science environment

The Denmark Project: Facing The Changes Climate Change Will Bring

By Christy George (OPB)
Denmark, OR Dec. 2, 2009 4:26 p.m.

International talks on climate change begin next week in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Denmark Sign
The Denmark Project
The impact of climate change on a small Oregon town.


For months, we’ve been considering the impact of climate change on one small town: Denmark, Oregon.

President Obama has lowered expectations for a climate treaty. But treaty or not, scientists say climate change is coming.

In our final chapter of the Denmark Project, producer Christy George found new voices – psychologists, philosophers and poets - wrestling with the enormity of the changes facing the place they call home.

The tiny town of Denmark sits on Highway 101, halfway between the two tourist towns of Bandon and Port Orford.
That whole stretch is unincorporated, so you could call the area "greater Denmark."

Denmark itself is still home to the descendants of the Scandinavians who first settled the area in the late 1800's.
Bonnie Cox and Wilbur Jensen are part of the Jensen century farm family.

Bonnie Cox: "If you ask about the weather, we’re always acclimating to it. It’s a subtle thing. It’s kind of hard to say how it’s changed."

Wilbur Jensen: "The severity of storms is not as great as was then. It’s stil not unusual to get 100mph gusts of wind that will hit this area here. "

Their mother, Wilma Jensen, remembers the Columbus Day storm of 1962.

Wilma Jensen: "Oh that was bad and I stood right here and watched the barn and it just caved in and out and in and out and whoooosh, there went the top!"

The Jensens are right - climate change means generally warmer, milder weather. But scientists say it also means hotter summers and more rain than snow on the mountains to the east; warmer water and higher waves on the Pacific Ocean to the west. And above all, more unpredictable weather.

More storms. More wind. More rain. More water.

Mike Murphy: "Oh, this is just a normal winter storm."

The Denmark Project: Port Orford - Photos by Christy George

Mike Murphy is the city manager of Port Orford.

Mike Murphy: "Winds are supposed to gust up to about 60 sustained winds 20-40. Pretty normal kind of weather for winter here."

If this is an average storm, what will future storms look like? And how can the people who live in Greater Denmark protect themselves?

There are only six ports in the world quite like Port Orford.

There’s no breakwater here, so fishermen tie their boats to a 25-ton winch and they’re lowered right into the open ocean.

This unique port is home to a different breed of fisherman.

Aaron Longton: "I am a salmon fisherman first, but I don’t get much opportunity anymore."

Aaron Longton is president of the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, or POORT, a group of fishermen who’ve done some radical things.

Over the last decade, team members voluntarily put several square miles of their fishing grounds off limits, in a marine reserve.

And right now, the fishermen are trying to cut out the middlemen and sell directly to restaurants.

Aaron Longton: "We want to maintain our heritage, and maintain access to our fisheries."

Lyle Keeler: "We definitely do have climate change in this area."

Lyle Keeler is the group’s secretary–treasurer.

Lyle Keeler: "We’re catching species in the ocean we’ve never caught before."

Aaron Longton: "It isn’t like all of a sudden the water is fluorescent green or purple or anything. You know what I mean, it’s just little things that you see, maybe more dead birds."

Port Orford was about to rewrite its stormwater ordinance, and the fishermen and the city decided to work together.

Aaron Longton: "Twenty-five percent of the income that comes into this community is derived from fishing. With the multiplier effect, especially in a small town that doesn’t have any corporate interests, the only way money leaves this town is out of the Circle K or the gas stations. A dollar spent in Port Orford stays in Port Orford a long time."

Science writer Joseph Cone of Oregon Sea Grant was on the lookout for a coastal town where decision-makers were preparing for climate change, to test a new way to communicate about climate change.

Joe Cone: "The old model of turning the fire hose of science onto unsuspecting civilians and hoping good things happen, I just don’t think it works very well."

He started by convening a workshop in Port Orford.

Joe Cone: "So we began by asking everyone ‘what do you mean by climate change effects?’ "

Briana Goodwin: "We had flip chart paper and wrote down the impacts of climate change."

Briana Goodwin was a brand new intern at the fishermens’ group when she went to Joe Cone’s workshop.

Joe Cone: "Then we said, ‘All right, what risks are associated with those effects? How can you lessen the risks?' "

Briana Goodwin: "And then we went a step further and wrote down whose responsibility that was."

Joe Cone: "Because they care about Port Orford, they were willing to go through this workshop process to help them come up with a better approach to keep their community the way they wanted it to be."

Joe Cone is just one of many social scientists: lawyers, political scientists and sociologists, trying to figure out how to tell the climate change story in a way that will motivate people to act.

Dominic Della Sala: "Denmark fits within a bioregion, an eco-region known as the Klamath-Siskyou, which is considered world-class by a number of ecological measures, the conifer richness, the uniqueness of place and the unusual number of species known nowhere else on Earth."

