Why listening is good for climate scientists

What happens when a bunch of scientists decide to chat with people on the street about climate change? A pretty valuable public engagement event, that’s what  – probably more so for the climate scientists themselves than for the people with whom they interact. People who are prepared to stop and talk tend to already be concerned and want to find out more; those who are not  turn their backs and hurry off.  For researchers working on climate change, it’s the perfect humbling opportunity to have your academic bubble popped.

That was what happened in Leeds over three days when we sent teams of researchers out to talk to the public for climate literacy week following Earth Day (22 April). Climate scientists at all levels of experience and different disciplinary backgrounds got together to chat to people in three locations: Leeds Kirkgate Market (the largest indoor covered market in Europe), University Precinct on campus and Mill Hill Chapel in the city centre.

The event, organised by the Priestley International Centre for Climate, the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) and Living Well Within Limits (LiLi) project, got some local media traction, namely  an interview with Paul Hudson on The Weather Show on BBC Radio Leeds and a guest appearance by BBC Look North weather presenter Keeley Donovan, both in an accompanying film we made and at our first event.

However, whether we changed the minds of many members of the public about climate change wasn’t clear. What was clear, though, was that far more people did want to talk to us than we had thought (after the first few firm “no” responses we were all kept very busy) and that listening, as much as anything else, was what was required of us.

For the chats, alongside a stand, banners, leaflets, freebie books and a display of cooked meals to demonstrate the CO2 emissions associated with them, we used a survey as a conversation starter. We managed to talk to around 100 people, out of which 77 completed the survey (totally or partially). The first five questions of the survey were drawn from Capstick et al’s report ‘Public perceptions of climate change in Britain following the winter 2013/2014 flooding’ conducted by the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University; the rest were developed to provide some information on which options participants were more likely to take, with a view to informing local decision making.

When asked “What first comes to mind when you hear the phrase climate change?” people’s responses were divided into personal emotions (fear, worry, concern), visions of the future (catastrophe, doom, disaster), tangible experiences of weather events (extreme weather, floods) or more general phenomena (global warming, ice caps melting).  Regardless of what first came to mind, the vast majority of the people we talked to (85%) were fairly or very concerned about climate change. In addition, most (75%) thought we were already feeling the effects of climate change and 86% said they had noticed the effects of climate change during their lifetime. The types of effects they had noticed were mainly related to seasonal changes and effects on wildlife (birds, butterflies).

When asked about what sort of actions they would be willing and able to take to tackle climate change, the most popular options were to walk and take the bus more often, and make their home more energy efficient. The least popular options were car sharing and flying less. This is surprising because two of the most popular options involved changes in their choice of transport, but at the same time it is unsurprising because there is less willingness to make a truly radical change in the choice of transport, especially for long distances. Moreover, when it came to talking about actions that could be done in Leeds, people didn’t think that establishing more cycle lanes and electric car facilities were the best alternative (which consistent with their choice of personal actions), but rather reducing the amount of food waste generated by supermarkets.

Volunteer Elke Pirgmaier talks to a shopper in Leeds Kirkgate Market about climate change

Even though we ended up having a good distribution of age, gender and locale, we are not claiming these results are representative of the views of the people of Leeds. They were used as a conversation starter and to gain an insight into people’s views on climate change and the sample size was relatively small.  It would certainly be worthwhile repeating the exercise formally, on a larger scale: both the figures for concern about climate change and awareness of it happening now were considerably higher than the national sample of 1002 interviewed for the Cardiff University report (which stood at 67% and 55% respectively).  President Trump’s response to climate and energy policy (and this was before his announcement pulling the US out of the UN Paris Agreement) generated considerable alarm among our respondents; whether this was responsible for the high levels of concern would be interesting to test.

Perhaps the real value of an exercise like this is not what we gave to the public but what we gained from the people we spent time chatting to. As academics, we spend our time in a bubble, where our research topic is the most fascinating and important thing in the world. But when you leave this bubble and try to talk to someone about climate change, and they ignore you, turn away, start walking faster and in the opposite direction, your perspective changes. In fact, even when you manage to have a conversation with someone, you realise that it quickly drifts away from the scientific facts towards the day-to-day experiences of people.

We are in an incredibly privileged position, where we have access to and understanding of the knowledge around climate change. Stepping out of academia must make us realise that unless we present our climate research as an issue of justice and of well-being, we will not be heard by the people who walk way. It also makes you aware of the magnitude of the challenge we are facing. To my fellow climate scientists I say: its time to burst the bubble.

Lina Brand Correa, Research Student, University of Leeds

Lina is part of the Living Well Within Limits (LiLi Project)

Main image: the Climate Chats volunteers with BBC Look North weather presenter Keeley Donovan (left)