Amber C. Kerr


Climate change and agriculture in the media

As an American, a scientist, and a parent of young children, I have to say that 2019 has certainly had a lot of discouraging moments so far. But one bright spot is that the tide of public opinion is slowly starting to turn in favor of recognizing climate change as a real problem that needs to be urgently acted upon.  Little by little, the American public is absorbing not only the scientific evidence (which has been plentiful for decades), but also the personal stories, the real-world losses (which are quickly starting to mount up), and the pleas to make this a world that future generations want to live in. I believe that digital media, divisive and biased though it can be, deserves a lot of credit for helping to amplify the voices of climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Katharine Hayhoe – and for gradually helping to change people’s minds.

This year, I’ve been glad to be able to contribute to media coverage of climate change in two small ways:

(1) I was honored to join the panel of reviewers at Climate Feedback, a non-partisan and non-profit website that swiftly fact-checks articles about climate change in the popular press. Some of the articles I’ve recently reviewed have been off the scale in the direction of apocalyptic doom-and-gloom, such as this ill-founded New Yorker piece by Jonathan Franzen claiming that it doesn’t matter how much we overshoot 2°C because we’re all going to die anyway. Others have been off the scale in the direction of “Everything’s fine, climate change is good for us,” such as this European letter signed by 506 supposed experts… of whom only 14 seemed to have any credentials in climate change or meteorology.  In any case, it is always exciting to get a new review request from Climate Feedback in my inbox.

(2) To my surprise, my 2017 Climatic Change article on California specialty crops was cited in a feature story by the New York Times on climate adaptation challenges in agriculture worldwide. It was a thorough and well-done story overall, written by award-winning science journalist Marla Cone. I was initially chagrined to see that the NY TImes headline writer had chosen the wording “In a Race Against the Sun, Growers Try to Outsmart Climate Change” (the Sun has nothing to do with it!) but fortunately, after writing to the editor and author, I was able to get the title changed to the less evocative but much more accurate “In a Race Against Warming.”

Back when I started university, I wanted to be a science journalist, and it wasn’t until after two years of taking and really enjoying science classes that I decided to become a practicing scientist instead. Science writers have a crucial role to play, and my unending appreciation goes out to everyone who helps bring the methods and results of science to the general public – especially in this hyperconnected era where we struggle to separate information from knowledge and knowledge from wisdom. I’m glad to be able to contribute to the public conversation whenever I can.


Coast fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii) growing between rows of almond trees at Tallerico Farms, Manteca, CA, March 2019. This photo was from my fieldwork for a 2018-2019 research project on almond orchard biomass recycling at UC Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute.


“First Man” and the unglamorous side of exploration

first-man-2_poster_goldposter_com_1Last month my husband and I went to see “First Man” for our anniversary date night. If you’re not familiar with this film, it focuses on the career of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) as he rises through the NASA ranks from X-15 test pilot to world-famous moon walker. The movie’s viewpoint is up-close, almost too close: the cameras are unsteady, the rocket launches are bone-shaking, and the home scenes are realistically tense. Mrs. Armstrong’s outburst to the NASA ground crew that “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!” seems truer than anyone is willing to admit.

My husband wasn’t a fan of this movie. He thought it was too relentlessly gritty, too depressing, whereas he had been expecting something uplifting and inspirational. I fully agreed that it was gritty and depressing; in fact, I had to wipe away tears more than once. (A central theme is the death of Armstrong’s toddler daughter, which was especially hard for me to bear because the little girl looked so much like my three-year-old son). And, whereas I would usually not give a Friday night movie much thought beyond Monday morning, I am still thinking about this movie weeks later. Why?

There are four aspects of this movie that I think are really remarkable and make it well worth seeing for anyone, but perhaps especially for scientists and engineers:

(1) The progress of science depends entirely on teamwork – not only among peers, but across disciplines, across generations, and from non-scientists. Armstrong (in real life as well as in the movie) openly acknowledged this and sought to bow out of the spotlight as much as possible.  That first footstep on the moon built upon a vast foundation of research, technical innovation, and self-sacrifice from thousands of people over decades.

