Most People Aren’t Climate Scientists, But We Should Talk About Climate Change Anyway. Here’s How We Did It in North Carolina.

Do you find it hard to talk about climate change? You’re not alone. Surveys indicate that 72% of Americans report that they believe in climate change, but only 35% are talking about it regularly. Climate change is a challenging topic – reports of devastating wildfires, hurricanes and other events have increased in frequency, and discussing them can feel scary and difficult. At the same time, much of how you will personally experience climate change will not make the news, and effects are felt differently depending on where you live.

Your experience of climate change is likely different than that of your relatives living in another state, and probably even different than your cross-town friends. The dispersed nature of climate effects means that they can be felt differently across individual neighborhoods, even within the same city block. Seemingly mundane factors drive these differences: how much shade you have on your block, whether you live upstream from contained animal farms, how much concrete you live around. Though burning-hot sidewalks, water and air contamination and concrete jungles are not themselves products of climate change, many of these factors stem from wealth disparity and the painful legacy of historical racist policies and are made more glaring as they translate to present-day climate vulnerability and risk.

Even so, talking about climate change is vitally important. The opportunity to have informed dialogue about it with your peers is critical for building public climate literacy – an important democratic right in a warming world. What’s more, climate science needs you, your viewpoints, your observations and your insight. So how can we get talking more about these emotionally and intellectually challenging, but important, topics? 

Starting the Conversation

Enter the Museum of Life + Science in Durham, North Carolina. Over six weeks in 2020, through an online series called Climate-Conscious NC, the Museum brought together experts from a variety of professions, fields and disciplines to discuss how their work and lives intersected with climate change.

These experts stressed the importance of public discussion and action; action that can start by noticing and helping to track and catalogue the local and hyperlocal effects of climate change around your home, in your neighborhood, in your town or city. What connections between the built environment around you, or your local geography, do you notice regarding how you experience climate change?

Beyond conversation, many experts stressed the importance of joining citizen science projects. Climate monitoring projects are not only good for contributing data to help build our emerging scientific understanding, but they also help combat our own psychological barriers to attaining climate literacy, like our human tendency to overlook and normalize gradual or slow changes. 

You can hear this wisdom for yourself by revisiting our mini-seminars and featured projects on SciStarter. Along the way, we learned not only about the science of climate change, but importantly, also how different communities were affected by it and what role those communities play in building resilience to it. Below are some excerpts from the Museum of Life + Science series. Some of the comments include recommendations and links to citizen projects you can explore, join as a participant or review for inspiration in organizing your own project. The comments are organized by the major effects climate change can have on communities.

Extreme Precipitation

“I think community involvement is very important, in particular: rainfall is very discreet in space and time, and so what happened in my backyard didn’t happen in your backyard…we see that all the time. So one thing that I think is a really good community science project program is CoCoRaHS, which is a network where you can actually go out and put a rain gauge…and be able to be an observer – and you might think ‘Oh, this data won’t be used’ – actually, this data is very important.”

-Jared Bowden, Senior Research Scholar, Department of Applied Ecology, NCSU

“Intercoastal Eastern North Carolina is under serious pressure right now in terms of water and change of climate. I think a lot of times, when we think of climate migrants, we want to think about countries in Africa, or maybe countries in South America, but we will shortly have climate migrants in the state of North Carolina. To me, the question is: what is our responsibility to these communities that are experiencing the immediate ramifications of a process that we’ve all taken part in and benefited from: fossil fuels?”

-Louie Rivers, Associate Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, NCSU

“We’re looking at what is in the water, and where do these pollutants go with flooding? And some of the issues that exist are what we call the connectivity of the surface waters with other waters, the connectivity with [confined animal] waste lagoons…and potentially with groundwater as well…many of these communities are tapping into the groundwater for their drinking water…so the challenge we have is there’s an enormous amount of chemicals that can make it into the [drinking] water.”

