When it comes to climate action, partnerships and collaboration are more necessary than ever. The Paris climate agreement, the growing urgency of our climate challenge, and an increased awareness that action is necessary to keep our planet healthy, are all motivating factors in our journey to sustainability. How can higher ed foster collaborative solutions to our climate challenge?
1. Learn to work with conflict, rather than ignore or try to defeat it. Climate change issues can be divisive and emotionally-laden – rather than ignore or try to defeat other perspectives, let’s accept and learn to value conflict as an inevitable step in large-scale transformation. By understanding sources of conflict and ways that they manifest, we may even glean new approaches to climate engagement.
2. Shift from an expert-driven mode of communication to a collaborative mode of communication. At its foundation, climate change is a scientific issue. Higher ed leads on climate science and understanding, but in order to communicate more effectively we need to include different perspectives, voices, and stories. By making the climate challenge more relatable and personal, we are more likely to motivate climate action from everyone.
3. Be comfortable with discomfort. Climate change can bring up strong emotions: fear over an uncertain future, trepidation over change, sadness over vanishing species. It is important to acknowledge and work with these strong emotions, rather than ignore or minimize them. This aligns well with our messaging strategies; acknowledging another viewpoint, and then pivoting to a positive solution (embracing the opportunities in the future, and emphasizing a bright future), are important ways to bring comfort to a sometimes uncomfortable subject.
Adopting a more collaborative approach to climate communications is crucial for higher ed to translate its climate knowledge into climate action.
Climate science has been instrumental in developing the ambitious carbon emission reduction targets negotiated at the recent climate talks in Paris. At the same time, the kinds of actions needed to avert the worst effects of climate change demand new ways of engaging that go far beyond science and formal diplomacy.
This shift from a focus on the technical to the social is not unexpected. After the particularly challenging climate talks of 2009, science and technology studies expert Sheila Jasanoff concluded a Science article by reflecting that the scientific community “has demonstrated it can learn and change in its methods of representing science to scientists. That ingenuity should now be directed toward building relationships of trust and respect with the global citizens whose future climate science has undertaken to predict and reshape.“
In other words, while climate science has advanced greatly, the human-to-human piece still needs attention.
Indeed, over the past several years, it has become clear it is not enough to rely on scientific and technical information, expertise, and authority alone when it comes to transformative social action on climate change. Instead, many people are working together to affect change outside the realm of science, often in seemingly messy and chaotic ways.
Shifting climate work into this kind of relational mode—one centered on people and how we relate with each other and our environment—is a sea change in how we deal with an issue traditionally steeped in scientific intricacy.