On Climate, Think Globally and Act Locally

Close view of tilled field on farm
By Christina Nunez
December 2, 2019

Farming and Climate

Allison Chatrchyan ’92
Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions
Allison Chatrchyan ’92
Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions

For the past decade, Allison Morrill Chatrchyan ’92 has attended Empire Farm Days, an annual agriculture show in upstate New York, to talk about climate change with farmers and others in the region. She doesn’t always encounter a receptive audience.

Some of them, she said, “start talking about how this is a hoax, and they give me all the standard climate skeptic arguments.”

Chatrchyan comes prepared. The director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., she tells people she isn’t there to argue about climate science, but to talk about facts. She pulls up an online toolkit from Cornell’s Climate Smart Farming program, which she helps coordinate. The tools show historical variations in the local rainfall, the growing season, and other indicators that are important to growers.

“When you show them the actual data, it makes sense to them, because they are seeing more extreme rainfall events. They are seeing a longer growing season,” she said. “It clicks for them that, yes, things are changing.”

The farming program is just one part of Chatrchyan’s role at Cornell, where she conducts her own studies on climate change, teaches, and builds partnerships for research and outreach across disciplines at the university. The work takes her from local communities to the highest level of climate action: the United Nations Conference of the Parties talks on climate change. She brought several Cornell students to attend the June session in Bonn, where they helped Armenia’s small delegation cover the many meetings that took place.

The intersection between policy and environmental issues is a first love for Chatrchyan, who worked for the UN Environment Programme not long after earning her B.A. in government and environmental studies at Colby. But going back to school for her Ph.D. in environmental and comparative politics at the University of Maryland brought her back to the university environment and ultimately to Cornell.

Ithaca was familiar territory for Chatrchyan, who grew up in the New York college town of Hamilton, about 70 miles away. Her first seven years at Cornell, however, weren’t confined to the world of academia—they were spent on the ground working with communities as part of the university’s extension program. “There are 180 researchers working on some aspect of climate change at Cornell, so there’s a lot of research going on,” she said, “but still, that work wasn’t getting out to communities or to farmers.”

The institute and her current position were created in 2013 to address the gap. Recently, her team held focus groups throughout the Northeast to find out whether people felt their communities were prepared for climate change. “Overwhelmingly,” she said, “the response was no.”

Chatrchyan’s group is working on a climate stewards volunteer program that would empower people to work on adaptation and mitigation plans with their local governments. That could mean identifying sources of greenhouse gas emissions and ways to reduce them, as well as options for safeguarding resources against strong storms, for example, or extreme heat.

When students ask Chatrchyan what they can do about climate change, she often suggests that they check whether their hometown has a climate action plan in place, and if not to approach local officials and offer to help make one. “The way that we can make climate change real for people is talking about the local impacts they’re experiencing,” she said.

These types of local efforts are important in any area, but especially those that produce food. Farmers, of course, need climate-smart strategies too: best practices for managing water, boosting soil health, and coping with extreme weather. That’s where the Climate Smart Farming outreach comes in, but Chatrchyan also complements that with broader policy work. She recently coauthored a paper, “Transforming Food Systems Under a Changing Climate,” that argues for food policy changes at every level—from local to regional to global—aimed at reducing emissions, tackling food waste, and switching diets for nutrition and sustainability.

Chatrchyan has always loved international policy work and will continue to do it. But she points to the lack of adequate federal action in the U.S. as an example of why we can’t just hope that national governments and big climate conferences will unlock all the answers.

“I think it’s incredibly important to work at the local level,” she said. “That’s where the action has to happen, because we can’t wait around anymore.”

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