(2) Even the most glamorous scientific accomplishments, like landing on the Moon, are composed almost entirely of unglamorous details. Throwing up after too much spinning in the multi-axis trainer. Writing down lists of coordinates with a dull pencil on a yellow notepad. Struggling to find the right tool to open a jammed seatbelt. Being too tired to play with your kids when you get home from work. Any scientist, engineer, or even astronaut who expects their average day to be movie-worthy is in for a disappointment.

(3) Heroes can be remarkably imperfect, and sometimes that isn’t a contradiction to their heroism but rather a precondition for it. Armstrong, as portrayed in “First Man,” is almost pathologically stoic. The morning after his daughter’s funeral, he gets up and goes to work, leaving his wife alone with the empty cot next to her bed. He never talks about his loss and never lets anyone see him shed a tear. Years later, as he packs his bag for the Apollo 11 mission, he is planning to slip out the door without talking to his boys, until his wife forces him to wake them up to say goodbye. Not exactly a model husband or father. And yet his impenetrable emotional armor made him the perfect choice for this risky, stressful, terrifying, unprecedented feat.

(4) Whatever our daily experiences, whatever our differences, we are united by our shared planetary home. Although this theme isn’t put front and center, it is hinted at throughout the movie. In response to a skeptical reporter, the usually no-nonsense Armstrong reflects that “You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But space exploration changes your perception.” And when he is finally on the lunar surface – stepping out into that serene blackness that only a few humans have ever experienced – he gazes up at the blue half-circle of Earth on the horizon, and sees a summer day, a green meadow, his kids’ laughter at a family picnic. Earth. Home. Beloved and irreplaceable.

Because today (Nov. 9, 2018) would have been Carl Sagan’s 84th birthday, I will wrap up with some of my favorite words from his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. …There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

It is absolutely astounding to me that we humans, as imperfect as we are, persisted and innovated and strove and sacrificed until we made it to the Moon. Let us never lose that spirit of exploration. The day-to-day work may not be glamorous, but look where it can get us in the end. There are so many urgent causes that need our intelligence and courage right now, not least of which is protecting the pale blue dot that we call home.

I’m a “Lab Girl” too, but Hope Jahren doesn’t speak for me

Hope Jahren has been getting a lot of press lately. She’s a biogeochemist at the University of Hawaii, and she writes a popular blog and occasional op-eds about the process of science, especially about the experience of being a woman in science. Many of my colleagues (male and female) have enthusiastically shared her articles and interviews about her new book, “Lab Girl.” I do not share their enthusiasm, and I’d like to explain why.

Jahren does good work as a scientist, and she certainly seems to be an engaging writer (though not a very humble one – her blog is called “Hope Jahren Sure Can Write“). Where she and I part company is her oft-repeated theme of just how hard women have it in science. I don’t doubt that she’s faced struggles and injustices. But please, Prof. Jahren, don’t try to speak for everyone, and definitely don’t try to speak for me.

Jahren does a disservice to male scientists when she asserts that opportunistic male sexual harassers “have been encountered by every single woman I know” in science. And she extends that disservice to women, too, when she describes an awkward but unremarkable case of unrequited affection as a perverse “evasion of justice”: “On and on it goes, and slowly she realizes that he’s not going to stop because he doesn’t have to.” Uh… well, as a first step, why doesn’t she try telling him that she’s not interested? As one commenter aptly responded, “This is not sexual harassment. In fact, this piece is damaging because it dilutes the real sexual harassment cases.”

Sexual harassment does happen in science; it is reprehensible (especially when ignored or covered up by those in power); and it should be handled with the utmost gravity. But Jahren doesn’t present any evidence that women are more likely to face sexual harassment in science than in other academic fields (or any other profession, for that matter). In fact, the opposite may be true. Furthermore, she asserts that male harassers are a major reason for women dropping out of science, but she only uses anecdotes to support her claim. Meta-analysis across a variety of disciplines suggests that the attrition is largely due to societal expectations and the unfriendliness of the academy toward work-life balance (Ceci and Williams, 2011).

