In her book In Search of the Canary Tree, then-PhD candidate Lauren E. Oakes studied the impacts of climate change on the coastal temperate rainforests of southeast Alaska and how people were adapting to the changes in their local environment. She wanted to understand how plants and people were responding to the climate-induced death of a long-lived tree species of high economic, ecological, and cultural value.
“The research felt like a really obvious stepping-off point for me to say, ‘Okay, if we know climate change is causing the death of these trees, what’s happening in the rest of this forest community and how are people really coping with those changes or adapting to them?’” Oakes said.
In Search of the Canary Tree was chosen as the 2019–20 Book in Common, a shared community read jointly selected by Chico State and Butte College. While COVID-19 forced Chico State to cancel all of its remaining spring performances and events—including Oakes’ lecture—the University found a way the culminating discussion could still take place.
Oakes will lead a virtual Book in Common lecture via Zoom on Wednesday, April 22 at 3 p.m. The public is encouraged to register for the free lecture, and David McCoy, faculty in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Program, will facilitate a Q&A session.
Today, Oakes is a conservation scientist and adaptation specialist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as an adjunct professor in Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. Her perspective as a scientist amid the current pandemic is unique—her husband is a doctor who works in outbreak response. Along with everyone else, they are attempting to navigate amid the pandemic—while also raising their 19-month-old son.
How did your initial research lead to your book?
The people I interviewed shared so much with me, and then there was personal experience of doing this work. It became clear that I was learning more than what I would cover in my peer-reviewed research alone. Pretty early in the process, I started keeping a thorough journal. That became an outlet for notes and ideas, for correspondence, and for lots of other material that became relevant later. I felt it was important to keep a record, and it also helped me process what I was experiencing. It wasn’t until I had jumped through all the tough hoops and published my work and defended my PhD that it became really clear that something was still unresolved. Right after I defended, I went back into the office. I had boxes full of the notes and journals that I’d kept. I started copying and organizing everything. In my mind, that was the first act to say, “Okay, I’m going to make sense out of this in a different way now.”
Why are books like In Search of the Canary Tree so important?
This is why I love storytelling! There’s so much important research that’s happening all the time. Often due to the time constraints for scientists and the diverse skill sets required for doing research and communicating findings, the results are left to the media. Perhaps the issue becomes more pressing and then somebody comes upon the research and takes action. When I see positive change in the world, I find it often comes from the mix of really rigorous research and problem solving, along with an ability to share that in compelling ways to reach a broader audience. I certainly read a lot of nonfiction books by scientists and journalists, but I gravitate more toward the ones that give you a personal window into the issue at hand, because there’s a human element to what I experienced amidst these dead and dying trees that relates to more people, in general, than only to scientists.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
Before the pandemic hit, I started working more on natural climate solutions. These are activities, such as forest protection and restoration or improved agricultural practices, that can help harness the potential of nature to reduce emissions. The farming and agricultural sectors have already been affected by COVID-19 and are likely to see more impacts ahead with the planting and harvesting seasons on the horizon. Some of the topics I’m interested in now are the shared solutions spaces for the pandemic and climate change. In a post-pandemic recovery effort, there’s an opportunity to invest in these sectors—to support more jobs and also offer mitigation benefits. Additionally, investing in protection of intact ecosystems can provide one of the best lines of defense for people in the face of a changing climate; it also reduces risks of emergence of other novel zoonotic diseases.
At the Wildlife Conservation Society, we have a suite of projects we support through the Climate Adaptation Fund. Like many others who work in ecological research or conservation practice, we are dealing with questions about upcoming field seasons. It’s the challenge of moving people around and getting people out to the places they work. We may see more delays in restoration efforts, for example.
Any parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change?
Individual actions matter but we also need a massive coordinated government response with a lot of leadership. The idea of the “canary tree,” in reference to “the canary in the coal mine,” is that there’s a canary for us all when it comes to climate change. Something will awaken us, and that something may be direct experience with the consequences of this colossal problem. But the canary is asking each one of us to say what’s within our power, what’s within our realm of efficacy to do in order to cope with this problem and address its causes. Every person has a different answer to that, but we all have a role to play in the many solutions required.
Are you hopeful about the future of our climate?
One of the examples I write about in the book is that even in the forests that are really affected by the dieback, there were still some surviving individuals. About 70 to 80 percent of the cedar trees in a stand affected are dead or stressed, but you’re still getting a population that is somehow thriving. So, do I think that all of humanity is doomed? I think there will be pockets where people are less impacted than others, and there are all kinds of equity issues associated with that. I’d like to see us take action now because the next few years are really critical to reduce those risks. To me, it feels that when we’re hopeful, we’re still relying upon someone else to fix something. If everyone is waiting for someone else to address this problem, we’re in trouble.
After writing the book, I had a son, so now I also think about the long-term effects of climate change in different ways. I want to protect him however I can. The pandemic is affecting people in inequitable ways and having a bigger impact on more vulnerable populations, and climate change will do the same. I think that we have the same responsibility to figure out a way to treat climate change as the medical crisis too, because it will be. We will need to care for one another and reach out to help the more vulnerable people and communities. I try to start each day with thinking that I am just one person, but there’s a lot I can do, and should do, and need to do to be a part of the many solutions needed.