Conversation Starters is an initiative by members of the Environmental Change and Governance Group (ECGG). The premise: We pose intriguing or provocative questions to initiate discussion among students and faculty associated with ECGG, and with the colleagues and communities with whom we work. Each episode of Conversation Starters will feature responses of 250 words or less from a small number of ‘virtual panelists’ to initiate discussion. Anyone is welcome to comment on the panelists’ responses or reflect on the initial question via the comments section below or using the #ECGGconvo hashtag. Our aim is to inspire critical reflection and dialogue through web-based social media platforms. So, please join in the Conversation!  



Kaitlyn Kaitlyn Rathwell, PhD candidate:

“What would you do if you knew what I know?” says climate scientist James Hansen about his arrest for chaining himself to the Whitehouse.

Ontological insecurity is creating neurosis in our scientists, students, politicians and citizens. The reality of catastrophic environmental change is omnipresent in our research, yet we must carry on with day-to-day norms and activities of our culture. This tension creates what Giddens (1990) described as ontological insecurity – a person’s doubts and concerns about the meaning of their life, their self-identity, the inevitability of death, and the collective norms of society. In the context of climate change, scientists such as Dr. Hansen (scientist-activist) or Dr. Andrew Weaver (scientist-politician) have transformed their professional identity, from scientist to scientist + … in order to morally align what they do with what they know.

Environmental change governance research must find ways to:
a) Support an expanded identity of the scientist to scientist +…
b) Engage individuals in meaning-seeking activities that can connect day-to-day actions with global realities of environmental change (e.g. climate change). Engaging in such projects with others creates an opportunity for our intellectual or theoretical knowledge to re-connect and mix with our tacit knowledge or felt knowledge and self-awareness.

Addressing ontological insecurity is a critical environmental change and multi-level governance challenge.


Mark Mark Andrachuk, PhD candidate:

There are some intriguing ideas and innovations for addressing environmental change challenges but I think the most promising frontiers relate to the processes of how we conduct research and make decisions. My overarching message is that we need to slow down. There is an overwhelming amount of information available today, to the point that it is almost paralysing. The speed that we can access information is truly amazing – in a good and interesting way. It is very possible that for many environmental change problems we already have enough information to make sound decisions. The challenges we face often require making sense of enormous amounts of data, untangling ‘truths’, and balancing competing interests. Slowing down will first help us to turn our attention towards better two-way communication with other scholars and with stakeholders in the places where we do research. As researchers, we tend to get caught up in our frameworks and concepts and we all claim to be interdisciplinary regardless of the extent that the “inter-“ part actually informs what we do. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity require us to listen (and read) so that we can pull together relevant information, acknowledge the needs and interests of different stakeholders, and work towards collaborative solutions. But perhaps more importantly, slowing down will allow ourselves the time required for deep reflection. As individuals, we need to allow ourselves the mental space for contemplation and piecing together the strands of complex challenges. Is there any chance that you will shut off your screen after reading this?


Shandel Shandel Brown, MA student:

Environmental change generally refers to changes to the physical environment — more specifically, large-scale environmental problems related to climate change. However, climate change does not exist as an isolated problem; human-nature interactions are far too complex for reductionism. The unique interface between climate change and broader social, economic and political change creates new problems that researchers must account for. In this way research will better capture challenges experienced by households, communities, and policy makers.

Rural fishing communities in Atlantic Canada present an example of multi-faceted environmental change. Regions are facing serious issues related to climate change such as stronger storms and sea level rise. However, many of these problems are indistinguishable from the more pressing issues of youth outmigration, licensing restrictions, and heavy reliance on government-provided employment insurance. These challenges, in conjunction with climate change impacts, put pressure on the ability of fishers to maintain their livelihoods and affect how individuals decide to adapt. Adaptation decisions range from innovative community based management strategies that improve the viability of small-scale fisheries to fishers who tie up their boats and move out west to receive a more consistent pay cheque in the oil and gas industry.

Researchers and policy makers must resist the temptation to simplify environmental change and governance research by studying climate change impacts separate from the contexts in which they manifest. Rather we must explore innovative methodologies (both quantitative and qualitative) that capture the unique problems arising out of complex interactions between climate change impacts and social, economic and political environments.


May_Bradley Brad May, PhD candidate:

For me, the most important frontier or emerging research challenge is not about either environmental change or governance. It is about how we legitimize, operationalize, and evaluate transdisciplinary research (after Klein, 2008) or what some call “multiple disciplinary teamwork” (see Choi and Pak, 2006). Governing environmental change is de facto a complex problem, with multiple institutional interests and multi-level actors and actor-networks. For instance, the recent IPCC AR5 Working Group II Report observes that the climate science community is an important part of “… an inter- and trans-disciplinary process, where politics, culture, religion, [and] values” intersect. Klein’s paper on evaluation provides some guidance to us on how best to capture principles such as: goal and metric variability; disciplinary integration; socio-cognitive factors in collaboration; mentoring and coaching; transparency; as well as research effectiveness and impact. We need to spend more time thinking about how to position our research within broader disciplinary interests. Perhaps more importantly, we need to focus on telling our story in demonstrating how integrative thinking can support both effective environmental change outcomes as well as good governance.


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One Response to Conversation Starters – Episode 1

  1. Derek says:

    @markandrachuk @kjrathwell @ShandelBrown and @bradkmay.…kudo’s for the thoughtful responses on this big question. What is most striking for me is the common sub-text in your responses: the frontiers of environmental change and governance research aren’t about a specific gap in our knowledge. Instead, your four responses all emphasize the social/relational processes and strategies we need to more effectively translate into action what we know already about drivers and responses of environmental change. That means we need to slow down to engage in meaningful deliberation or sense-making about complex challenges, rethink and maybe even reinvent our roles as scientists/scholars, and to continue to push for integrative practices and hybrid methodologies appropriate for the cross-scale challenges of environmental change. These are all important insights and suggestions, and it seems to me they emerge from a common frame of understanding. Your responses are also timely! @FutureEarth, an international research initiative on global environmental change, just launched a survey asking the question: What should the future of global change research look like? Collectively, your responses are making an important contribution to this discussion and a good reminder that ‘more data’ is not necessarily the central issue of concern. If you are interested, you can check it out here:


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