I’ve paid particular attention to Jahren’s writing because I work in a closely related field (ecology), and her polemics about how the deck is stacked against women don’t ring true to me at all. Four of my five advisors have been men, and all of them have been wonderful and supportive, including throughout my two pregnancies (in contrast to what Jahren sees as the “absolute rock-bottom worst” sexism directed at her during her own pregnancy). And I’ve been on both sides of the unrequited-affection equation with male members of my lab group, but we dealt with it like adults – with a polite “No thank you” – and then continued working together.

When I (or other female scientists) make these points on Jahren’s op-ed pieces, there tends to be an angry chorus of responses saying “Well, aren’t you lucky. But get your head out of the sand. Sexual harassment is rampant in science!” Yes, it’s a problem, but if things are really as bad as Jahren describes, it implies that a frighteningly large percentage of male scientists are callous, immoral, exploitative misogynists. That doesn’t seem to be true. I can’t find any credible source indicating that bona fide sexual harassment (see definition below) happens to a majority of female scientists. Even a 1995 study cited by Jahren herself puts the figure at 12%. Any number above zero is too much, but 12% is not a majority, and I would guess that the statistics have improved in the past two decades.

I wonder if in part it is a generation gap issue. Jahrens is eleven years older than me, and perhaps that’s old enough to have caught the tail end of the “bad old days” when women in science were subjected to much more open scorn and ridicule. I am awed when I read biographies of pioneers like Barbara McClintock and Frances Oldham Kelsey and learn about the obstacles they had to surmount simply to have a chance to pursue their passions. I know I am standing on the shoulders of brave women like then.

But it’s not the 1940s any more, or even the 1980s. Though there’s still inequalities to be addressed, the prospects for women in science have improved immensely. I don’t dispute Jahren’s right to tell her own story, but when she makes sweeping statements like “There’s still not very many of us” and “There’s no fitting into the male world,” I feel as though she’s living in a parallel reality. The gender gap is quickly closing in many scientific disciplines (in the United States in 2014, women earned 56% of life science doctorates and 60% of social science doctorates). My own field now seems to have a reverse gender gap: for example, last month, I was in a proposal review meeting with 13 forest ecologists, all of whom were women. (The odds of that happening by chance are about 4,000 to one.)

So, on the basis of my almost 20 years of experience in the lab, the field, the greenhouse, the office, and the classroom, I have to publicly disagree with Prof. Jahren. Women do not always struggle in science because of their gender. I haven’t struggled. I have been nurtured, encouraged, and respected. Am I a rare and lucky exception in my generation? I don’t know, but I am grateful that it is now possible for me and many other female scientists to read about Jahren’s negative experiences and say “That’s not my story.”

Definition of sexual harassment

I’m using the 2016 definition from the University of California’s Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy:

a. Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

i. Quid Pro Quo: a person’s submission to such conduct is implicitly or explicitly made the basis for employment decisions, academic evaluation, grades or advancement, or other decisions affecting participation in a University program; or

ii. Hostile Environment: such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it unreasonably denies, adversely limits, or interferes with a person’s participation in or benefit from the education, employment or other programs and services of the University and creates an environment that a reasonable person would find to be intimidating or offensive.

This is much more serious stuff than an oblivious male scientist asking his uninterested female labmate out on a date, or a professor asking his recently-married female advisee whether she intends to have kids instead of pursuing a tenure-track career. These things may be all-too-common and annoying, but they do not meet the definition of sexual harassment.

When are climate adaptation and mitigation synergistic?

During an impromptu conversation over coffee at the August 2014 California Adaptation Forum in Sacramento, a non-technical activist who runs a local climate advocacy group asked me earnestly “Do climate adaptation and climate mitigation always work together?” I already knew that the answer was “No,” but since August, I’ve been mulling over how to answer that question in a more satisfying, more theoretical way.