-Diego Riveros-Irregui, Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Professor, Department of Geography, UNC

“We’re working on mapping redline communities, and overlapping that with our climate threats, which really tells the story that low-income communities of color are most greatly affected. And why would that be, you might think? Well, of course, during redlining, people of color and the communities that they created were destroyed, and they were moved and pushed out into more undesirable areas in Asheville, those undesirable areas that are more inclined to flooding.”

-Amber Weaver, Sustainability Officer, City of Asheville

There’s A Project for That: CoCoRaHS

Extreme Heat

“We do a lot of tree plantings at schools, because a lot of public schools have playgrounds, they don’t have shade, and so it’s too hot for the kids to play. And a lot of our kids, particularly ones who come from low-income neighborhoods or live beside highways, have asthma, and so the hotter it is the less they can play. So for the people I work with, extreme heat is a daily frustration. It can be deadly, but it can also just really reduce their quality of life and their ability to learn, focus and just be a kid.”

-Katie Rose Levin, Executive Director, Trees Durham

“There are a lot more issues with the heat than the direct human impact: there’s the agricultural impact, where when the temperature gets hot enough, various of our crops stop producing — corn tomatoes, other things along those lines. There’s also the issue with water, because if you use more water and if that heat is occurring during a drought period, people want to be watering their lawns, playing in the water outside, using more water — then we could end up with issues with what our reservoir levels are doing. There are a lot of different impacts from the heat that occurs.”

-Diana Rashash, Area Specialized Agent, Water Quality / Waste Management, NC Cooperative Extension

“85%, at least, from data we have right now, of [heat-related] deaths happen indoors. So we’re going inside, it’s air conditioned, but maybe there’s a brownout. Or maybe you can’t afford to pay your air conditioning bill anymore. Maybe you just want to stay inside because you feel really lethargic. It can be 20 degrees hotter inside than outside, and so [if] you’re an older grandma, or you have some kind of pre-existing condition, that could be very deadly.”

-Tara Mei Smith, Executive Director, Extra Terrestrial Projects

There’s a Project for That: ISeeChange


“…Too much water is obviously a problem, but it’s something generally you have options to deal with; it seems like your options are fewer when there’s less water. When you’re in need of water, there are only so many options you have — and there may not be as many as if there’s too much.”

-Vaughn Hagerty, Public Information Officer, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority

“Be aware of the of water, and value it, because it is a valuable thing; there is no substitute for it, and it’s odd that people only think about it when it’s not available, but it is it’s invaluable to us. So use it wisely.”

-Della King, Extension Agent, Agriculture – Field Crops. NC Cooperative Extension, Duplin County

“I think we should all know where our water comes from when you open up… your tap: where is it coming from? Is it coming from a reservoir? Is it coming from a stream? Is it coming from a well? How deep is that? Because I think if we’re aware of where that water comes from, we can appreciate how we need to protect it.”

-Dalton Dockery, Extension Director, NC Cooperative Extension, Columbus County

“Across the state, drought affects everyone differently, and if you think of all the different weather hazards that are out there, drought is the one that’s the most insidious. It sneaks up on you, and we a very hard time predicting it. It also affects every community differently, so the cities feel it very differently. In rural North Carolina, in many cases, they rely on a fractured bedrock for their water supply; it’s very difficult to know how long that water is going to last, or even how deep the water is…the way we think about managing drought varies from community to community…and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.”

-Ryan Boyles, Deputy Director, USGS SE Climate Adaptation Science Center

There’s a Project for That: iNaturalist

Sea Level Rise

“When we have flooding events, we have impacts to our underserved and underprivileged communities, often more so than [in] other communities. That’s for many reasons: historical injustices, a lack of infrastructure investment — we have a lot of low-income and communities of color that live in low-lying areas that do flood frequently. And when you think about sea-level rise, that’s going to exacerbate a lot of the challenges that we already have with communities that live in those low-lying areas. How do we move forward in an equitable way, addressing these impacts of climate change and sea-level rise?”

