Lived Experience and Engagement on Climate Change

Fig. 7.1
The frustration of communicating climate change to the public. (Cartoon by Jon Kudelka. Source ​www.​smithsonianmag.​com/​science-nature/​talking-about-climate-change-how-weve-failed-and-how-we-can-fix-it-180951070/​?​no-ist.)

Thus in Moser and Dilling’s edited collection that draws from the United States experience, we find a concerted attempt to move beyond simply attempting to disseminate information and knowledge in traditional ways (Dilling and Moser 2007). Instead, contributors in Part I of their book argue for more effective, targeted dissemination, which include:

  • Better knowing the recipient audience and how it perceives climate change, and tailoring the fit between the problem and existing beliefs (Bostrom and Lashof 2007; Leierowitz 2007; Moser 2007; Chess and Johnson 2007).

  • Learning from how effective advertising gets its message across through cultural resonance (Ungar 2007) and more effective use of mass media. (Dunwoody 2007).

  • Supporting scientists to get their message across (Cole and Watrous 2007).

While some of these contributions have a slightly distasteful whiff of manipulation about them in order to communicate the message, others in Part I provide case studies of actions that have sought to listen better to local citizens (Pratt and Rabkin 2007), and to integrate climate change with the ‘real concerns, constraints and strengths’ that exist in many poor communities (Agyeman et al. 2007). As a further extension which attempts to move beyond simple but effective dissemination, two chapters concern engagement between different actors, including scientists and non-scientists, to create dialogue, ‘new ways of talking’ (McNeeley and Huntington 2007) and a ‘new kind of conversation’ (Regan 2007). Dialogue is here seen as a space where contrasting understandings and perspectives may be reconciled.

Moser and Dilling (2007a) are also concerned that communication and engagement should stimulate changes in individual and group behaviour, and indeed the more fundamental social change that they believe is required to meet the climate challenge. In their concluding chapter (Ibid: 2007b) they argue that ‘motivators’ and overcoming the ‘mental barriers’ to change which appear in the contributions throughout the book are complementary and both are needed for communication to be effective, that is to facilitate a desired social change (Ibid: Kindle location 6447). They add, however, that ‘our mental models or habits of thought are among the most critical barriers to change’ (Ibid: Kindle location 6454). They then further identify a thread of thinking that runs through the volume that calls for a shift from one-way message delivery to ‘more engaging, dialogic forms of communicating’ and call for the need for broad public dialogue (Ibid: Kindle location 6542). This does not apply only, however, to communication between scientists and non-scientists as perceived mostly by McNeeley and Huntington, and Regan cited above (Ibid: Kindle location 6577). In addition, they note developments in the United States concerning engagement across common societal divides (for example, between richer and poorer communities), which they characterise as ‘boundary crossing’ to find common ground and common language (Ibid: Kindle location 6694). Overall, they state that their book contributors understand the communication process as an intricate and multifaceted form of mutual engagement (Ibid: Kindle location 6512).

Whitmarsh et al.’s (2011a) edited collection has similar concerns to those of Moser and Dilling. The contributors derive mostly from the UK, but with Australia, the United States and Canada also represented. The volume shows a determined shift towards what one contributor calls a ‘participatory and collegial approach to knowledge production’ (Leith 2011: 114). The editors and some contributors also consider their mission to go beyond knowledge co-production to include ‘civic and community forms of engagement [that] offer an expanded role for individuals in respect of defining climate change responses and shaping social change, and also conferring potential benefits in terms of fostering self-efficacy, democracy, community cohesion and social inclusion’ (Whitmarsh et al. 2011b: 272).

Substantively, the collections of Moser and Dilling (2007a) and Whitmarsh et al. (2011a) are both rich with case studies and insights, while being somewhat eclectic in their treatment of climate change communication and engagement. This is, of course, to be expected in edited volumes with many contributors. The subject matter ranges from how to get the message across to lay publics (drawing on a variety of practices and techniques, several of which derive from social psychology) to discussion of constructivist forms of engagement and communication which lead to collaborative efforts in joint knowledge production and beyond. In the latter, Whitmarsh et al. go further than Moser and Dilling, but again this is to be expected as four years separate the two volumes, a period during which a ‘deliberative turn’ (providing the conditions for reasoned debate on climate change and reflexivity—see Sect. 7.3 below) was increasingly established.

While it is dangerous to summarise Moser and Dilling (2007a) and Whitmarsh et al. (2011a) in one sentence, for the purposes of our book we suggest that, whether referring to practices and techniques for better dissemination of the message, or to deliberative processes of engagement, both are substantively concerned with ‘smart communication’ where no one size fits all. This is even true, despite Whitmarsh et al.’s claim of potential further social benefits of collaborative deliberation, social benefits that are, alas, aspirational rather than real. As one contribution in Whitmarsh et al. notes, ‘Tensions between purely instrumental understandings of citizen engagement as a means to cut carbon emissions and normative democratic understandings of empowering citizens without prescribing the outcomes of their engagement remain unaddressed (Hoppner and Whitmarsh 2011: 52).

