Communicating Climate Change in the Small

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In 2005, environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben declared the need for an infusion of art in discussions of climate change, to help us “know about it,” to have climate change “[register] in our gut”, become “part of our culture”, and to help sort out what climate change means. #OurChangingClimate is a digital humanities and participatory design project that encourages diverse communities to do just that: to observe and critique their everyday environment through the lens of climate change, and to share those experiences through social media. It represents an effort to re-focus the conversation on climate change from global-scaled environmental impacts to one that recognizes the importance of the personal and everyday ways in which community members experience these impacts. Too often, climate change is defined in the media as an enormous and complex problem accompanied with images of melting ice caps, weather-related disasters, and mangy looking polar bears; the resultant response is a popular belief that only climate scientists and politicians are equipped to tackle these problems. #OurChangingClimate is an attempt to re-scale that dialogue and build capacity for individuals to play a role in understanding the impacts, evaluating their own community vulnerability, and advocating for a resilient future. In light of the recent election of Donald Trump and his intention to appoint Myron Ebell (a known climate skeptic) to the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team makes the work of this project ever more significant — as we may not be able to expect the continued leadership of our elected officials with regard to climate mitigation.

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#OurChangingClimate began in early 2015 as a pilot project supported by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) and in collaboration with the Oakland-based community organization, Institute for Sustainable Economic, Education, and Environmental Design (I-SEEED). In the pilot phase, researchers conducted two workshops with youth groups affiliated with I-SEEED. The first workshop introduced participants to environmental science perspectives on climate change, the methods for reading and interpreting urban landscapes in light of climate change, and brainstormed ideas for additional indicators relevant to their experiences of their communities. During the six week period between workshops, participants and the researchers contributed representations of climate change through their own social media accounts. Contributions were aggregated through the use of the hashtag OurChangingClimate. In the second workshop, participants and researchers reconvened to analyze themes and meaning in the content they had created and to reflect on the impact of the project on participants. Instead of images of polar bears, glaciers, or hurricanes, students collected images that reflected their own concerns: the California drought, overcrowded public transportation, the presence of vegetation in their neighborhoods, and access to healthcare. All these conditions are directly related to a community’s resilience or vulnerability to climate change.

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The project was named a 2015 Climate Action Champion by the University of California’s Office of the President and has grown with the support of the University of California’s Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society’s (CITRIS) Tech for Social Good grant. This includes the development of analogue tools, such as a climate change scavenger hunt, which provide opportunities for participation for those lacking access or interest in social media. Workshops have now expanded to communities throughout Northern California and by 2017 the project will have held workshops in Sacramento and Coachella Valleys. You can explore content from workshop participants either spatially or thematically, and even learn how to contribute your own posts, by exploring our website. From leading community workshop and analyzing digital content, we’ve learned there are very diverse ways to talk about the impacts of climate change. One of the most powerful ways to integrate community members is to ask questions first, learn their interests and concerns, and find the link to climate change – most times, the links are quite clear. We’ve also learned that focusing on a search for indicators of vulnerability or resilience within a community is more evident and comprehensible than trying to get individuals to ‘see’ climate change itself. Lastly, we’ve learned new ways to understand what makes a community resilient (conditions often overlooked by the politicians and scientists): access to education, knowing your neighbors, or what your family eats.

One of our early participants, @NicciVision, expected to contribute posts of severe weather and drought when asked to participate. They thought flooding and dried lawns would be how they saw evidence of climate change. However, in the six week period they were asked to contribute posts, they found themselves indoors more often than not; they already had a habit of photographing and posting images of their meal to Instagram, but following their workshop participation they started asking themselves what role these meals played in their resilience or vulnerability to climate change. @NicciVision was particularly a fan of avocados (and photographed them often), but they also started to notice avocados almost always cost extra. They started to question this and learned that avocados cost extra due in part to their shipping from regions near the equator or their need to be grown in greenhouses. They learned that not only would climate change impact the future accessibility to foods like avocados, but that their food choices today have impact on the projected impacts of climate change. Their digital narrative, ‘Where does your garden salad grow,’ starts with the prompt, ‘I know guacamole costs extra,’ and goes on to describe the potential impact climate change has on your food choices and vice versa. @NicciVision said better than us what we believe #OurChangingClimate can do: “I used to think that climate change was for people smarter than me to think about. Now I know it affects everything and should involve everyone.” We couldn’t agree more.

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Claire Napawan is a landscape architect, urban designer, and academic who has designed and studied urban environments throughout the world for over ten years. Her research focuses on urban public spaces and their contribution to urban resilience. In Spring 2015 Professor Napawan was awarded the top honor of Vanguard by Next City (top ’40 under 40’ for emerging urbanists) and in Fall 2015, she was named a University of California Davis Climate Action Champion for her work in climate engagement within the San Francisco Bay Area.

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