Lisa Belisle: Today, it is my great pleasure to have with me Dr. Michael, also known as Mick, Womersley, and I’m sure that I’m mispronouncing your name. Apologies for that.
Mick Womersley: That’s actually pretty good.
Lisa Belisle: Okay, good, who is a professor at Unity College and the faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue team. Thanks so much for coming in.
Mick Womersley: You’re very welcome. I’m pleased to be here.
Lisa Belisle: You were telling me that the reason that your last name is a little unique is because it’s actually…
Mick Womersley: It’s English, I’m British. I’m from Yorkshire, and that’s a Yorkshire place name actually. There’s a small town called Womersley in Yorkshire.
Lisa Belisle: I guess the first obvious question, which I’m going to have to ask, is how did you end up in Maine?
Mick Womersley: I just was getting done. I was in the last couple of years of my PhD in environmental policy, and I needed a job. My research funding had run out. Unity College was looking for people to teach in its general education program and I landed the job before I had quite graduated with the PhD. I was a ABD, as they say, all but dissertation. I found myself at Unity College and I stayed there ever since.
Lisa Belisle: Unity College is a really unique school here in Maine. We have a lot of great educational institutions, and Unity is its own thing.
Mick Womersley: I like to think it is unique. I like to think of it as a unique institution on a nationwide level and sort of a hidden gem of Maine’s colleges.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me what it was about Unity besides the fact that it offered you a job, but what was it about specifically that school that drew you?
Mick Womersley: I was very interested in getting a place that allowed me to express all the different aspects of my personality and interests, and search and rescue is something I’ve done since I was in the Royal Air Force. I’ve been involved in search and rescue since 1979, and Unity College having a search and rescue team was quite important. It was also important for me to teach at an environmental college that had a progressive and activist approach, and Unity College meets that definition as well.
Lisa Belisle: For people who aren’t familiar with the term search and rescue, what does that actually mean?
Mick Womersley: Search is when you’re out there looking for people that are lost, and rescue is after you find them and you get them back to safety. The rescue part is actually the easy part, generally speaking. That’s emergency medical technology and also evacuation technology. Search is very difficult, particularly if you have an awful lot of ground to cover, and Maine is big and we often have an awful lot of ground to cover.
Lisa Belisle: One would not necessarily think of a college that’s known for environmental education as also having this search and rescue aspect to it.
Mick Womersley: It’s not necessarily a natural connection, but a big facet of the Unity College degree, one of the most important degree programs at Unity College is our conservation law enforcement program. That prepares students for work in the uniformed law enforcement agencies that deal with wildlife protection and essentially rangering around the country. Those students need a background in search and rescue. Our big connection is, of course, to the Maine Warden Service, which is another national treasure. I’m very pleased to have spent these last 17 years working regularly with the Maine Warden Service and in fact to have placed quite a few of my students in the Maine Warden Service, since we’ve had “North Woods Law,” we’ve actually seen the Warden Service on TV, and so we know what they do firsthand or at least from the TV.
It’s a wonderful job they do, and it’s a very important job. They have over 500 search and rescues a year. For comparison, Unity College might get involved, Unity College Search and Rescue Team might get involved with four or five of those. They do the bulk of the work. We get called in when they need extra people to do large scale searches, and that’s our specialty. We can provide a large number of students that are sufficiently trained and sufficiently fit, and the fit part is perhaps the most important so that the Warden Service doesn’t have to worry about having a bunch of students in the woods, that they’ve got the background, they’ve got the training, they’ve got the map reading, the navigation, and they’re young and agile. They can clamber over rocks and gullies and trees and rivers and streams without naturally getting hurt quite as easily as I would. That’s an important facet for the Maine Warden Service.
Lisa Belisle: You also began this when you were young and agile. You joined the Royal Air Force when you were 17.
Mick Womersley: Yeah. That was a long time ago. I didn’t start, I had a year of technical training before I joined the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue service, but I did spend five and a half years in Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue and I’m still heavily involved with the ex-servicemen’s group that belongs to Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue. I’ve been in this country since 1986 now, and I’ve actually been on more American search and rescue and mountain rescue teams than I ever was on Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue teams. I’ve been doing this for a long time, even in this country.
Lisa Belisle: What is the draw? How does one become interested in doing search and rescue, aside from doing it with the Air Force, but I would imagine you wouldn’t keep doing this if there wasn’t something about it that appealed to you.
