[Fellow Talk] Cultural “Tipping Points” to address the Climate Crisis

Climate change is everybody’s business, this is what you often say, how do interdisciplinary projects support this approach?

In order to address as complex an issue as climate change, we need to not only have an interdisciplinary approach, but also a systematic approach to solutions and community engagement.  For many years, we treated climate change as an environmental issue that was left only to the world of scientists and activists.  And we also left the communication of this issue to the same specialists, who are often not versed in effective public engagement and education.  It is only in the past decade that we have seen a real shift in the climate movement, where we have seen more and more people see how we cannot address climate change without looking at the root causes of why we are where we are today.  And those root causes are based in our extractive economic system based on neverending production and consumption, on a global system of inequity that ensures cheap labor, political systems that won't cut ties with dirty industry, and global social movements that are breeding misinformation and a lack of trust in science.  

 We need to better understand the interconnectedness of our social and environmental systems, while also allowing experts to be just that -- focused on the deep dives into their specialties -- and not expect them to be scientists, policy advisers, educators, and expert public communicators, for example.  It gives me hope to see more and more institutions embrace the validity and importance of supporting not only those who are embarking on interdisciplinary collaborations, but also those who are specialists in facilitating interdisciplinary work.  There is much to be done in this space of the "in between" in understanding how to have effective work between specialists that often have very different approaches to problem-solving and applied research, as well as speaking very different languages in their practices. We need "translators" that are able to bridge these gaps and help interdisciplinary teams really thrive and be impactful where it's most needed.  And in terms of the climate crisis, interdisciplinary work is really the only way we are going to implement the scale of solutions we need in the time crunch with which we are faced. We need large-scale mobilization today.  And that can't happen piece by piece. 


In an era where most advocacy is made online, how do you make sure impact is well grounded and rooted?

In our work we often talk about how we move people beyond "click activism", which is often about sharing on social media, signing a petition, or donating funds.  Online tools are incredibly efficient, accessible to many, and can be very effective.  However, it's also a space where we can so easily develop tunnel vision, isolated from diverse communities, and can have a hard time navigating disinformation campaigns --which is a real source of many of the current social divides that are widening across the globe. 

We have to look at online advocacy as one of many tools in our "bucket".  It's an astounding tool for in-person mobilization, communication, and dissemination of information.  It's also problematic as the actions we need to see for addressing climate change are not all on our computers or phones. In terms of effective climate communication, there are certain components that cross cultural and technological boundaries.  Two of the biggest tools that are at our disposal and under-utilized is that we are continuing to talk much more about the problems of climate change and much less time about focusing on what solutions we need to be implementing. This has allowed so much space for people to block climate action, deny climate science, and stall needed implementation strategies.  Pushing communication beyond the problem and into how our communities want to implement needed action is how we both root advocacy in local adaptations on large-scale solutions and also how we ground climate action in social norms and beliefs, making their successful implementation and continuation much more attainable. 

In addition to solutions-based engagement, we have also seen a real growth in many forms of advocacy and activism in the past few years, much of which has been inspired by youth. We have seen movements that are rooted in direct action, like the Fridays For Future Movement and Extinction Rebellion, and we have seen campaigns that are based upon board-room and investor advocacy such as the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement of 350 (which was inspired by the divestment movement to end South African Apartheid) that has spread through academic, governmental, and private institutions across the globe, and so much more.  These diverse actions are showing more and more people how there are so many entry points to climate action -- from the streets to your wallet and to your classroom. This has made climate action more accessible and much more diverse. 

Diversity is one of the most crucial aspects to a grounded and effective climate movement.  I am so emboldened by the demands of youth to see the climate movement as a social justice movement.  This not only personalizes climate change (it's not this thing happening over there to the atmosphere, it's happening to people, to us), but it also is flipping the script on who we acknowledge as leaders and experts in climate action.  As more youth, BIPOC, queer, and other under-acknowledged community leaders are "given the mic", we strengthen the movement.  We all need to see people who look like us and talk like us and understand our community needs.  This is not different for the climate movement.  If we see leaders who come from our culture, ethnicity and backgrounds, then we more easily see ourselves as potential climate actors. 

So much of this work is about deep listening and even deeper connections. In such a divisive time, that both a big challenge and such a welcome idea.  


Your project at IMERA is a crosscut between communications and climate science, and a continuity of your previous work, what does this residency allow you to achieve more?

I'm so fortunate to be here at IMéRA for a second time as a resident.  I returned because the work I do requires continuously re-evaluating, growing, pivoting, and creating.  It's been particularly hard to feel connected during the pandemic and being here with so many inspiring people from around the world who are diving so deep into their work is really a gift.  I'm not only finding new ways to connect other disciplines to the climate crisis, but am also able to reconnect with the rich communities of Marseille.  

In terms of my experience here, I am, for the first time, able to connect directly with decision making scientists who are interested in exploring metrics that can better inform the efficacy of creative climate engagement tools.  My position with IMéRA has allowed me to reconnect with such a diversity of players here in Marseille, who are working on climate in many different ways --from economics to policy to law.  And having a research and experimentation base here at the IMéRA campus is allowing me to transform some of our fieldwork into applied research, which is so exciting.  I can see this work and the collaborations that I'm forming here as long term partnerships for some really exciting, and much needed, research into understanding what we need to do to push bigger and bolder climate action. 

I've always been fascinated with the difference in the climate movements in the US and Europe.  Because of so many different social norms and assumptions, the grassroots climate movement is very strong in the US and top-level policy is very strong in Western Europe.  Being here at IMéRA is also giving me a chance to do more cross-Atlantic comparative work to see what lessons we can learn between climate work in my hometown of NYC and Marseille.  This opportunity really is broadening my horizons and also helping me to understand more the value of the work that I do.  I'm excited to find ways to keep the collaborations going and growing. 


Founder and Executive Director, Human Impacts Institute; Adjunct Professor, Webster University, Netherlands. Visit her profile through this link.