Engaging the public to tackle climate change

By April 20th, 2017 at 10:59 am | Comment

Public engagement is critical to address the challenges of climate change, a complex issue with environmental, social, political and economic ramifications. Common forms of public engagement include public events such as science festivals or café informal settings for experts to share their knowledge with the community. Or public policy forums where community members voice concerns to government representatives and other decision makers.

While useful, these approaches to public engagement maintain a separation between those with expertise and power and community members. This failure to tap into the knowledge and experience within the community is an unfortunate oversight. In reality, these so called ‘non-experts’ bring valuable insight with the potential to identify overlooked problems and generate novel and at times surprisingly simple solutions.

Recognizing a need, groups like MIT’s Climate CoLab are providing opportunities for cooperative engagement and collective knowledge development. Based off of open collaborative systems like Wikipedia or Linux, the Climate CoLab team has created an online platform in which anyone is welcome to contribute ideas for combatting climate change challenges.

Each year, Climate CoLab holds contests on its website that focus on a sub-problem of climate change. These problems range from reducing transportation-related greenhouse emissions to addressing the needs of communities vulnerable to climate change, to devising ways to shift public opinion. Anyone with an idea can submit a proposal. Others can support a proposal by up-voting it, commenting on it or even joining the creator’s team. The project also has ongoing workspaces which people can contribute to year round.

Climate CoLab founder and MIT professor Thomas Malone thinks this open approach is particularly beneficial. “We believe this large-scale collaborative approach to problem-solving is important because climate change is such a complex societal challenge, requiring more expertise than any one person or organization could possess alone,” said Dr. Malone in a statement.

“The project brings together not only scientists and policymakers, but also businesspeople, non-profit professionals, students, and citizens at large. We hope that by drawing on the collective intelligence of thousands of people, we can achieve results that would not otherwise have been possible.”

The project has nearly 90,000 members from over 170 countries around the world. And the diversity of expertise has been a boon. A non-profit in India developed a foot-powered irrigation pump to help reduced small-scale farmers’ dependence on costly and polluting diesel. In Argentina, a group of undergraduates and their professors organized a campaign to encourage people to raise their air conditioner to 25°C (77°F) as simple a way to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 194 megatons per year. In fact, this proposal generated so much support that the team had the opportunity to meet with the Argentinian president and the core concept of their proposal was adopted by the Argentinian government. You can read new coverage in Spanish here and here.

Climate CoLab’s Project Manager Laur Hesse Fisher explained the value of bringing in community expertise. “Having these different knowledge bases that come from different technical expertise is important. And technical doesn’t just mean technological,” says Fisher. “Especially when it comes to issues related to adaptation or social mobilization, local knowledge is very important.”

Building on their success, Climate CoLab is moving towards a more integrated problem solving design. While many contests solicit proposals that address a specific sub-topic of the climate challenge, still  others look for combinations of proposals that can create integrated strategies or plans.

Also new, participants would be given the opportunity to craft proposals based of off other people’s proposals. Then, in theory, if each proposal were implemented together they would provide an integrated actionable strategy.

Efforts like Climate CoLab are key as research reveals the current methods of communicating the importance of climate change are unsuccessful. Moving forward, public engagement will be necessary to achieve the societal support required to make the behavioral changes needed to combat climate change. Platforms such as Climate CoLab are opportunities to increase transparency in how and why such change is important. By building a platform with lower the barriers to engagement hopefully more people with be inspired to get involved.


Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

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