Making Meaning of Climate Change: Two New Resources!

Two new resources have been uploaded to the Resources section of this site. Both are products of a year-long collaborative project between two IWB partner organizations, Drishti-Centre for Integral Action in Canada and Centro Bartolome de las Casas in El Salvador. The project sought to include 'human dimensions' in climate change adaptation engagement, in a context where climate change is predominantly still engaged as a scientific or technical problem. Instead of preferencing one perspective or modality over another, the project intended to engage the Art, Morals and Science of climate change. Art through photo voice; morals through learning exchanges; and science through increased understanding about climate change. By including these first-person, second-person and third-person perspectives, in simple and lucid ways, this project applied integral theory to one of the planet's more complex and evasive issues today. In this short piece here, the project rationale and methods are described, with links to the resources with more detailed information below.

Perspective Matters

Local people living in agrarian communities often do not have the opportunities to study and educate themselves on the science behind climate change. Thus, when scientists and environmental practitioners come into the community and speak in technical terms on the issue, the effect can be disorienting and disempowering, and often the mechanisms of climate change go misunderstood. Our research team sought to involve community members in exploring what climate change means in their daily lives and realities, using photo elicitation (or photo voice), focus groups (family dialogues), and learning exchanges (North-South and South-South), as a way for local participants to make meaning of the issue of climate change in the context of their own realities and from their own perspectives.

The climate change problem is one that reveals wide disparities between countries, primarily the disparities between the developed countries that pollute and those developing countries who bear the greatest impacts of pollution. However, “what is less well known is that these basic inequities are amplified by the widely disparate capacities of nations to engage in climate change science and to translate that scientific effort into relevant domestic policies.” (Kandlikar and Zerriffi, 2012).[1] This is all the more the case in subsistence farming communities in which the population often has lower levels of education, minimal-to-no NGO interventions on the climate change issue, and limited interface with external information on the issue. Kandlikar and Zerriffi continue, “…capacity to understand the nature of these impacts and to make these findings relevant to the daily lives of people will be critical for the prevention of, and adaptation to, climate change.”

Human Dimensions are Part of the Solution

This was a point of departure for this project, wherein we sought to better understand how to make climate change more relevant to, and connected with, local people’s perspectives, understanding, and daily experiences. Even prior to a scientific capacity to understand climate change and its impacts, we started from what people currently understand about the issue, and how they make meaning of it in their daily lives and in their own perspectives. From there, the project rationale proposed that an adaptation planning process could bring in science when and where appropriate. In other words, perhaps it is less important that the scientific capacity be built, and more important that the community’s adaptive capacity be anchored in the existing viewpoints, meaning-making, and culture of local people. Science can always be integrated as needed; but local awareness, ownership and community resilience is harder to develop as these are soft capacities that arise through a different process of engagement.

At present, current adaptation efforts tend to intervene at the level of systems and behaviors, and climate change continues to be engaged primarily as a technical problem requiring a technical solution. In this project we examined how perhaps more effective, lasting results arise when culture and beliefs, and other human dimensions, are included as well. We proposed that human dimensions matter for several reasons. The first of which is that effective action must include local awareness and ownership, which tends to arise as the local worldviews, customs, and practices are considered and integrated. Secondly, not only do people’s culture, values, worldviews, and innovations contribute to the issue of a changing climate, but they are also necessarily part of the solution. Thirdly, there is an inner strength and resilience in many communities—North and South—which can be tapped into for creative, original and community-based responses to adaptation. This is particularly the case in communities who are already feeling the impacts of climate change and are already seeking innovations for how to adapt and indeed survive.

Developing Morality as a Planet

The global disparities in both polluters/bearers of pollution, as well as capacities to understand and deal with adaptation, need to be directly addressed. One way to do this is to create opportunities for exchanges in learning, awareness, and practical ideas for action. The project sought to create opportunities for such learning exchanges. This occured with North-South exchanges between the Canadian and Salvadoran research teams and their affiliated organizations, communities, and universities in both countries. It also included South-South learning exchanges between both communities, and with the Salvadoran community researchers attending a workshop on, “Transformation of Socio-environmental Conflicts” in Panama City, with participants from all of Latin America organized by the Instituto Cooperativo Interamericana.

This type of knowledge-building across borders is important to address an issue that is invariably global in nature. Overlaying the issue of environmental justice on this issue, we discover an imperative to engage those very communities who are most impacted by climate change with those in developed nations who are most responsible for the increase in carbon emissions in the first place. We may not be able to mitigate the impacts of climate change quick enough, nor adapt to them as skillfully or easily as we may hope, but we certainly need to develop the moral aptitude and interpersonal capacity to engage as a planet, not just as discrete nations, on a problem that influences everyone. These learning exchanges lay the groundwork for such cross-border collaboration.

This project results suggest that including human dimensions more consciously may evoke a more relevant awareness about climate change, generate greater community resilience, build adaptive capacity, and increase ownership over the adaptation process. The project resulted in an improved local understanding and capacity in two communities on climate change, adaptation, and its impacts, local researchers engaging in learning exchanges in Panama, Canada and other parts of El Salvador to share research methodology and findings, as well as the emergence of local environmental committees in two communities through which the adaptation process will be further engaged and developed.

If this is an area of interest for you, be sure to check out these resources!

Climate Resilience: Climate Change Adaptation and Human Development. Integrating human dimensions into adaptation and resilience. Photo Journal.

by Hochachka, Madrigal, Flores, Cáceres, Tenney, Núñez, Tejeda and Delgado.

Climate Resilience: Field-Guide for Photo Voice in Climate Change Adaptation Engagement.

by Hochachka, Madrigal, Flores, Cáceres, Tenney, Núñez, Tejeda and Delgado. (Spanish version forthcoming)

[1] Kandlikar and Zerriffi (2012) Climate Science, Equity and Development: The Role of International Institutions in Capacity Building for Climate Change. UBC Liu Institute for Global Issues. Retrieved from Jan 24th, 2012).