Working in the environmental sector for many years taught me that the world’s environmental issues are often more about people, than the environment itself. As a result, I started to focus my research on understanding the psychology of social issues like climate change - how people think, communicate and act on these issues, and how to support change.
In 2021, I took part in the Commonwealth Futures Climate Research Cohort. Delivered by the British Council and the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Cohort is a bespoke training and development programme designed to support rising climate research stars.
I was privileged to be part of a diverse group of truly inspirational early-career researchers. The group included participants from 25 universities, across 16 countries, and from disciplines ranging from law, engineering and architecture, to social, climate and biological sciences. We engaged in leadership development training and mentoring, conducted multi-disciplinary research-to-action projects to help address climate change in our communities, and recently experienced negotiations and knowledge sharing on a global scale at COP27.
A key learning for me, from all these experiences, is that to truly address climate change, we must embrace diversity. This has its complexities though, so I want to use a few examples from my experiences to illuminate why diversity is so important. I will focus on youth and climate change, as well as highlighting some insights from social psychology research.
What is diversity?
For me, diversity is the presence of difference. When I think about diversity, I always come back to the story of the blind men and the elephant. In the story, several blind men are each feeling a different part of an elephant. Their impaired vision leads them to each think it is a different thing, ranging from a snake (the trunk), to a whale (its side), to a spear (a tusk). Only by putting their different perspectives together can they see the bigger picture and recognise what they’re really facing. Climate change is no different.
“It’s so evident that we are destroying Mother Earth. This is not the problem of one country or a few countries; it is the problem of mankind. We need to work together to stop this. Otherwise, our future generations will simply disappear.”
Juan Manuel Santos, Former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Diverse perspectives occur because every person lives and behaves within different social contexts. These contexts both influence, and are influenced by, the individuals involved. Psychologists have a long history of studying diversity within the context of achieving social justice, but also from organisational and group perspectives.
Research has shown that diverse perspectives lead to greater innovation and problem-solving, both of which are critical for the system transformations needed to address climate change. Decision-making must encompass the full breadth of human experience before it can be said to truly understand the breadth of climate change challenges and solutions.
Why is it so hard?
One key challenge to finding diversity of perspective and thought is that this diversity isn’t necessarily associated with visible forms of difference. People of very different ages, genders, abilities, and sexual orientations may actually think alike on many topics. It’s only when discussion starts, that we can really tell whose thoughts differ. Recognising these diverging perspectives can stimulate discussion and challenge our thoughts and assumptions.
Stereotypes and prejudice can also pose significant challenges for incorporating diverse perspectives. This can lead to the discounting of some perspectives, and misplaced beliefs that we understand a group or that everyone in a group thinks the same and desires the same things - and, conversely, that people who look different must also think differently.
The challenges associated with stereotypes and prejudice often occur with power imbalances, which further compound the problem of inclusion, and can require significant effort by minorities and their allies to address the imbalances and misperceptions. Young people are one such group that has historically been overlooked in global climate decision-making.
Listening to international youth panellists share climate change experiences and goals, at the UNICEF COP27 side event, Youth on the Frontline, it was impossible to ignore their passion and desire to be heard and respected. The panellists acknowledged that they still had a lot to learn about how the world works but emphasised the advantages of this and the importance of valuing their perspectives.
“Even though they listen to us talking and talking, decision-makers always underestimate children.”
Garid Mendbayar, a 17-year-old activist from the Mongolian Children’s Council
With social contexts that can be vastly different from those of adults, and the creativity and enthusiasm of youth, young people have much to offer to climate action. They can help decision-makers understand a wider scale of issues and viable solutions and are often well-placed to drive change in their communities.
What can we do?
COP27 provided some great examples of how we can do more to include youth perspectives in decision-making. For the first time, there was a Children and Youth Pavilion, bringing young people into the conference itself and allowing them to hold discussions and policy briefings. Their voice and value were further amplified thanks to forums like the aforementioned UNICEF side-event and another panel session entitled ‘Utilising the Expertise of Youth to Bridge the Science-Policy Divide and Improve Access to Finance’. In this session, the Canadian Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Stephen de Boer, highlighted the inclusion of young people within their COP27 delegation and the associated mentoring provided to support them into decision-making roles.
The research-to-action projects that my Climate Research Cohort colleagues and I undertook are also good examples of how to include diverse perspectives and experiences, both in terms of the cultural and disciplinary diversity of our teams, the program’s overarching support for youth cohort members, and my team’s specific project focus of encouraging youth participation in climate action.
The whole cohort were working to the same brief of ‘Commonwealth Youth in Climate Action for COP26 and Beyond’ but our diverse research experiences meant we each brought something different to our projects, including methodologically.
The research and life backgrounds of my project team were far-reaching. Rufino Varea is a Pacific Ocean custodian and Doctoral candidate at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, where he researches marine biomonitoring. Rufino’s research experiences led him to analyse youth-related tweets relating to COP26. Mahendra Gooroochurn is a Chartered Engineer from the Mechanical and Production Engineering Department at the University of Mauritius. Mahendra’s research integrated his experience with green building and circularity at household level into youth training workshops to promote local climate action. Kokila Konasinghe is the founding Director of the Centre for Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Kokila’s understanding of the field of international environmental law helped the team understand the context of youth involvement in international climate decision-making. Fatma Abdelaal is an architectural engineer and Doctoral candidate at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her experience helped with the integration of the project’s findings on youth perspectives into active recommendations for policymakers. Concurrently, my experience with research surveys allowed inclusion of youth perspectives from several Commonwealth countries.You can learn more about the project’s diverse methodologies, and what young people had to say about their involvement in climate action and decision-making, in the project report.
As a global community, we must do better at making the most of the wealth of knowledge, standpoints, experiences, enthusiasm, and creativity that our diverse communities and nations offer. We must respect and value the many perspectives that diversity brings. As youth climate activist Garid Mendbayar also said, “mutual understanding and mutual respect goes a long way.”
If we are to address climate change, diverse perspectives must be heard and integrated into decision-making processes, from problem identification to solution ideation, and then implementation and evaluation. Diversity offers us a view of the whole elephant and allows us to be more innovative and effective problem-solvers. This is sorely needed in a climate changed world.