Finally, in this section, it is noteworthy that a more recent consideration of these tensions (Corner and Groves 2014) has conceptualised them as being between the norms that govern scientific practice (disinterested, neutral and objective) and those that govern the social domain (shaped by values, ideology and social identity). Corner and Groves (Ibid.) then argue that the way forward lies in ‘creating and supporting new institutions and societal infrastructure that provide a buffer between the science of climate change and the complex challenge of engaging the public’. These ‘new hybrid institutions’ would involve scientists and ‘actors from across the social and political spectrum’, whose purpose would be to ‘catalyse new conversations about climate change… to allow people to express and discuss their concerns, fears, dreams and hopes for the future, providing answers to that troubling question ‘how shall we live?’ This again begs the question, however, of how such institutions might be created, especially when they challenge powerful interests such as that of science and scientists in public institutions (see Chap. 4, Sect. 4.​4) where knowledge is guarded and manipulated in order to legitimise claims to authority within specific arenas. In this regard they remain aspirational.

7.3 The Public Will to Know and Act, and Disagreement Over Climate Change

The above edited collections stem from the clear observation that ‘there is something in how [emphasis in original] we communicate climate change that is failing’ (Moser and Dilling 2007a: Kindle location 216). Further literature in the genre starts from roughly the same point, but with new insights. Thus, Hulme (2013b: 252–264) adds from his UK experience (but which applies to other affluent countries) the falling confidence over the years in many public institutions and professionals, including but not only, scientists. This lack of trust was heightened especially in late 2009/early 2010 after the release of emails from, to and between climate scientists at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK which suggested a lack of transparency in presenting research results (popularly known as the ‘Climategate’ scandal, also referred to briefly in Chaps. 3 and 4). It was further exacerbated during the same period after errors were found in the 2007 IPCC Assessment Report, notably in the Report of Working Group (WG) II, ‘Impacts, Adaptation and vulnerability’ (see Chap. 6 for our analysis of this report). The most publicised of these errors concerned exaggerated claims about the rate of decline of Himalayan glaciers and the percentage of land in the Netherlands that lie below sea level, the latter prompting the Dutch Parliament to call for an independent line-by-line review of the entire WGII report.

Partly arising from these insights and observations of Hulme, and from critical analysis of the deliberative turn noted above, our second sub-frame of the public will to know and act encompasses the all too apparent, diverse competing perspectives on climate change, the nature of disagreement, and even the productive potential of disagreement. Our analysis centres on Hulme (2009, 2013a) again and a book from a political science perspective by Machin (2013).

The title of Hulme’s (2009) book—‘Why we disagree about climate change’—signals its intention directly. Disagreement is ubiquitous and inherent to climate change. Hulme (2009) argues that the proximate causes of disagreement are (page numbers are in brackets):

  • Our different understandings of the relationship of scientific evidence to ‘other things’—essentially the other items in this list (106).

  • The different values we place on our responsibilities to future generations, humans and nature, and climate risks (139).

  • Our different belief systems—from materialist to ethical beliefs about reality (142–177).

  • Our different ways of understanding and perceiving the risks associated with climate change (207).

  • The different ways that climate change is framed and communicated and the ways it is filtered through the ‘intuitive world views of those listening’ (245).

  • Our different ways of relating climate change to other pressing global issues of poverty and vulnerability, of population, and of ‘excessive affluence’ in a minority of countries. In other words, our different ways of relating climate change to global justice and (in)equity (281).

  • Different (self-)interests across scales—from affluent communities protesting against wind farms to poorer countries defending their right to development. Also the different approaches to negotiating the politics—from bottom-up and participatory to top-down and hierarchist. Overall, ‘the quagmire of global [including climate] politics’ (317–320).

Hulme (2009) also argues that climate is more than a physical phenomenon that has become a problem, but ‘an idea that binds together the physical world and our cultural imagination’ (Ibid: 32). That is, we give meaning to the physical world of climate through our culture, our ways of life. Thus, in a broader sense, the sources of our disagreement about climate change ‘lie deep within us, in our values and in our sense of identity and purpose’ (Ibid: 364).

There are intuitive resonances here between culture and our (the authors of this book) notion of lived experience. Hulme, however, never explicitly explains his own understanding of culture, neither in his 2009 book nor his 2013 anthology, despite repeated references to the concept. The omission is unfortunate because, without clear explanation, misunderstanding is likely. This is especially so, as, over 60 years ago, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture”.

In order to aid engagement with Hulme’s arguments we provide our definition as follows. It is a synthesis of several other definitions in existence.