Mick Womersley: I think perhaps I have an inflated sense of duty, and it might be a mistake some of the time. You find yourself out there in bad weather and wondering what it is that you’re doing and why you signed up for this. Somebody has to do it and let’s think about this, your organization promotes travel to Maine and so people are going to come to the state of Maine and some of them are going to go in the woods and some of them are going to get lost necessarily. The great state of Maine has the Maine Warden Service, and a big part of their job is to rescue people, search and rescue people from the woods and waters of the state of Maine, but they simply can’t have enough people. It’s not cost-effective for them to have the several hundred people on standby that it would take to run a very large area search using grid searching technique. Some of the biggest searches that we’ve been involved in might have upwards of 200 people from all the different volunteer search and rescue organizations in the state of Maine.
We have an umbrella organization, Maine Association for Search and Rescue. I’ve been part of that now for a long time. We’re very sure to work with Maine Association for Search and Rescue and to do all the things that we need to do to certify our students and to be part of the system, to be a productive, responsible part of the system.
Lisa Belisle: We’ve had Kate Braestrup on the show a couple of times and she’s a chaplain who works….
Mick Womersley: I know Kate.
Lisa Belisle: You know Kate, so… she has spoken about and written about as an author some of the circumstances when the rescue isn’t a rescue, it’s a retrieval, and the difficulties surrounding that. You’re bringing college students into….
Mick Womersley: It can be tough. It could be very tough. We’ve had more than one occasion where our students have been first on the scene to find someone who passed away. On the one hand, you worry about having to protect students, particularly the younger students from the kinds of shocks and even post-traumatic stress disorder that can occur if you have an awful lot of that. On the other hand, those students that are going to go do this for a living, it’s probably the case that the sooner they get exposed to some of the sadder events, the better.
We have to teach them how to deal with that. A big part of my job is the advisor. I do occasionally go in the field still, but as you can probably guess, that’s not the most effective role for me. My most effective role is making sure that the students are ready to go in the field, and part of that is are they mentally ready and particularly when we know that we’re probably looking for someone who’s…. If someone’s been out there a long time, if the weather’s been really bad, a lot of the time, you may not say it out loud, but you kind of know that you may be looking for someone who’s already passed away. That can be very sad, and it’s pretty important to make sure the students are prepared. I have a kind of a pep talk that I make sure I give them and get them ready for that.
Lisa Belisle: How does one become trained in this field? What are the different facets of training required in order to do search and rescue?
Mick Womersley: The basic skill is, can you hike in the woods and the hills? You have to be fit enough to be able to hike. We use a fitness test as a basic test to find out if students can manage that. Then we need to be able to navigate using map and compass across the woods and fields and to be able to…. In particular, since the Unity College search and rescue team is most frequently doing the kind of search that we call a grid search or a line search that requires you to be able to take a bearing across a piece of wooded terrain and to hold to that bearing, particularly on the left and the right sides of the line, so that you sweep across and then you pivot and sweep back in the other direction, and you don’t want to have a whole lot of overlap between those two. You need to be able to walk in a bearing pretty well. You need to be able to use a GPS. We need them to have at least the basic first aid and CPR. We like it when students go out and get more advanced first aid and CPR skills. We like it when they get EMT or paramedic and quite a few of our students are also members of our local volunteer fire department, so they often get those qualifications as a result of their other volunteer work with the volunteer fire department.
We also run something called Wilderness First Responder, which is a proprietary first aid course every year or so at the college and students will participate in that. This hasn’t changed since I first got involved in this in 1979. The first qualification is, are your legs and your back strong enough that you can do this without getting hurt? Unfortunately, that’s no longer true for me.
Lisa Belisle: Well, we all have a role, right? Your role is also as important as when you were starting to do this as a younger person.
Mick Womersley: I had some very good team leaders when I was young, and I still remember them and some of them are still very good friends of mine. They were mentors to me, and I try to pass that on to the students that I am responsible for.
Lisa Belisle: At the same time, we’ve been talking about all of the stuff that you do with search and rescue, but you also have a very rich and quite interesting academic background.
Mick Womersley: It’s nice of you to bring that up. I’m a climate policy scientist. I work in climate policy and in economics, and I am responsible for a degree program in Unity College that trains students to become involved in the renewable energy business, which is one response to climate change.
Lisa Belisle: Have you found there to be any crossover between the work that you do in one area and the other?
Mick Womersley: Well, there is. This is the way…. You’ll only get this from someone who teaches general education at a college, right, but what is your understanding of the good society? What kind of a society do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a society where volunteering is recognized and important, where there are organizations that will come work for you if you get lost in the woods, where you wouldn’t necessarily get billed for an expensive rescue as might be the case in some other countries and even some other states in the union, and you can take that same idea, the idea that there is some greater understanding of a good society that we can talk about, and you can apply that easily to climate policy.
