon Islands that nest in open nests, colonial nesters we call them, they had to get off the nest, the adults, because it got so hot and chicks just died on the nest from heat exhaustion.

We fortunately have solutions to this as well. There are natural nests, which are these colonial nests that are out, and there is not a lot we can do about that frankly. However, where we have artificial nest boxes that essentially we’ve created to help improve the success the rate of reproduction of these birds on the Farallons. We built them, and the birds are in them during the daytime. There are birds that go out in the evening to forge for food, and they spend the day in these boxes. They, in the boxes, got too hot during this heat wave in May of 2008.

Since then we’ve looked at these artificial boxes and tried to identify ways that we can cool the boxes down and still support the growth of these populations. What we’ve done is add an additional thin layer of plywood, just painted white, that has created a slight circulation of air above the nest box and kept the temperatures cooler in the boxes themselves.

TREFNY: That’s a really interesting way of humans adapting, helping nature adapt to climate change. What’s another way that you know of that nature is sort of being changed to make up for the changes in the environment here?

COHEN: One way is for example to address sea level rise impacts on tidal marsh habitats around San Francisco Bay. So we’re looking at what are the priority areas for restoration of tidal marsh and designing and building the tidal marshes to help withstand the onslaught of sea level rise, not only for many different species that depend on tidal marsh like birds and fisheries, but also for people and for human infrastructure. If you drive around the bay, you’ll see how our freeways are all along the edge of the bay. Parking lots, buildings, and other human infrastructure; we can use tidal marshes to help slow down the impact of sea level rise.

TREFNY: It’s an interesting balance I think between environmentalism and development because development is really keen on being close to water. I mean that’s why so many population centers are there, but you have accommodate for that then.

COHEN: You do. Here in California, we’re very lucky to live here. We’ve had this incredible landmark law AB42 pass several years ago that really calls for greenhouse emissions reductions. What it doesn’t do however is address how we protect nature and it needs to be up there because we could stop all of our CO2, our carbon dioxide production, today. And we still need fresh air, we still need water, we still need food that comes from nature, whether it’s fisheries or fiber and from the forest – whatever it might be we need nature to survive whether we live in San Francisco or live in the jungle in the Amazon. And we can use nature to help address the problems with climate change as I just discussed, to slow down the impacts of sea level rise. But we can also use it to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Tidal marshes are very good at sequestering carbon – not just forests. Forests are very important. We can sequester carbon in soils – how we manage cattle on grazing lands throughout California can make a big difference in how much carbon is sequestered. Also, how much water is absorbed into the underground water table so that we can withstand periods like we’ve had in the last few months – basically no rain – which is expected to occur more and more often into a climate changed future.

TREFNY: What first inspired you? Where do you remember first being inspired to pay attention to nature in your life?

COHEN: I think I was born with it. I grew up in suburban Baltimore and all my siblings were into the arts. I am too.

TREFNY: You work with a lot of businesses, pay attention to a lot of politics in these roles. I’m wondering if you can tell me about any businesses that are doing a good job of being aware of their impact on the environment. Or maybe even making a positive difference not just not making a negative difference.

COHEN: We work with many rice growers in the Central Valley and ironically one would think that rice growers are problematic in a place where we don’t have a lot of water.

TREFNY Well I’ve heard that actually from some people that they find it really an unnatural crop to grow because it floods the fields and there isn’t the water to do it.

COHEN: We look at California over the past 200-300 years. We’ve essentially drained the wetlands that were most of the Central Valley and most of the Central Coast even, so it goes against what we think is nature and what is natural, but we have so altered the environment that we need to look at man-made designed solutions to make the environment work for people and for wildlife.

In the Central Valley that’s true as well. John Muir wrote about rowing down from Sacramento to Bakersfield. That’s obviously not possible today. It was one huge wetland all winter long. Today, it’s all agriculture and what we’re looking to do is to work with agribusiness and to make it eco-friendly. And so even with the rice growers where they are needing water for the rice, we’ve been able to work with them to ensure that their rice fields are used for migratory birds because these wetlands, these shallow wetlands, basically don’t exist otherwise in the valley except in managed areas for water fall. So we have a huge benefit both in producing rice but also for the birds themselves.

TREFNY: Are you finding that a lot of growers are cooperative with you in trying to find such solutions?

COHEN: Yes. In fact, we’ve been able to build relationships with many growers. Often times the first words that come out of our mouths are not about the problems of climate change; it’s trying to find what do we have in common. We need water – let’s talk about how to put water on the soil where we can have a win-win solution.

TREFNY: What would you suggest regular people in the Bay Area do? Just your average person walking down the street who goes about living their life but they want to make some kind of a positive change. What would you suggest for them?

COHEN: The biggest single thing we can do in United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On a big scale, society-wise is to get rid of coal fire plants and to switch to renewable energy. And so however we can support that from wherever we sit – that will be the fastest way to move us to a cleaner and safer future.

On a personal level, energy efficiency is the single fastest way for us to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint. And that means that wherever we are, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our places of worship, in our schools, that we take action to make those buildings more energy efficient, even if we’re not using renewable energy that we can use significantly less energy than we are using today.

[Audio for this story will be available February 7, 2012 after 5pm PST]

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