Culture is an integrated and shared system of learned values, beliefs and behaviour patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society, institution or organisation and which gives shared meaning to the phenomena we encounter in our lives. Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does and makes, its customs, language, material artifacts and shared systems of attitudes and feelings. Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation.

Reading between the lines of Hulme, he probably wouldn’t have difficulty with the above. Let us now examine how it might relate to the lived experience of climate change through two examples that we have covered in Chap. 1—the UK flood victims of late 2013/early 2014 and the displaced East African forest dwellers.

Example 1: Culture and the UK flood victims

If you have shared values such as a strong work ethic, if you believe that through working hard you obtain your just rewards, if you carry that belief into your behaviour and are rewarded with a big house and lovely family in a countryside setting, but are forced suddenly one day to abandon your home because of a severe weather event, your experience could be that you have been treated unjustly by a supreme creator or the Earth Goddess Gaia or simply fate. ‘Why us? It’s unfair’, is a probable refrain.

In this—partly hypothetical—example we note a link between culture (values, beliefs behaviour) and lived experience. The experience of the extreme weather event, however, also influences in turn potentially one’s values, beliefs and behaviours. For example, your shared experience with others who suffered from the flood may re-ignite the value of community, or of pulling together to save a business as we saw in Chap. 1. The relationship of lived experience with culture, therefore, is circular.

The lived experience is also more than what might be placed within the notion of culture (at least our definition of it). You may have lost your livelihood. You may feel vulnerable because you are from a poor background without the material resources and capabilities to rebuild your livelihood. You might be the opposite. You also will experience commentary and explanations from outsiders, especially meteorologists and politicians. You may feel powerless and out of control as you have to deal with insurance companies and various authorities. You will undoubtedly engage with others and reflect together on what has happened and how to respond. Also undoubtedly, you will reflect privately to try and make sense of your predicament and the choices open to you. All of these are part of the dynamism of lived experience as we developed it in Chap. 1.

Example 2: Culture and vulnerability of East African forest communities

If you place a high value on the forests and believe them to represent your identity, if you believe the products they supply have health benefits, if you are, however, displaced from the forest through political machinations and land-grabbers for economic gain, if the displacement is exacerbated by climate mitigation interventions concerning forest conservation, your experience may be of loss, physically but also mentally in terms of identity. Overall your already existing sense of vulnerability and disempowerment will be exacerbated. Again, however, your experience of displacement requires more than the concept of culture to explain it. The whole lived experience is also influenced by your structural poverty, your illiteracy and your powerlessness to do anything about it. In the language of Amartya Sen (Chap. 6) you lack choices. You are not, however, completely disempowered and lacking agency as you may make alliances with other indigenous groups across the world to fight your corner, engaging in joint reflection with them.

Hulme himself often elides cultural with social explanations. In an essay published in his 2013 anthology he states categorically that climate change ‘has become as much a social phenomenon as much as a physical one’ (Hulme 2010a). Our book is no place, however, to enter discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. There is significant overlap and accord between ourselves and Hulme. We are broadly on the same wavelength, and that matters more than continuing to pick over what he means by culture. For the purposes of our book we have a strong preference for lived experience as a better explanatory and analytical concept because it is understood as a form of knowledge that may be compared with scientific and other expert/professional knowledges and with other lived experiences. The content of lived experience varies from individual to individual, but the idea of it does not—it is more grounded than culture in the everyday practice of our human attributes of reflexivity and communication.

Illuminating his core idea about disagreement being inherent to climate change, Hulme (2010a) states: ‘The arguments about the causes and consequences of climate change—and the solutions to it—have become nothing less than arguments about some of the most intractable social, ethical and political disputes of our era: the endurance of chronic poverty in a world of riches; the nature of the social contract between state and citizen; the cultural authority of scientific knowledge; and the role of technology in delivering social goods.’

Further sources of disagreement concern the ideological baggage that Hulme states is carried by climate change, for example to support ‘ideologies of racism, the human mastery of nature, the sanctity of a pristine nature, and the preference for stability over change’ (Hulme 2009: 32).

Are such deep-seated disagreements the reason for the lack of public will to know and act? Are they therefore a source of despair? Not for Hulme. He states that ‘disagreeing is a form of learning’ (Ibid: xxxiv). Because of our disagreements about climate change, we have to reveal these deeper reasons ‘rather than pretending that louder, crisper and slicker communication of science will somehow bully the world to a convergence’(Hulme 2007). This is not, however, a prognosis for despair: ‘It is only once we truly understand how deep our differences are, and respect them—differences in beliefs, values, goals, instruments, politics—that we will be in a position to think more clearly about what we really want to happen in the future’ (Ibid.).He is also quoted as saying, ‘Climate change can only be understood from a position of dissensus, rather than artificially solved by creating consensus’ (Blackman 2009).
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