I have a young daughter. She’s two and a half this month, and I want to be sure that she grows up on a planet with a stable climate that isn’t going to descend into the kind of chaos that when I’m long dead, she will have a good deal of trouble dealing with. That’s the connection that I make.
Lisa Belisle: You wrote your dissertation on American religiosity and climate science acceptance.
Mick Womersley: There was a moment in American politics about 16, 17 years ago when I just got done with the dissertation where it seemed like religious groups might get involved in climate change politics. They did to some extent. There was an organization called the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. It still exists today. They were trying to get all of the churches, particularly the mainstream churches, the Catholic churches, Anglican, Presbyterian, and so on, involved in lobbying for good climate policy. The organization still exists. I’m afraid I made the mistake of thinking in my PhD dissertation that it would be more powerful than it was.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think it’s still possible that that could happen?
Mick Womersley: I think one has to think about again the kind of society you want to live in. I think religious organizations are very much under this responsibility as much as any of the rest of us, particularly academics. They share, religious organizations share with academics the responsibility for promoting a vision of the good society. Science tells us that the climate is going to get a lot more difficult for people to live with over the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years and that by the end of the century, Maine will have a climate that is more like Virginia’s than the climate that we have right now. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that Mainers would feel good about living in a state that had the climate of Virginia. They signed up to live in Maine, not Virginia.
That’s if we don’t do better in mitigation and adaptation, we’ll face that possibility. That’s what the science tells us, and so I think it’s incumbent upon those organizations and society whose job it is to think about how a good society is constructed and I would include religious leaders, academics, politicians, radio show hosts, anyone who is part of the fabric of society, that’s part of the way that society ponders such questions, I think it’s incumbent upon us all to think about it, and to my mind, the connection between search and rescue and planetary rescue, if you will, is pretty clear and straightforward. One of the reasons I left the British military and I kept my career ashore was because it was pretty clear at the time that we were not heading into a good place as far as the global environment. In the 1980s, we were just starting to become aware of global environmental problems, and I felt like I needed to get involved in those and I have, but I have still kept my interest in search and rescue.
Lisa Belisle: Is there some aspect of the work you’re doing… Maybe an attempt to do something really very practical and very concrete in the face of this very almost amorphous and difficult conversation about climate change, where, you know, we can’t just recycle and compost and then….
Mick Womersley: No you can’t.
Lisa Belisle: We’re going to bring the temperatures down.
Mick Womersley: I think that is a very difficult problem. As a result of that, a large number of people in the United States and around the world just kind of give up on it. It’s what we sometimes call in academia a wicked program, which is a good use of that old New England term wicked. It really is complex and difficult and a lot of people give up on trying to understand it without even trying. Part of the problem, I think, is that whilst there are simple straightforward things that we can do, they’re not necessarily easy. It’s hard to use less fossil fuels, particularly if you have, for instance, a home that is heated with oil, if you have a family that you need to look after in that home, if you can’t afford to buy an electric car or in many cases in Maine, electric cars are impractical part of the year. It’s difficult to know what to do.
Scientists, we love complexity. We deal in complexity, and there’s nothing I like more than being able to understand complex systems, and I’m naturally predisposed in the same way that I used to be predisposed to figure out the innards of a jet engine, I’m naturally predisposed to figure out how the climate system works and how climate policy works. We like that kind of complexity, but it doesn’t help us when we have to explain things to ordinary people. I think that’s part of the problem.
For nearly a generation now, climate scientists have been trying to avoid something that we sometimes call runaway climate change. This is the situation where our climate begins to spiral out of control. It’s no longer easy to understand where it’s going to end up. Internationally, we’ve set a goal of two degrees Celsius global warming, and we’re trying to limit anthropogenic climate change to two degrees Celsius global warming, and we’ve told ourselves for pretty good scientific reasons that if we can do that, then we’re going to avoid this very dangerously destabilizing runaway climate change.
I don’t think we’ve done a good job of communicating the potential horror of dangerously destabilizing climate change. Most people imagine, I think most people that are thinking about climate change in the United States imagine things are just going to get a bit warmer. They probably will. More than likely, that’s what happens. Things just get a bit warmer. Maine finishes up by 2050 with a climate more like that of southern New York state, by the end of the century, with a climate more like that of Virginia, if we don’t do anything, if we don’t mitigate.
