Being born on Earth Day may not have set Silvie Harder on her path to becoming a climate scientist, but it did inspire her as a kid to effect change.
“As a kid I kind of thought that was unique. Whenever I’d see someone litter, when I was like seven, I’d be like, ‘pick up that trash; It’s my duty to protect the planet,’” laughed Harder.
While not entirely serious about this childhood burden, Harder, who completed her PhD studying permafrost in the Arctic, is as concerned as she is passionate about the environment and the effects of climate change. She looks forward to sharing her passion and scientific knowledge with B.C. communities as the first, and only, climate scientist with West Coast Environmental Law.
“That’s sort of my role – to help communities connect the dots between climate change and the impacts of climate change.”
Harder, who was raised in South Canoe and attended school in Salmon Arm, traced her interest in the environment and earth sciences back to her time spent tree planting in the region and, before that, the times she, her brother Sebastian and parents Carol and Ron spent backpacking in the wilderness around Rogers Pass and Revelstoke.
“When you’re working in the most devastated of landscapes where there used to be beautiful forests… contrasting that to the absolute devastation by the clear cuts and logging practices definitely instilled a desire to protect ecosystems and the environment,” said Harder.
While in the Swedish Arctic, Harder studied how much carbon dioxide would escape into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws. She explained how the northern permafrost region holds almost twice as much carbon as what is contained in the atmosphere.
“As the permafrost thaws, if it’s released into the atmosphere, it will just cause a huge positive feedback loop, causing warming with more CO2 and more methane in the atmosphere,” said Harder, noting warming is occurring in the arctic at twice the rate of the global average.
“So research from the north can be extrapolated to more southerly latitudes – It’s kind of a warning for what’s to come and how quickly changes can happen.”
Typically, this is the type of information that is well shared amongst academia, but not so much with the public. But Harder said there is an increasing number of scientists, like herself, who are stepping into climate litigation and/or communication roles, to get more involved in holding polluters accountable while not just informing the public and communities that climate change is real, but also helping to provide strategies to address it at a local level.
“What I’m planning to do with West Coast is partner with community groups to examine the local climate impacts and the connection to the global climate crisis and sort of how communities can be more prepared,” said Harder, “Talk to the communities and address the issues affecting them and affecting people personally and to sort of show this is real, this is really happening… because if it turns into a personal thing people are more likely to get engaged to take action.”
Harder is encouraged by what has happened in B.C. with Dr. Bonnie Henry taking the lead on the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is hopeful the same could happen for climate change.
“I think it’s good that it is scientists and doctors who are giving the facts and who are communicating with the public so that it doesn’t become a political issue,” said Harder.
In the coming months, West Coast Environmental Law will be inviting applications from interested community groups to partner in examining local climate impacts, the connection to the global climate crisis and how communities can become more prepared for those impacts. Harder says she is looking forward to this work ahead.
“I’m really excited to take the knowledge that I’ve got from my years researching to effect change,” said Harder.