Dominic Della Sala is an ecologist-turned regional climate forecaster for the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland.

He says it's hard for people to think about how climate change matters to them when most models cover huge areas.
Dominic Della Sala - We take those global models and we zoom in, and we say 'what is that going to mean for the town of Denmark Oregon?'

By the turn of the next century, he says, the temperature on Oregon’s coast could rise between four and ten degrees Fahrenheit.

Dominic Della Sala: "So by thinking about preparing for climate change in terms of what do you need to do about sea level rise and what you need to do about increasing temperature, they start to question, well, in addition to preparing for it, we need to do something do to stop this!"

Sound of gavel at the Port Orford planning commission meeting: "Okay, we will open the public hearing continuation of the stormwater ordinance...."

Bioswale Projects - Photos by Christy George

Port Orford’s Planning Commission started work on a new stormwater ordinance last spring, and it stretched into the fall.

The idea was to require new construction or re-developed buildings to drain stormwater off roofs and sidewalks and into the ground.

Frank Burris: "We’re in the visitors center parking lot for Gold Beach Visitors’ Center. This is a bioswale built just this year, finished about three weeks ago."

Frank Burris is the Oregon State Extension agent for Curry County.

Frank Burris: "I’m not sure how much climate change is really going to affect stormwater management, except for the fact that we’ll have higher rates of volatile storms and therefore more need to control the runoff."

The county built this as a demonstration project to show how a bioswale, or a rain garden, catches and holds the water until it drains naturally into the soil.

Frank Burris: "A lot of the rushes and sedges are down in the bottom...."

Native plants drink in some of the water. And the plants also help filter out impurities.

Frank Burris: "And there’s one fairy fern around here someplace."

What Frank Burris wants to do is change individual behavior – one home at a time.

Frank Burris: "Then, you can take people down and say, this is what it looks like, this is what you can do this on your own property, your own level, and I’d like to see thousands of these in parking lots and in private backyards all throughout Curry County."

Convincing one person at a time is slow, whether your goal is to change your town, your state, your country – or the whole world.

But social scientists say there are shortcuts.

Psychologist Bob Doppelt founded the Climate Leadership Institute at the University of Oregon.

Bob Doppelt: "A team of scientists brought together some social scientists like me and said this is a real problem, this global warming thing but we can’t make political or social traction, what should we do?"

He helped organize Climate Masters classes in Eugene.

People learned how to calculate their carbon footprints by looking at utility bills to see how much energy they used, and gas receipts to figure out their miles traveled.

Bob Doppelt: "We’ve been measuring the changes that’ve been happening in the environment, in the climate, through good science, to understand that we have a problem, but now, really, we have to focus in on the root causes of problem, which is our economic and social practices and policies."

A recent poll by Yale and George Mason Universities found that 69% of Americans now think climate change is real, but - only eight percent said they’d taken any political action, like calling a government official.

Bob Doppelt: "And sometimes it’s because they’re denying, sometimes because the change feels too big, or sometimes because they don’t think they can succeed in making the change."

Bob Doppelt calls that the “disinterest” phase. He says people go through distinct stages as they change their beliefs. His goal is to move people out of disinterest and into the next stage: deliberation.

Bob Doppelt: "‘Is this good for me or is it not? Will it help others, will it not?’ And usually it’s only when the pros – the benefits of a new approach - outweigh the downsides by at least two to one, will people make a fundamental shift."

But, he says, no one has made a great case yet for the benefits of acting on climate change.

The benefits of acting aren’t simply financial. In fact, social scientists say money is not the key to changing people’s minds about climate change, or anything else.

Ronald Mitchell: "We all put tips in the tip jar at our local coffee shop."

Ronald Mitchell is a political scientist at the University of Oregon. He specializes in why nations do and don’t comply with international environmental agreements – like the climate treaty on the table in Copenhagen this month.

Ronald Mitchell: "We tip because we see a tip jar and it communicates as a person coming into the coffee shop, that people around here tip."

And, he says, it’s those social norms that really make people change their behavior.

Ronald Mitchell: "What we really like to do as humans and what we really focus on and are sensitive to and alert to is what other people do."

Take the study done for a California electric company.

Researchers tried different methods of encouraging customers to conserve, but what really clicked was when people learned how much energy they used compared to their neighbors.

If they conserved more, the power company put a smiley face on their power bill, but if they conserved less, they got a frowny face.

And power usage dropped.


Ronald Mitchell: "All the frowny face people want to be smiley face people. We all want that - to fit in, to get the approval, to know that we’re doing like other people."

Ronald Mitchell says the same logic may have been behind Governor Kulongoski’s embrace of the Western Climate Initiative.

