Climate Science for the People
– By Haley Alcock from an interview with Dr. Jennifer Gobby –
Last September, as the Day for Climate Action was approaching, the Climate Scenarios, Impacts and Modelling Lab at Concordia University asked themselves what they as a group could do to contribute to this globally recognized day. The lab, lead by Damon Mathews, was traditionally a climate modelling research group but in recent years has been welcoming social scientists as experts in the social dimensions of climate change. One of these social scientists is postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jen Gobby, who came in with the suggestion that for the Global Day of Climate Action, the lab open up their weekly Zoom lab meeting and invite climate activists from across the country to attend and ask any questions they have about the science of climate change.
Dr. Gobby is an activist-scholar who has worked closely with climate activists, Indigenous land defenders and academics to “figure out ways that we can use research to support transformative change towards climate justice in Canada”. Throughout this work, Dr. Gobby has found that some of the most transformative change happens when different communities come together to build relationships and solidarity with each other. Opening the lab meeting to climate activists came from the idea that it could help facilitate this type of connection. As climate scientists, we are often isolated and siloed within academia, government, and research. While most care about creating change, climate scientists are not always the best at communicating motivation or galvanizing action. Welcoming climate activists into the (zoom) room—in particular, youth activists who in recent years have been extremely effective in the climate movement—allowed the activists to ask the questions that they need answered to better back up their arguments and communicate their messages. They called the event “Climate Science for the People” and two separate events were hosted in each English and French.
In Dr. Gobby’s work, she has found that for transformative change through relationship-building to be effective, there must be an equalizing or “flipping” of power. Whereas typically science knowledge mobilization is based on what the scientist wants to talk about and then figuring out who might be interested in that, the Climate Science for the People event differed in that the conversation was shaped around what the activists wanted to talk about.
Flipping the knowledge mobilization model brought out some unanticipated topics. Dr. Gobby explained that prior to the event, she had been expecting technical scientific questions to be asked around emissions measurements or the science of how the planet warms. Instead, many of the questions had deep philosophical or strategic components, in addition to being scientific questions. In both the English and the French events questions came up again and again such as, “Do you feel like there’s hope?”, “Is geoengineering a good idea?”, “How much can natural solutions like re-forestation or regenerative agriculture actually help?”, and “What the best thing we can do?”. From this unique event format, the scientists who participated had the chance to evaluate how the knowledge that they have relates to what these activists are interested in and how to best support them.
Both the English and French events brought in nearly thirty people. Dr. Gobby said that she would like to run the event annually with a continued focus on climate activists, but also for other audiences such as policymakers, urban planners or other folks who are making decisions around how we will act on climate change. She reiterated the importance of increasing communications between all these different groups that are working on the climate crisis.
To truly do science that contributes to transformation change towards climate justice, Dr. Gobby explained, this equalizing (or even reversal) of power that she facilitated in the Climate Science for the People event must start much before knowledge mobilization and go right down to the defining of the research questions. Grassroots communities everywhere—whether they be activists, frontline land defenders, community groups, Indigenous groups, local policymakers, etc— want to implement climate solutions that reflect the needs of their community. If these communities were able to link up with researchers who are ready to have the communities defining the research questions and leading the projects for the community’s own benefit, this could be a path towards really scaling up the capacity for climate justice solutions to be implemented across Canada.
Dr. Gobby’s advice for scientists who want to do this kind of work: relationship building. Researchers need to be clear from the start that they will share decision making power with the communities they are working with, and that they’re committed to doing research that actively benefits the community based on the community’s own measures of what will benefit them. Research groups (whether that be departments or individual labs) that want to increase their impact need to do more collaborative strategic planning that includes bringing community members, activists and social scientists to those conversations and asking questions like, “What do we want to accomplish in the next 5 years?”, “What do we want to be focusing on?”, “Who do we want to be working with?”, and “How can we mobilize our knowledge in meaningful and accessible ways that contribute to creating change?”.
There are lots of ways that climate scientists can become more engaged with climate action and flip the script on how and why we do science. The Climate Science for the People series is a great example of what that can look like!
Haley Alcock is the editor of the CMOS Bulletin. She holds a masters of science in micrometeorology from McGill University. Haley splits their time between doing climate science, communicating science, organic farming and working towards climate justice.
Dr. Jennifer Gobby is an activist-scholar based in rural Quebec. She is founder of the MudGirls Natural Building Collective, and organizes with Climate Justice Montreal. She completed her Ph.D at McGill in 2019 as part of the Economics for the Anthropocene partnership and is now a post doctoral fellow at Concordia University in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. She has spent the last 5 years thinking collaboratively with land defenders and environmental justice activists about how we can more powerfully push for large scale social change. Her current research focuses on documenting and leveraging the learnings going on in movements and communities about how we can seize the Covid-19 crisis to push for transformative change in social, economic and political systems. She is also working on a project with Indigenous Climate Action to develop Indigenous-led climate policy. She is on the steering committee of Concordia’s SHIFT Centre for Social Transformation.