Participatory experiments in glacier communities

Ben Orlove, Kerry Milch

This project will further understanding of how people who live in communities directly affected by climate change (communities dealing with glacial retreat and associated impacts such as decreased water availability, increased flood risks, and economic impacts from reduced tourism) perceive climate change and respond to it. We collected data on perceptions of climate change in three contexts (face-to-face interviews, small group interactions (also known as “focus groups”) and self-organized community meetings) in three settings (Western US, Peruvian Andes, Italian Alps). To assess similarities and differences across the contexts and locations, we developed a codebook to identify themes in the interview, focus group, and meeting transcripts (such as references to short vs. long time horizons, references to individuals vs. communities, etc.). The range of social interaction and cultural framework broadens the reliability and significance of the data but adds challenges to the coding, so this is an important methodological contribution. Major goals of the project include (1) identification of individual and social values and identities which shape the perception of glacier retreat and response to glacier retreat, (2) analysis of the factors which influence the relative importance which individuals and communities place on different impacts of glacier retreat (shifting hydrology/water resources; increased risk of natural hazards such as floods and landslides; changes of iconic landscapes), (3) use of field activities to assess the importance of social identities which link communities in different mountain settings. A mixed method approach involving ethnography, surveys, experiments are planned.


Major Findings

  • We have noted variability across the cases in terms of the ease of developing and applying the coding framework. In particular, the Peruvian interviews and small group interactions present some difficulties, since translators were involved (some subjects spoke only Quechua) and since they faced great internal divisions within their communities over the attribution of the causation to glacier retreat.
  • We (Dunbar et al. 2012) find that individuals in all three cases discuss the erosion of traditional environmental knowledge, though this is phrased in somewhat different terms, with residents of the western US concerned generally about familiarity with landscape and knowledge of fishing and hunting techniques, which contribute to local livelihoods; the topic discussed in the Italian Alps is the behaviors which reduce the potential impacts of hazards, while in the Peruvian Andes, people speak of changing seasonality and environmental conditions which make it more difficult to establish successful agricultural calendars and to manage water.
  • Regarding the emotional responses to climate change, we found that they are most severe in the Andes (the area of most traditional cultures and of the highest dependence of livelihoods on local resources) and least severe in the western US (the least traditional area and the one with the highest reliance on income derived from outside the region) (Brugger et al. 2012).


Broader impacts

  • This project has considerable educational opportunities for preparing learning modules about perceptions and responses to climate change. Ultimately the findings from this project will help researchers, policy makers, and the public understand the factors influencing perceptions of climate change and responses to it.
  • The project has strong possibilities of supporting online materials with direct participation from glacier communities (e.g., blogs), which could promote adaptation both within the communities and more broadly through an expansion of public awareness of vulnerability to climate change.
  • A better understanding of the way social context, participatory processes, and time horizons affect perceptions of climate change can lead to improved strategies for adaption to and mitigation of the harmful effects of climate change.


CRED2 Award (2010-2015): Funding was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions; CRED1 Award (2005-2010): Funding was also provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0345840 awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.