He says in some neighborhoods, like the West Coast, people are early adopters of environmental practices.

Ronald Mitchell: "You can get little pockets of people who are willing to do more, and those can grow."

The people in Bob Doppelt’s carbon footprint class are early adopters.

Bob Doppelt: "You want to grow the early adopters that can influence others and create a tipping point."

The people of Port Orford are early adopters, too. In fact, they’re leading the state.

Mayor Jim Auborn presided over the November meeting of the Port Orford City Council.

Jim Auborn: "Motion to adopt ordinance 2005... Second?"

Jim Auborn: "This is one of the first ordinances we’ve worked on in cooperation with a nonprofit, and I think Briana Goodwin is sitting in audience."

Briana Goodwin is not an intern anymore. Now, she’s the Stewardship Area Outreach Coordinator.

Briana Goodwin: "I wrote an article in the paper and the editor put my picture with the paper. Then I had people stopping me in the grocery store and asking me about the ordinance, and stopping me at Paradise Café when I was eating breakfast. And I think that was my favorite part."

Jim Auborn: "Signing this will be really good, so let’s vote on it. Carolyn?  The ordinance has passed and it’ll go into effect 30 days from today, so thank you."

City manager Mike Murphy is braving that early winter storm to show off what Port Orford has already built.

Mike Murphy: "We’re looking right here and now at a bioswale...."

Port Orford’s bioswale was funded by the same Ford Family Foundation grant that funded the bioswale in Gold Beach, and another up the road in Langlois.

Mike Murphy: "It’s so simple to do, it’s something that doesn’t cost anything, it’s a very minor requirement and eventually more and more people will be doing it and it will make a big, big difference. "

But how do you engage people to become early adopters?

Bob Doppelt: "Our beliefs matter."

Bob Doppelt says social change starts deep within people’s value systems.

Bob Doppelt: "The way we think about the world shows up in the way we design our economy, the kind of energy we use and the way we use it and only when a sufficient number of people change their thinking and beliefs about this issue, people will then say, ‘oh I want to be part of that, or I’d better not not be part of that.’ And you do start to get social change."

He says early adopters like fisherman Aaron Longton have joined a social movement to transform the economy and society.

Aaron Longton: "My father was of the era that thought we’d never run out of anything. We’d never run out of trees, we’d never run out of fish, we’d never run out of anything, you know. And to think that mankind could have any type of effect on the environment was just incomprehensible to him."

He grew up in a world without limits. But these days, the limits are becoming quite apparent.

Bob Doppelt: "Any kind of social change ultimately is a struggle over power and authority – that’s reality - who’s got it, who doesn’t."

Aaron Longton: "So many things seem to be out of our control, at least in any immediate type of change. Right now, if we stopped carbon emissions, they say it probably wouldn’t peak for another 50 to 100 years. But we can control what we discharge into the ocean now."

Artists Talk Climate Change And Scientists Write Poetry

Greg Retallack reading poem: "Here in vast Antarctic ice, I take some rest,
In a yellow tent, as a storm does its best,…"

Everyone who thinks about climate change has questions.

To change the climate - to warm the air and oceans – means the extinction of plants, and animals, and the end of a way of life.  But no one knows exactly how it all will change.


The Poetry of Science


From Kathleen Dean Moore

From Charles Goodrich

Mark Hixon

Greg  Retallack

Greg Retallack’s poetry page

Kathleen Dean Moore: "It’s really important that scientists have told us climate change is real, it’s dangerous and it’s upon us."

Oregon State University philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore directs the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word.

Kathleen Dean Moore: "But we can’t get from science alone to a conclusion about what you ought to do. What that requires is a second premise, and that premise is about our values, what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s unfair, what are our values, what do we seek, what do we most fear? "

She and her colleagues and a whole host of scientists have turned to the arts as a way of saving the places they love.
Places they'd miss.

Kathleen Dean Moore wrote the essay, “The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day.”

Kathleen Dean Moore: "What if it's the heartbroken children who remain in a world without beauty?
How will they find joy in a world without wild music?
How will they thrive without green hills edged with oaks?
How will they forgive us for letting frog songs slip away?
When my granddaughter looks back at me, I will be on my knees, begging her to say I did all I could.
I didn't do all I could have done. "

Charles Goodrich runs Spring Creek’s programs. One program, called Long-Term Ecological Reflections, will last 200 years.

Charles Goodrich: "As long as it’s been since Lewis & Clark passed thru here...."

Until 2203. artists will go the woods, and turn scientists on to art .

It’s a literary time capsule.

Charles Goodrich: "Whenever I cross paths with Maynard...."

Charles Goodrich’s poem is “Garage Sale Ecology.”

