How thinking like a folklorist—and Indigenous studies—helps communities plan for climate change
Interview by Kimi Eisele
When it comes to engaging communities in the Southwest in planning and adapting for climate change, Alison Meadow and Dan Ferguson think like folklorists. Meaning, they prioritize relationships over outcome, conduct interviews and talk to people, listen, note patterns and context, show dignity and respect for others, practice reciprocity, and make sure culture and heritage are at the table. They met at the University of Arizona and married in the early 2000s. Here, they discuss their approach to working in community and what that might mean for the future of climate adaptation.
Meadow is trained as environmental anthropologist and urban planning, and is a co-principal investigator with the NOAA-funded Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) at the University of Arizona and with the Department of the Interior’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (SW CASC). Her research focuses how to link scientists with decision makers to improve the usability of climate science. Ferguson, an assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona, directs the CLIMAS program. His research focuses on developing collaborative and relevant knowledge in response to environmental stressors like climate change.
Kimi Eisele: When I came to you some years ago to help me think the intersection of climate change and culture and heritage for ClimateLore, it struck me that the way you both approach research, science, and community has overlap with how folklorists work. This might be your social science training, but I sense there’s more to it. What informs your approach?
Alison Meadow: I think I had an unusual undergraduate university experience in Canada where I did Native studies and anthropology. The program had an ethic of community-based research, particularly in the Native studies program, now called Indigenous Studies. In the methods we were taught—action research, community-based or participatory research—the idea was that research is for helping people, working with communities, supporting communities. That doesn’t mean that it’s not rigorous research. We learned how to do interviews and focus groups and analysis, but the idea was always, “This is for working with others.” I don’t think that’s very common, particularly in an undergrad setting. I feel really fortunate to have had that.
Dan Ferguson: I had the almost exact same experience, but as a master’s student, in the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies program, where Alison and I actually met. My advisor there was Tsianina Lomawaima, an education scholar, an ethnohistorian, and an Indigenous woman. Her approach to research was exactly what Alison was just describing. As a student of hers in my mid 20s, it was this notion of, Oh, if you’re going to do research in the community, you should be doing research with the community, research that is helpful or offers at least something back to the community. It was never, “Oh, that’s what Native people think,” but, “Oh, that’s just how you do it.” I wonder if one of the nexus points is this common background Alison and I have is this Indigenous Studies training.
KE: Your early education was not informed entirely by a white, colonial, institutional worldview. Rather, you were learning to enter community differently?
AM: Exactly. We ended up in Alaska in early 2000s. Climate change was so real there already, and things were changing really rapidly. University of Alaska, Fairbanks had a really cool interdisciplinary program that focused on climate change adaptation, and I started the PhD program there. When we moved back to Tucson, I had this real opportunity to apply both these social science community-based research skills and the climate science in the Southwest. By that time climate change was becoming real here too, a hotspot. There was no question that those early approaches would inform the work I would do.
I’ve been working with different communities in the Southwest, helping them get started on adaptation planning by bringing in the science that they need about climate projections and what they means and how hot things are going to be. But also trying to keep that attitude of, I’m here to contribute, to help provide some of the background data. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I can maybe contribute some expertise and ideas and I can make it collaborative, a conversation. I can tell you that the temperature’s going to go up five or ten degrees, and we’re going to have more heat waves. But what does that mean for you, as somebody who lives here, whether you’re running a ranch or trying to grow traditional crops or just living in a city? What does five more degrees mean? What concerns you? And really importantly, what ideas do you have from within your community about how you might want to address that? It’s not imposing but asking lots of questions and encouraging a conversation and encouraging people to make the decisions their own.
DF: I have an example of this kind of approach from a project with wildfire professionals in the Southwest. My main collaborator on this project is an economist. He had a fairly straightforward question: What’s the economic value of information that the wildfire managers are using to make decisions, specifically, weather and climate information? He recruited me to be part of the project because he wanted some qualitative social science. I did what Alison just described. I started reaching out to people who knew the wildfire community, and we quickly realized that we were asking the wrong question. It was very obvious within three conversations. We rejiggered the project to convene groups of experts—people who work in wildfire across the Southwest. But if you look at the wildfire community, like any community, it’s differentiated by the roles, the personalities, their expertise, whether they’ve been cross trained, whether they had four different jobs before they came in. Now we’re realizing, holy cow, this is where the action is, because now they’re telling us the inside baseball stuff that we would never understand if we had just gone ahead with a quantitative survey where they had no chance to contextualize what we were asking for. We would have a result, but the odds are pretty good it would be wrong in four different dimensions, even if publishable and academically solid. Instead, we turned it all around. Let’s just start conversations with the people in this community and figure out where they’re coming from. What’s their sense of the community itself? We’re still going do the quantitative survey, but now we’ll ask the questions in ways that are totally informed by what people are telling us. We’ll have a better idea of what to ask and where to be skeptical.
