Exploring the human factor of marine and coastal ecosystems

Can you give a brief overview of what this study looked at and where?

Pollnac: Losses due to climate change in the tropics are expected to impact both agriculture and fisheries, but assessments have rarely considered changes in both sectors at the same time. The few that do are nationwide, so it’s not clear whether people are engaging in both sectors simultaneously; that is, do they have the ability to substitute emphasis on one sector when the other declines.

Joshua Cinner – one of my best former students at URI – was the principal investigator of this study, managed to bring together a global team of 28 social scientists and climate impact modellers to study the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture and fisheries for 72 coastal communities in Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. The research integrated socio-economic surveys [more than] 3,000 households with model projections of crop yield losses and fishing catches under a high carbon dioxide emissions scenario and a low emissions scenario.

Why did you want to look at these specific locations instead of, say, Rhode Island or Hawaii?

We had to use existing data, and those who have studied coral reef fishing in the tropics have conducted fieldwork with similar methods, which is necessary for a comparative study.

What did your findings show?

We found that, overall, the potential losses for fisheries are higher than the potential losses for agriculture, but there is substantial variability within countries. This is important because considering only average expected losses, as is done in national assessments, can obscure the most extreme potential fishing catch losses projected for many communities.

[Also,] while more than two-thirds of locations will simultaneously bear a double burden of potential losses to fishing and agriculture, mitigation could reduce the proportion of locations facing a double burden.

[Lastly,] it is extremely important to note that the impacts of climate change will hit the poor hardest. Poorer communities are not only more exposed to severe impacts, but they are also more dependent on natural resources, so these impacts will be hit harder.

Richard Pollnac, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, met with some of his former students on Magnetic Island in Australia to share data examining the impact of climate change on fishing; Shown (left to right): Joshua Cinner (lead author of the article), Mahar Gorospe, Pollnac and Amy Diedrich.HANDOUT

What is the impact of these discoveries on the individuals in these places?

The strength of our approach was to interview individual households, so we could look at things at the household level. Looking at household-level data, we found that many people would not be able to offset fishing losses with agricultural gains in places where this might occur. About a third of our surveys and several entire communities were engaged in fishing but not farming, so they did not necessarily have the skills, land or rights to switch to farming. In other words, many fishermen were going to be the losers of climate change.

Do we already see the impacts of climate change like these places?

We are! I think the floods, wildfires, drought and extreme heat and unusual weather events that we are currently experiencing are examples of impacts in the United States.

What could reduce the number of places facing this burden, and by how much?

Reduction of carbon emissions. Full implementation of the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC) is the minimum required to significantly reduce the number of sites facing this double burden. Currently, the world is not on track to achieve this.

This study was published in Nature Communications. Where do you hope this study will go other than in the academic world?

Yes, the team of authors involved in this study works closely with international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and international development organizations such as WorldFish, and we have already sent the document to our contacts there.

Is there anything you would recommend New Englanders do to help fight climate change? Do habits or personal changes really make a difference?

Habits and personal changes are important. Each individual’s contribution may seem small, but we know from decades of research that people are strongly influenced by the behavior of others. Your behavior change is extremely likely to influence the behavior change of your friends and their friends. It also sends signals to governments about what people actually want (like electric cars, solar panels) and will encourage governments to invest in critical infrastructure.


The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are building new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to journalist Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].


Alexa Gagosz can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.