Charles Goodrich: "He feeds at the bottom of the garage sale food chain, and he always finds plenty.
Me, I'm usually looking for something specific, a left-handed tin snips, a throttle cable for my roto-tiller or a pump sprayer that hasn't been used for pesticides.  
Most days, I come home empty-handed, my time wasted.
I thought about Maynard last night, as I listened to a biologist talking about climate change, how plants and animals here in the Willamette Valley may respond,
The generalists, she told us, will likely adapt and thrive.
The specialists are going to have to migrate or die."

The woods where writers go is the Andrews Experimental Forest.

When Fred Swanson describes it, he sounds more like a poet than the geologist he is.

Fred Swanson: "The old-growth all draped with mosses and lichens. It’s quite damp, although there are times in the late summer, incredibly dry, and almost frighteningly so - one match and the whole thing goes poof! But there it is. It’s been there for 500 years. These trees have a wisdom and stature that’s really quite humbling."

The poetry is contagious.

Greg Retallack: "Oregon has cathedral forests as well as open spaces.”

University of Oregon paleobotanist Greg Retallack writes poetry about rocks, soil and science.

This is from his poem, “Forest Home.”

Greg Retallack: "Raindrops pass leaf to leaf, down to ferns that gleam,
Then are let down to roots and moldy leaves
Of brown and spongy soils, that slowly sieve
It clean for steady streams. The pattern was sown
Ages ago of forests that make a home for their own."

OSU marine biologist Mark Hixon partnered with Spring Creek to convene another collaboration earlier this year - the Columbia River Quorum.

Mark Hixon: "It had been the most beautiful of tropical forests, more a garden really....”

He wrote his essay, “Garden of Ghosts,” about a coral reef he studied for ten years, until the ocean water warmed.

Mark Hixon: "The rainbow gardens beneath the tropical seas are dying, unparalleled destruction, unseen and unheard, with no end in sight. As a coral reef scientist, I feel like a caregiver at a cancer hospice.”

When poets study science and scientists write poems, they ask us to reflect on big questions.

Kathleen Dean Moore: "Philosophers will ask three questions. First, what is the world? Second, what is a human being in that world? And third, how then shall I live?"

The Denmark Project - Photos by Christy George

What people notice when they drive Highway 101 past Denmark, Oregon is the Denmark sign, right next to an espresso stand that’s always closed.

Until this fall, when Patty Reese re-opened.

Patty Reese: "We’re up and running. We have everything, full service, even soy milk and all those fringe things that you don’t always find in a little espresso stand."

There is so much more to Denmark, Oregon beyond the highway: farms and ranches, rivers and streams, and an ecosystem that relies on every piece to work just right.

One piece is a group of threatened snowy plovers that live on the ocean shore between Bandon and Denmark.

In 1990, there were only 35 birds left here.

The snowy plovers were threatened by people, by development, by foxes, ravens and crows, and by invasive beach grass planted in the 1920’s to keep sand dunes from blowing away.

Dave Lauten: "The nest is basically in the open sand. It looks like three stones sitting in the open sand. And you could easily step on it and you would never know."

Dave Lauten has been trying to save the snowy plovers for 13 years.

Every year, he mows the beach grass, builds little mesh cages to protect the birds from predators, and puts up signs urging people not to walk on the sand. And for the most part, he says, people respect the signs.  They’ve learned to change their behavior.

Dave Lauten: "I think every life has a right to live. Plovers have every right to be in the place that they’ve been in the past millennium as everybody else does."

Now, the number of snowy plovers is up to 175.

An environmental success story.  At least, for now.

But no one is really sure how climate change will affect the plovers in the future.

Dave Lauten’s version of the plover story has a happy ending.

Dave Lauten: "If we have large sea level rises, the whole dunes Oregon recreation area may become snowy plover habitat. (laughs) Who knows?"

Bill Bradbury: "My daughters run a farm in Langlois near Denmark...."

Former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury lives in Bandon, just up the road from Denmark.

He trained with Al Gore to give the Inconvenient Truth powerpoint.

Bill Bradbury: "We’re gonna see some impacts, okay? We’re going to see declining snowpacks and real challenges for our water supply."

Bill Bradbury says Oregon will fare much better than other parts of the country, making Oregon a magnet for climate migrants from everywhere else.

Bill Bradbury: "The real challenge for us is going to be how to deal with the population that’s coming. That’s the challenge. It will be a challenge for Denmark, which is currently very unpopulated. More and more people will want to live here --  because they can."

Patty Reese: "I agree with Bill Bradbury. If it weren’t so remote, we would have a big influx of people."

Whatever changes come, Patty Reese hopes the character of her home will endure.

Patty Reese: "We’ve changed in this area in the last 200 years, and I know that we’re going to do that again in the next hundred, but - you can’t get it back once it’s gone."

Christy George produced our program and the audio editor was Steven Vaughn Kray.