One of the people I talked to initially is a trained meteorologist and the trusted source in the Southwest wildfire community for weather and climate information. It turns out we were asking questions he had been asking for years and never had a team of people to work with, so he joined our team. By having this “What do you think?” approach to science, we wound up with an incredibly good collaborator who tapped us directly into the right people and sat in the driver’s seat, helping us construct who would be in the focus groups we planned. He also helped us rethink our questions and ask things we hadn’t thought of.
What I’m talking about can be trained outside of Indigenous Studies, I just think it’s become so embedded in that scholarly tradition of pushing back against the obvious. Since the beginning of that field, it’s been super consistent. It’s about community. It’s about not just buying scientific, down-the-middle approaches and answers.
KE: The “What do you think?” approach. I love that. It’s very different from “Here’s what I think your approach should be.” What are some examples of those new questions that pushed beyond the economic value questions?
DF: The assumption from the climate science community on this particular point—and this is a long-standing issue in the West, at least, with fighting wildfires—is that what we produce, they will use. What I’m learning now is that the wildfire community has its own particular models, and a lot of them are pretty complicated. They do use weather and climate information, and their decision-making is informed directly by that information, but the broad, naive assumption is that whatever we give them is useful, and they will use. That’s what we’re disentangling. One woman who’s responsible for putting input into models told me recently that she has 40 climate websites she’s goes to. She said, I have them all because sometimes they stop working and the data stream just disappears or it’s broken for the day, and I can’t have it broken for the day. If we just asked, “What do you use and how valuable is it?” we would never know all of those nuances. We’re finding constraints that would never show up in a survey. Sometimes the answer to “Why do you use this?” is, “Because it’s policy. It would be cool if we used this other thing, but we can’t because this is what we use.” None of this stuff is in the literature. You can’t figure out how people work of from a paper. You actually have to ask, “What do you guys do here?”
KE: There’s a way of describing culture as “How we do things around here.” What you’re doing is asking what the culture is of the fire community, and how that culture can inform what the next steps are in terms of climate science or mitigation or adaptation.
DF: There’s a field called organizational anthropology, which uses the tools of ethnography and anthropology turned inward on an organization, to understand the culture of the organization.
AM: We used this on a project with FEMA a few years ago. They were really interested in how they could be using climate change information in this one particular decision context. It turns out that they couldn’t—at least not in the way we thought when we started the project. We used all of these tools, including the classic ethnographic observation, watching the guys who are monitoring everything that’s going on in a region, the ones who pick up the phone to say, “It’s go time,” when there’s an emergency. We sat there for a day and just observed what they were doing and how they were doing it. We could provide them with some climate information but in the end, their decisions are different from what these kinds of long-term forecasts and information could really help with. That was really instructive. It doesn’t mean that the project wasn’t successful. I think we mutually learned a lot from each other. But, like Dan was saying, we went in with this assumption about its usefulness. But we weren’t going to keep hammering them with questions or dumping stuff on them that they can’t use. It wasn’t the result we expected. And it’s a little harder to go back to a funder and be like, well, um…
DF: I think that’s an important part of what we’re talking about. The reason we’re not famous rock star scientists—among the many reasons, like I’m not skilled or qualified—is because a lot of times people don’t want to hear the answers to what we’re asking. Including funders. On this wildfire project, we are turning over some rocks.
If you think about the big conversations about climate change, I mean, we’ve known for decades what’s going on. The science is not that complicated. Yes, it’s getting better, it’s more refined. But for goodness sake, we’ve known since 1990 that decarbonizing the economy is pretty much what you have to do. That is easy enough to say, but it’s obviously incredibly difficult to do. But a lot of people in our community just keep saying that. We’ve said it for 30 years now. Clearly, there’s something else that has to happen, so maybe we should chip away at those other things. There’s some reason why we’re not doing that, so maybe we should really dive into that instead of just continually writing new reports that say…
KE: “The science is clear.”
AM: Let’s actually work with the decision makers to figure out why the stuff isn’t taking. Why haven’t we been able to make policy change? Well, you know who we should ask? The policymakers. And work with them to figure out what those roadblocks are.
KE: Because your worldview is about making change.
AM: Yeah, that’s what research is for.
KE: That that’s not always the worldview of a certain kind of science, which is “to know.”
AM: Right. I just need to increase my knowledge of the world, and somehow that’s going to fix things. But it’s not. Action research, community-based research, or evidence-based policymaking— these fields of inquiry all require a collaborative, engaged approach. You get the researchers and policymakers or decision makers, whether community decision makers or the prime ministers of 17 different countries, and you have to have a two-way dialogue. Hey, we’re finding out this stuff about how we might decarbonize the economy and then you have to listen to those folks who say, “Okay, here’s some of the roadblocks to doing that. Here are the political or legal barriers.” But you can’t do that unless, like Dan said, you understand the barriers that are facing decision makers.
