Transformative Learning and Engagement with Climate Change Adaptation: Experiences with Sweden’s Forestry Sector

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This study looks into how science-based learning experiences can help overcome social barriers to adaptation and behaviour change, and how learning in itself may be hindered by those barriers.

Climate change is expected to profoundly affect forestry and other natural resource-based economic sectors in the coming decades. Thus, it is important to raise awareness of climate related risks – and opportunities – among stakeholders in these sectors, and engage them proactively in adaptation. Many social barriers have been shown to hinder adaptation, however, including perceptions of climate change as irrelevant or not worth worrying about, underestimates of adaptive capacity, and lack of trust in climate science. The study examines the role of learning in engagement with climate change adaptation through the lens of transformative learning theory, which defines learning as a change in a person’s frames of reference and behaviour that results from critical discourse and reflection. The analysis is based on follow-up interviews conducted with 24 Swedish forestry stakeholders who had participated in a series of focus group discussions about climate change risks and adaptation measures. The authors find that many stakeholders struggled to form an opinion based on what they perceived as uncertain and contested scientific knowledge about climate change and adaptation. They conclude that learning can more effectively increase engagement with climate change adaptation if the scientific knowledge presented addresses the needs, objectives and aspirations of stakeholders and ties in with their previous experiences with climate change and extreme weather.

The full working paper can be downloaded from the right-hand column of this page (featured document). An overview of Transformational Learning and the Conclusions (abridged) are provided below.

What is transformative learning?

Transformative learning (TL) is “the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self” (Elias, 1997). TL theory offers a theoretical framework to understand adult learning brought about by critical discourse and reflection. TL theory describes a socially nested process through which a person’s frames of reference are changed, with potential consequences on a person’s behavior.

TL theory considers two domains of learning that can be used to measure stakeholder engagement:

  • Instrumental learning encompasses a change in the cognitive understanding, which takes forms in the acquisition and employment of factually correct knowledge about a certain issue.
  • Communicative learning is how knowledge is perceived and contextualized based on deeply-rooted beliefs, worldviews, personal objectives, pre-existing knowledge and previous experiences.

Concluding comments and key findings

Social barriers have been shown to play a significant role in hindering adaptation to climate change. This study examined how social barriers can affect learning and engagement with climate science and adaptation – and how, in turn, learning might help overcome those barriers.

We looked at how participation in focus group discussions affected forestry stakeholders’ perception of:

  • the salience (relevance) of climate change impacts,
  • the urgency of adaptive action,
  • the efficacy of adaptation, and
  • the credibility of climate science.

We analysed follow-up interview responses through the lens of transformative learning theory, an approach to adult learning that sees learning as a change in a person’s frames of reference and behaviour as a result of critical discourse and reflection (Mezirow 2000). According to this theory, such changes can result from both instrumental learning – new skills and knowledge – and communicative learning – gaining insight about one’s own and others’ interests, knowledge and opinions.

Key Findings

  • Focus group discussions were somewhat successful in raising awareness about future impacts from climate change and possible adaptive measures, but had only a very limited effect on the perceived relevance of climate science and urgency of adaptive action.
  • Most forestry stakeholders perceived the potential impacts from climate change as distant in both time and space and saw no near-term need for new risk-mitigating measures. Uncertainties in future climate projections and the efficacy of adaptive actions were cited as reasons to “wait and see”. Although these results could be seen as evidence that transformative learning did not occur, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how much adaptive action is warranted at this time, and expert guidance on adaptation (e.g., PROVIA 2013) suggests that when risks are distant, adaptation measures are costly, and waiting is, in fact, appropriate. In this context, transformative learning might result in heightened awareness of climate risks, which could facilitate more prompt and effective action in the future.
  • Distrust in climate science is deeply rooted in a person’s frames of reference – such as past experiences in which scientific projections turned out to be wrong. Such distrust can be very difficult to overcome through learning and poses a great barrier to engagement with climate change.
  • Learning and engagement with adaptation greatly depend on how well scientific knowledge about climate impacts and adaptive measures fit to the practical needs, objectives and aspirations of stakeholders. Forestry stakeholders who were able to connect newly acquired scientific knowledge with their objectives related to timber production, risk management, climate mitigation and biodiversity preservation were more engaged with the science and with adaptation. This highlights the importance of tailoring the communication of climate science to the needs of specific target audiences, in terms of time and spatial scale, addressing pertinent questions, connecting with those audiences’ own objectives and experiences, etc.
  • The role of personal experiences is important in shaping stakeholders’ frames of reference with regard to climate change adaptation. Experiences with extreme natural events can motivate people to take action to lower the risks from future climate change impacts. Learning about climate science can be effective in sustaining a high level of risk awareness after an extreme event. However, in this case the adaptive measures taken by stakeholders are liable to focus exclusively on addressing risks that they had already experienced, not new risks that might arise in the future.
  • Conceptions about scientific knowledge and uncertainty can be key barriers to learning and engagement with climate change adaptation. In particular, individuals who see the development of science as a unidirectional and incremental process may struggle to comprehend the inherent complexity and uncertainty of climate science. Learning experiences are likeliest to increase engagement with climate change adaptation if they can expand or convert pre- existing mental models that people have about the causes and scope of environmental change and climatic risks (Morgan et al. 2002). Our findings also show that direct interaction with climate scientists and scientific knowledge can help overcome barriers regarding scientific uncertainty, complexity and credibility.

In practical terms, the lessons from this study suggest that participatory processes that aim to foster learning and engagement with climate science and adaptation should more closely attend to stakeholders’ values, objectives and experiences. It also seems crucial that such processes more directly address issues of trust and credibility. In addition, greater efforts may be necessary to ensure that stakeholders understand climate science and feel confident in drawing conclusions and taking action even in the context of scientific uncertainty and complexity.

Suggested citation

Vulturius, G., and Å Gerger Swartling. 2013. Transformative Learning and Engagement with Climate Change Adaptation: Experiences with Sweden’s Forestry Sector. In SEI Working Paper 2013-12 and Mistra-Swecia Working Paper No.7

The authors acknowledge the financial support of the Swedish Foundation for Environmental Research (Mistra) through the Swedish Research Programme on Climate, Impacts and Adaptation (Mistra-SWECIA) Programme.

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