-Sarah Spiegler, NC SeaGrant Sentinel Site Cooperative Coordinator

 “We have to couple the [data] with the stories and the impacts that are happening to farmers and communities. What does that mean on the ground level? It really means that the groundwater table is too high for farmers to put their seeds in the ground when they should be able to. That then they’re not able to harvest as much as they might be able to at another time. It means climate change adds more, in particular, for marginalized communities who may have other hurdles and obstacles. Then, this just adds another obstacle to the struggles that they might go through, so these are also lived experiences of what sea-level rise really means in terms to folks on the ground everyday…what they are seeing and experiencing, and how it adds an extra level of struggle, perhaps to some of their daily chores and their capability of making a living.”

– Melody Hunter-Pillion, Journalist, Public Historian, UNC Center for the Study of the American South

“I think everybody should be concerned about sea-level rise. I think about what has just happened and what we’re in the middle of with [the pandemic], and how that has exposed weaknesses in our economic systems. But also, when you think about sea-level rise, the coastal areas, as far as tourism, are a major part of North Carolina’s economy, and those sales taxes that are generated as a result of those tourism dollars feed into the ability for the state to provide services like the department of transportation —  services that are needed statewide, not only just in coastal areas. I also think about the migration of people. So all of these people that are living along coastlines, not even our own coastline, but from other states — where they will go to if this is maybe a more longer-term issue. Where will people go if they’re moving from a coastal area to possibly a more inland area? [What’s] the impact of increased densities in cities, and what [does] that mean for provision of services and for the towns that and cities that those people will be living in?”

– Holly White, Principal Planner, Town of Nags Head

There’s a Project for That: MyCoast & CoastWatch

Making the Tough Choices

Discussion and deliberation are important not only for identifying, crystalizing, solidifying and expressing your own beliefs, but also for being exposed to beliefs related to climate change that are not your own. Climate change as a topic of conversation has a reputation for bringing out polarized and increasingly entrenched opinions — and yet, when it comes to shifting opinions and changing minds, the new knowledge we learn in conversation with our peers is critical.

Image of past in-person forum at the Museum of Life + Science.

At a subsequent online public forum run by the Museum of Life + Science, participants were asked to engage in conversations with veritable strangers from different corners of the state about resilience and adaptation to climate change, using the expert mini-seminars as a model.

Participants from different backgrounds, different geographic regions and different socioeconomic situations were asked to consider and deliberate over a process of developing an urban resilience strategy – considering the needs and values of stakeholders, budgeting and thinking about benefits and consequences. Deliberation like this, where tradeoffs are inherent, where decisions are urgent and where there is no clear right or wrong answers are challenging – but this challenge is where crucial multi-directional learning happens, the type of learning, empathy, and knowledge-building that happens between people who are themselves experts in their own neighborhoods, value systems and ways of knowing.

Participants made one decision based on gut feeling – a decision they made on their own, using their own existing and new knowledge about climate change and resilience and their own value systems to make a decision. Of course, valuable knowledge-building happens through consuming media, reading books and listening to lectures – all of which helped form these initial decisions.

When asked to make a second, collaborative group decision, something interesting happened: plans changed. In a move rarely seen in potentially contentious conversation, 51% of the participants changed their final decisions from their first ones.

In cases where information alone is not enough to make a values-based judgment, conversation and the multi-directional learning that happens there are key to crystallizing nuanced values and opinions about climate change and resilience:  where can you find common ground with your friends, with your family, with people you’ve never met?

Continuing the Discussion

How do we make sense of this? We asked an expert in citizen deliberation and public dialogue on science, Nich Weller, a postdoctoral researcher in the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

“Deliberation is a good way of getting people to talk about tradeoffs,” says Weller.  “We give people a budget so that they can’t choose every strategy – we want to encourage people to consider their priorities, what they absolutely need, and what they might be willing to leave behind.”

Evidence from deliberative programming like this seems to suggest that people are more willing or able to change their point of view after having conversations like this with peers, as opposed to simply reading through materials.