What’s really scary about that is if you allow that to go forward, if you don’t mitigate, if you don’t reduce fossil fuel emissions, then you stand this increasing chance of encountering this runaway situation, this dangerously destabilizing climate change. Scientists are naturally reticent and conservative, and we don’t like to do what politicians do, which is to scare people with scary stories that make them vote for politicians that have simplistic views of things. Scientists have avoided talking about dangerously destabilizing climate change, but everything we’re doing internationally is based on the attempt to avoid runaway dangerously destabilizing climate change. It may only be a very small chance. It may be what happens is the climate warms and then it warms a bit more and then it warms a bit more and it doesn’t really get to too terrible a situation and it sort of levels off, and there’s a good chance that that might happen.
There’s also a good chance, and we know this from some of the work that some of my colleagues have done, even with some of my colleagues at Unity College, that there are built-in feedback loops in the climate system that allow it to spiral out of control. I have a colleague Keven Spiegel who goes around the country looking for times in geological history where we’ve had rapid climate change. He uses lake sediments and palynology, pollen analysis of lake sediments on the basis of pollen and other variables, to try to figure out when those things have happened, and they have happened. There have been times when the planet’s climate has warmed dramatically as much as ten degrees Celsius over a very, very short period of time, a few decades. Human society is not organized to deal with that kind of change. It would be very, very difficult, and it would lead to a lot of civil and social unrest, if not war. We need to do what we can to avoid that, and as I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t think climate scientists….
I think client scientists have typically avoided talking about the potential for dangerously destabilizing climate change. Whenever we’ve had the chance to talk to the media, you’re giving me an opportunity today to talk to the media, we’ve tended to stick to the straightforward, “Well, Maine is going to finish up with a climate more like that of Virginia in 100 years time if we don’t do anything to reduce fossil fuel emissions.” There are probably some people out there that are thinking, “You know, Virginia’s got a nice climate. I’m not worried about that.” It’s entirely possible to be a reasonable human being, and perhaps if you’re not that interested in things like forests and habitat and moose and lynx, perhaps if you don’t understand about those things, you may not think it’s such a bad thing. You might think, “Well, it’s going to be warmer, that’s nice. I can grow tomatoes out of doors without having to worry about it.”
It’s that small possibility that in addition to that kind of warming, we risk dangerously destabilizing or runaway climate change. I think that’s the thing that we have to avoid and the way to avoid it is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. It’s unfortunate that there are an enormous number of wealthy people around the world who have ownership rights in fossil fuel. They are just naturally going to do whatever they can, despite the fact that they have children and grandchildren, right, that somehow they believe that either the climate science is not correct, or that perhaps they’ll be rich enough that these horrors won’t fall on their children and grandchildren. Is that what they’re thinking, I don’t really know. I don’t get to talk to that many rich people. It beggars belief that anybody who is an intelligent person who wasn’t afraid of ideas, who had studied climate science, who had children and grandchildren, it beggars belief to me that they would be unwilling to adopt sensible mitigation technology.
Especially when, and this is what I find is very important, I’m primarily an economist, a policy wonk, a policy PhD is primarily an economist. I can demonstrate quite easily that renewable energy is now as cheap as a lot of fossil fuel and getting cheaper all the time. It’s not even that this would really cost us any more. Luckily, there are plenty of commercial interests that are on the side of climate change, the insurance companies, the big tech companies who don’t have ownership in fossil fuel. I think this will sort itself out in the long run. The question is whether it will sort itself out in time. That’s what worries me. That was a lot. You got quite a lot. You got a few large paragraphs there with just one question, didn’t you?
Lisa Belisle: I think it’s exactly as you’ve said. I think if you’re willing to come in here and talk to us about what’s actually going on from your standpoint as a scientist and as an economist, then it’s worth listening to.
Mick Womersley: Thank you for that. I thought I was coming here to talk about search and rescue, so it’s great that I got a chance to talk about the rest of my work, too.
Lisa Belisle: Searching and rescuing the planet I think is also… at least rescuing, I think we’ve already found it from what I can tell.
Mick Womersley: Yeah. We know where it is.
Lisa Belisle: We know where it is.
Mick Womersley: Third rock from the sun.
Lisa Belisle: There you go. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Mick Womersley, who is a professor at Unity College and the faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue team. You’ve given me a lot of things to think about, and I really appreciate your coming in today.
Mick Womersley: You’re very welcome. I’m glad I could be here.
Lisa Belisle: Today, it is my great pleasure to have with me Dr. Michael, also known as Mick, Womersley, and I’m sure that I’m mispronouncing your name. Apologies for that.