Melissa Finucane on the perception of environmental risks among Pacific Islanders

Melissa Finucane studied how farmers and ranchers in Hawaii perceive and act on environmental risks.

Melissa Finucane:  Certainly scientific knowledge and technical information is critical for informed, robust decisions.  But it’s not the whole picture.

Melissa Finucane is a Honolulu social scientist who recently conducted a study on how farmers and ranchers in Hawaii perceive and act on environmental risks. She extensively interviewed dozens of people who, over the years, had been affected by drought. Finucane found that only some of them used scientific information – from the Internet, for example – to understand and cope with drought-related issues. She said her study helps explain why people respond the way they do to natural disaster.

Melissa Finucane:  And why that might not be consistent with the recommendations that come out of technical risk assessments.

In other words, why communities facing risk sometimes disregard scientific advice. Based on her interviews, Finucane believes that – in the Pacific region at least – the science related to drought and other environmental risks should be complemented with a narrative. That is, with the retelling of a relevant and useful personal story.

Melissa Finucane:  It’s more compatible with the local tradition that we call ‘talk story.’  You can more easily relate to the narrator and take on the information they’re trying to impart.

Fincane added that using a culture-by-culture approach might be useful in communicating an entire range of climate risks, across the globe. In her region, she’s shared what she’s learned so far with the Pacific organization PRiMO, whose aim is to help vulnerable Pacific communities stay resilient in the face of hazard.  Finucane spoke about the the field of risk perception.

Melissa Finucane:  This field of risk perception and decision-making research was established in response to real life regularly occurring conflicts that people were observing between scientists and technocrats, and community groups who often disagreed with their assessments of risks.

She said that in the last ten years, the field of risk-perception has confirmed that we all have, as humans, a couple of different ways that we can process information.

Melissa Finucane:  On the one hand there is this very analytic system where we deliberate over data that we have.  We’re very thorough.  I it typically takes a long time and we’re precise and comprehensive in our approach.

That analytic system is more like science itself, and the information that we can get from analytically presented science.

Melissa Finucane:  And another system, that’s actually older from an evolutionary perspective, is a more experiential system, is based on feelings.  It’s a holistic approach to gathering information.  Sometimes it’s even subconscious.

In other words, it’s more like the way we collect information when we listen to a personal story.

Melissa Finucane: It’s by putting these two systems together that we can function in a very complex world, trying to figure out what information to pay attention to and what to ignore, what’s a worthwhile risk to take, and what is not.

She said it’s important to figure out how best to communicate risk in the Pacific Islands, because that portion of the globe is vulnerable to a cross-section of environmental hazards: tsunamis, floods, drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, and sea level rise. She said she favors a partnership approach to risk-management in the Pacfic, and believes that face to face meetings of groups that might not otherwise communicate (like scientists and cultural leaders, for example) are especially conducive to more thorough, two-way understanding of climate risk.

Melissa Finucane: The Pacific Islands are home to about 11 million people if you include Hawaii.  Across the islands we have many diverse and vibrant cultures, and endangered species.  A partnership approach to risk-management that includes scientists, policy makers, cultural leaders, business-people and representatives of community groups might be the most complex tool that we have in our risk-management toolbox.  But it’s also potentially the most effective.

Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.

Beth Lebwohl