DF: If you turn the method we’re talking about internally to academia, for example, or science generally, the challenge is what you said a minute ago, Kimi, which is there’s some percentage of scientists who think science is only to pursue knowledge. It’s not an either-or. If you look internally, the culture of academic science, even agency science, professional scientists, the culture is embedded in a very arcane way of thinking it has to be just that one or just this one. The system is so brittle, it doesn’t want to go find the middle ground. This idea of pure knowledge being a column over there and then what we’re talking about being a column over here is crazy making. It’s like, Nah, dude, you gotta go smoosh them together somehow, because otherwise, we can’t have any advances. If everybody did what we did, the big breakthroughs would never happen, because people have to be left alone to just ask questions. It’s an internal battle within science. What are we supposed to do as scientists? We’re supposed to advise. But if you can see that the problem is political, then you just walk away? No, you deploy another whole kind of science, the kind that is good at figuring out the internal culture and politics of it.
KE: Is that what CLIMAS is doing? Smooshing together the pillars?
DF: It’s what we’re attempting, that’s exactly right. And because we’re in a land grant university, we have the “Aggie” tradition of extension, so we are lucky in that regard. But there’s still conflict. To be honest, we’re marginalized in many ways. I don’t mean it’s like sad, sad—we do cool work—but we’re not the rock stars and none of us strive to be, which is 90 percent of the issue. We do have rock stars on our team. But how we’re perceived within academia is sometimes like, “Aren’t you cute?”
KE: It’s kind of like the folklorist and the anthropologist. One’s really cute and the other is a rock star, for whatever reason.
AM: Here’s an encapsulation of this phenomenon. I worked with the Tohono O’odham Nation for a number of years on their climate adaptation plan. I put into the contract that we wouldn’t publish anything without the express permission of tribal leadership. Standard, as far as I’m concerned. But our contracts office was like, What now? They could not understand that I was willingly giving up the opportunity to publish on this. They came back to me several times. Are you sure? Yeah, I’m sure. This is standard operating procedure, when working with a tribal government. I would never publish anything without their permission. They were shocked that a researcher wouldn’t come out of a project with the coin of the realm, that fancy paper. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t doing it for that.
KE: Along those lines, where have there been victories for you, whether measured by larger systems or more personally? What keeps you going?
DF: One of the fundamental successes is that CLIMAS still exists. We’re still here, and in fact, we’re growing. It’s not commensurate with the problem, but it is growing.
AM: I see a couple of trends that give me a lot of hope that that this kind of attitude and approach is starting to catch on. One is that the early career scholars who are coming in now, grad students and postdocs, want to do this kind of work. They want to work with communities, they want to be problem solvers. They’re very pragmatic in that way. Many more scholars of color are coming in because they want to work in their communities, they want to get on the ground and get this stuff done. And that is fantastic to see.
The other is that both academic and research policy are undergoing a bit of a transformation. It is slow, particularly in the US, but there is increasing interest in broader impacts and societal impacts of research. Funders are starting to ask for that. What did you do for people? How did you engage with bringing more people into the scientific enterprise? How did you work with communities or decision makers or policymakers? They are slowly starting to ask for that.
KE: What role does art, culture, and heritage play in your work and methods?
AM: I gave a talk recently to the University of Texas history department about the importance of embedding community history and knowledge when we do climate adaptation planning. If we’re not aware of what was here before and what has contributed to the patterns we see today, we’re going to get the wrong answers. I came across a study, for example, that showed a correlation between neighborhoods that had been red-lined in the first half of the century, and those with high urban heat island today. We have to stop just saying, people don’t value trees or shade, because a lack of trees could be because of policy. I also used the Santa Cruz River in Arizona as an example. It now flows with new effluent, but they forgot about the old landfill nearby, so they can’t actually let the water flow as much as they want, because every time they do, it raises the aquifer and threatens to mobilize toxins from the landfill. Similarly, the destruction of Tucson’s Barrio Libre in the 1960s wiped out so many climate-smart buildings. Those old barrio houses were really robust when it came to dealing with high heat environment and they just knocked that all down. These are examples that illustrate that if we don’t understand what was here before we will continue to make poor decisions going forward.
We protect the things that we love, and that we’re really connected to. So much of culture and heritage and language and knowledge is embedded in place, so you mobilize people to really to act out of great love and attachment for a place. People are going to protect the places that they’re tied to. Because we’re going to have to make changes. We’re probably going to have to make some sacrifices in the way that we’re living going forward. But if enough of us see that as worth it, because it protects these places that we love, then I think we’ll do the work.