Changing the climate of discourse in academia

Panelists on stage at Antagonism in Academia event
Panelists on stage at Antagonism in Academia event
University of Waterloo researchers discuss the challenges faced by researchers amid rising antagonism in climate science discourse

Climate change is real and human activity contributes to the problem. For most, this statement is undisputed. With an increase in forest fires, unusual weather patterns and drought, it’s hard to not acknowledge the changes around us. For environmental researchers, it’s a passion, a question, a problem to better understand, and something we can help mitigate. Yet, climate science researchers experience hostility, aggression and opposition.  

Coordinated by the Faculty of Arts and the Office of Research, "Antagonistic Responses to Environment and Climate Change in the Academy," the fourth and final panel discussion in the Antagonism and Intimidation in Academia Speaker Series took place on March 26, 2024. This speaker series came about as a response to the hate-motivated attack that took place on June 28, 2023. The speaker series will culminate with an international conference on antagonism in academia "From Targeting in Academia to Promoting Trust and Understanding" taking place at the University of Waterloo on June 27 and 28, 2024.  

"We all’aspire as institutions of higher learning to be environments where ideas, insights and discoveries are cultivated," says Dr. Charmaine Dean, vice-president, Research and International in her opening remarks. "We know issues, misinformation and challenges related to climate research exist not just in the broader community but also on our campuses." 

The panellists included Dr. Nandita Basu, professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth and Environmental Sciences; Dr. Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, associate professor in the department of English Language and Literature; Dr. Juan Moreno-Cruz, associate professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED) and Dr. Kirsten Müller, professor and the department chair of Biology. 

Basu began by highlighting the fact that environment and climate change research is unique in how politically polarizing it has become. It’s common to experience the small but insidious forms of antagonism on social media and at talks where science and expertise are challenged, but she notes a differential effect on women and People of Colour. She recounted during her first year as a professor, not at Waterloo, a senior male colleague made several disparaging comments, including "I’m impressed at how you do this, having a young son and leaving him to go to all these conferences, I could never imagine my wife doing that to my kids."  

After writing her book On Expertise: Cultivating Character, Goodwill, and Practical Wisdom, Mehlenbacher spoke about her findings in the media and commented on citizen science and nuclear energy. She soon found herself the target of an hour-long video accusing her of representing industry interests. "There were a variety of misogynistic comments in the video," Mehlenbacher recalled, but it was a different violation of the platform’s terms of service that resulted in the video being removed. She spoke about the importance of using rhetorical theory to identify the tactics applied in these aggressions - such as those described in vituperations -- to recognize the approach and techniques, to name them in order to counter them. 

"Diversity of viewpoints is fundamental to discovery and can sometimes lead to conflicts in our roles," Moreno-Cruz said. "Our role as researchers and educators is to embrace diversity, understand positions and create spaces where these difficult conversations can occur, but of course, we cannot allow for any harm to happen. The line between constructive and antagonistic needs to veer in the direction of open conversations and active argumentation." 

Conversations around evolution, especially in the context of climate science, increased aggressive responses from students that included seemingly benign eye-rolling, book slamming, more contentious acts of yelling during office hours, to aggressive signs being posted on her office door, Müller said. However, more recently there’s been a shift from antagonism to anxiety and depression: "Students are seeing effects from forest fires to incredibly warm winters. They are depressed and asking what they can do to manage feelings of hopelessness, and I’m finding myself trying to emotionally help my students find hope. It’s a shift from aggression but a shift that’s still emotionally charged."  

Emotions such as fear drove most of the antagonistic interactions that Moreno-Cruz experienced. He commented on how fear impacts our capacity to interact and how it can lead anyone to adopt a defensive stance and erode trust. It can be a fear of direct threats, perceived threats, or experiences of past harm that hamper constructive conversations on contentious issues such as climate change. His solution? Care. "Care makes people feel valued, respected, willing to be vulnerable and more likely to communicate openly without the fear of judgement. Care inspires individuals and communities to take positive actions that reflect concern for others and this planet." 

Challenges are likely to persist for researchers in climate science, but Basu explained "we need to better understand human behaviour, why we act the way we do, and I think people in the environment and climate space don’t give attention to the fact that our memory, our history, our past matters in the way we see the future."  

The common themes in the conversation were the need for constructive discourse, shared understanding, the identification of rhetorical situations and nuances of discourse, and finding support across the University and from colleagues with shared experience. Moreno-Cruz closed the event with a poignant reminder that "when we focus only on our objectives, on individual goals, that’s when we stop looking at each other as allies and as partners. We become competitors, we become adversaries." 
Harminder Phull