“In other words, it is the action of deliberating that facilitates people changing their views on something — it’s about more than just the information provided,” says Weller.

Why consider the values of other stakeholders? Why talk about it with strangers, with people who might have other priorities?

“There’s built-in empathy lessons,” Weller says, “when you consider other stakeholder values and perspectives.”

Many policy-forming processes rely on single-issue advocacy, where people involved have very strong views about very particular things. The downside to this is that it doesn’t leave much space for listening and learning from others — important pieces of the puzzle that are important for better outcomes, wider involvement and action that meets a broader set of needs.

When there are space and a framework to enter a deliberation where you understand you are going to listen to others, there is perhaps more of an opportunity to learn from others and to empathize with them.  And that learning through dialogue with one another could be significant: can we learn, not through assertion or trying to one-up one another, but through compromise? What can you give up? What can’t you? 

What’s Next?

Your voice, your perspective, your experiences and your actions matter a great deal. They help to build better scientific understanding of local climate interactions, and also better understanding of public values related to adaptation, mitigation and resilience planning – processes that will affect all of us, and that should involve all of us. Deliberation and dialogue, alongside participatory data collection, are not only good for helping to articulate ethical, moral concerns, but they can also help to develop and co-create new knowledge and informed insight and analysis.

What’s more, as the organization Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology explains, “…citizens are ethically entitled to direct participation in [scientific] decision making as a matter of democratic right.” Building political will about climate change through dialogue will mean more than just talking about it – it will mean coalition-building, compromise, empathy and yes, action.

The struggle to convince people of the urgency of climate change needs hard data — no doubt about it. We must also consider it a matter of the heart and an exchange between human beings. The way we build resilience to climate change is through people-powered research, conversations and action.

Consider This an Invitation to Climate Action

We will continue to see large-scale and hyperlocal effects and ramifications of climate change in 2021.

But “planning for climate change involves lots of moving pieces to make our communities safer, more just, and better in-tune with our social and environmental surroundings,” Weller says, “A very important way to have conversations about the far-reaching impacts of climate change and our efforts to be resilient is to hold these deliberations, where people see how others view the challenges in their community and see the predictions and uncertainties about the future. Deliberations help people grapple with the tradeoffs by bringing peoples’ values—which are often not about climate but about the other problems you talk about—to the table.”

Citizen science, discussion and deliberation have value in helping to begin to identify address societal problems that are exacerbated by climate change, and for shining a light on the ways that historical and persistent inequities intersect with emerging threats from climate change. They can also help to ensure broad and diverse participation in the hard work of building resilience and coming up with solutions towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world.

As much as it is a relief to leave a tumultuous year behind us, the issues we faced in 2020 won’t just go away as we flip the calendar over. Whether the issue in question is climate change, systemic inequities or any of the many challenges we will continue to face in 2021, change starts with open and honest discussions. Make it your New Year’s resolution: don’t let the conversation drop. With candor, empathy and a strong foundation of sound science, we can make the new year look a little brighter, together.

To learn more about how to lend your voice and your data by joining projects seeking input from people living through climate change in their everyday lives, visit our page on SciStarter. How will you discuss climate change in your community? Citizen science may just be the perfect conversation starter. 

Visit the Museum of Life + Science in Durham, North Carolina.

The Climate Hazard Resilience Forum was developed in partnership with Arizona State University and Northeastern University and supported by a NOAA Environmental Literacy Grant, with materials created by the Museum of Science, Boston under the awards NA15SEC0080005 and NA18SEC0080008 from the Environmental Literacy Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations within are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the supporters listed.

Categories: Citizen Science, Climate & Weather, Nature & Outdoors

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About the Author

Max Cawley

Max Cawley

Max is an educator, researcher, evaluator, and science communicator with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC. He believes that more equitable, robust, and just public engagement around climate literacy is key to maintaining a healthy democracy in a warming world.