It would be nice if adaptation and mitigation were always in synergy. (Heck, it would be nice if the words were at least used consistently and the American public understood what they mean. The best explanation I heard recently was a quote from biologist Caitlin Cornwall at the CA Adaptation Forum: “Mitigation is driving a Prius. Adaptation is driving a Prius to higher ground.”)

I often hear, either explicitly or implicitly, that climate mitigation and climate adaptation actions are usually synergistic. But why should this be true? Isn’t the opposite just as likely to be true? A Prius isn’t any better at escaping storm surge than a Chevy pickup is – and, in fact, it may well be worse.

I also hear: “There’s no point trying to adapt to climate change if we’re not also mitigating climate change. Only adaptation projects with mitigation co-benefits should be pursued.” But again, why should this be true? The benefits of an adaptation project are local and profound: that new sea wall will save you, your kids, your Prius, and your entire neighborhood. The benefits of a mitigation project are diluted across the entire globe and are infinitesimal in your own neighborhood. You could paint your new sea wall white so that it reflects more sunlight and cools the earth by 0.000000001 degrees, but wouldn’t it make just as much sense to paint the roof of an existing building? Why should adaptation and mitigation projects be conceptually handcuffed together?

To be sure, there are lots of examples of encouraging adaptation-mitigation synergies. One well-known synergy in my own field of expertise is increasing soil carbon in agricultural lands. Not only does the carbon get conveniently sucked out of the atmosphere, but when it is in the soil, it can increase soil water-holding capacity and improve soil structure, helping soils resist the effects of drought, high temperatures, and other insults.

But for every example of a synergy, I can find an example of a dissonance. For example, planting monoculture eucalyptus or pine plantations in the tropics is a great way to sequester lots of carbon quickly. But it’s bad for biodiversity, smallholder livelihoods, cultural heritage, wildfire hazard, and a lot of other metrics that are stressed by climate change.

What I’m really struggling with is whether there is any conceptual underpinning to all these seemingly random examples of positive, antagonistic, or neutral interactions between climate mitigation and climate adaptation projects. I feel as though there must be an underlying theory can that predict in what cases synergies are likely to arise.

My vague, unscientific idea is that when the adaptation project represents a return to a more natural state (e.g., no-till agriculture), it is also likely to return the atmosphere to a more natural state (e.g., less CO2). When the adaptation project represents a high-tech intervention to compensate for the danger we’ve put ourselves in (e.g., installing more air conditioners to protect against heat waves), it is likely to result in additional greenhouse gas emissions.

Although I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, I am concerned by blithe and perhaps baseless optimism that climate mitigation and adaptation projects will usually be synergistic. We’ve gotten ourselves and our planet in big trouble, and we’re going to have to make some hard choices in the years ahead. I fear we won’t always be able to have our cake and eat it too.

I’d like to figure out a way to make this theory concrete enough to test it. Please let me know if you have any ideas!

PS. For more background on this issue, here’s an good article that appeared in Grist a few months ago:

En route to the World Congress of Agroforestry 2014 in Delhi

My first post in this new blog comes to you from Dubai airport. I’m my way to Delhi for the 3rd World Congress of Agroforestry. It’s going to be an exciting week – I’ve been eagerly awaiting this conference for five years!  I will be presenting a poster on my Gliricidia drought experiment in Malawi in the “Adapting to Climate Change” session. I’m looking forward to catching up with old colleagues and making new connections. When I first became interested in agroforestry for climate change adaptation 10 years ago, almost no one was talking about it; now, it’s a mainstream topic and a big focus of this conference.

Never having been to Delhi before (or India, for that matter), I will have to do a lot of acclimatization, and I am lucky to have gotten advice from friends and colleagues. And I really hope I am able to go on the post-conference field trip to Jaipur, both to see some Indian agroforestry practices and just to see more of the scenery of the amazing country that I am about to visit! I’ll post updates from the conference soon.