Interview with an academic: Stuart Capstick #climate #engagement researcher

MCFly is going to interview some researchers (and activists?) about the Big Questions.  Here is Stuart Capstick (biog at the bottom)

What has your climate research entailed?  What have been some surprising findings?

My background is in Psychology, and my research relates to the ways in which people understand and respond to climate change. Probably the first surprise I encountered, is that the way people talk about this issue is pretty predictable: the same ideas, arguments, excuses, emphases come up time and again. Think for example of the claims made about ‘natural cycles’ or ‘I do my recycling’ – these are easy tropes we reach for when this subject comes up.

I’ve increasingly moved into survey-based research, to assess how different types of attitudes, values etc relate to people’s views and actions on climate change. Some recent research I’ve been doing has looked at how ‘green’ behaviour tends to be linked to subjective wellbeing – basically, whether people say they are happy and satisfied – across quite different contexts. In India, China, the UK, South Africa and other countries, this relationship holds. Cause and effect is hard to disentangle, but people who are environmentally-friendly tend to be happier too. Among other things, I’ve also done research looking at how experience of extreme weather can affect attitudes towards climate change; as well as some work on public understanding (or lack of) about ocean acidification and opportunities to communicate about this lesser-known problem.

How did you come to be a climate researcher?

I started my PhD fairly late on, having pretty much drifted through various jobs up to my early 30’s. I was doing a research assistant job in New Zealand in 2007, and thinking about how I could pursue a PhD in something – anything! – when at that time I started to grow much more aware of the issue of climate change: it was a time of a major IPCC report, and Inconvenient Truth and so on. It occurred to me that Psychology should be very relevant to this issue, and it turned out I wasn’t the first person to think this. I funded my own Masters to try to get into the field, and was fortunate to take a PhD and then a series of post-docs at Cardiff University.

It’s all looking pretty grim, isn’t it?  You mentioned that you’ve two young children.  What will you be telling them once they start asking questions?

Yes, it is looking utterly, bleakly, horribly grim. Some days I can barely stomach it, and I struggle to understand why others don’t feel this too (despite that I know the ‘official’ answers for that). One thing that gives me hope is uncertainty: we don’t yet know for sure where it becomes too late, and so we have to keep trying in the hope that it isn’t yet. There is still so much at stake that even if the chance of turning this around is miniscule, we simply have no right to turn our backs yet.

I am not sure what I will tell them. It’s very hard to know. Perhaps I’ll say that nobody meant for this to happen, and that all we can do is do our best from now on. But really, that’s not much of an answer.

Have you taken advice from other climate researchers, with slightly older children? If so, what did they tell you?

I’m not sure I have – but that’s a good idea.

What is your relationship with Extinction Rebellion?  Do you have doubts/hesitations about it?

I think I started to hear murmurings about XR in early October. It felt like this was something very different – for better or worse – and I wanted to see how this might go. What has struck me most about it is the brutal honesty and recognition of the awful place we’re in – and a real anger that our government and decision-makers are failing in their duty to act on it. Lots of NGOs have drawn attention to climate change, but never in quite this way. I guess it chimes with my own feelings and frustrations. I do have doubts and hesitations, and certainly some of the messages seem unhelpful: such as ‘climate chaos: we’re fucked’. I mean, what are you actually supposed to do with that? Likewise, I’m not convinced about targeting traffic and roadblocks– though I have done this twice myself now with other XR activists. I’m not sure the gung-ho attitude to getting arrested is all that helpful either. But even though I’ve got my doubts, I sense that there may be – possibly, just possibly – something bigger that could come out of this. There are clearly a lot of people who feel something similar and are trying to shape this in various ways. I hope that things will keep moving, developing, maturing – if so, this could become a powerful movement.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I think that non-violent direct action is absolutely a last resort, and in a decent, fair society shouldn’t be necessary. But we don’t live in a decent, fair society: our government and law-making is captured by the wrong people, who couldn’t give a damn what happens to the future. There is all the scientific evidence we need that climate change is happening and is an existential threat to humanity and the natural world, but this is being ignored – or at best, only vaguely acknowledged.

I’m off to the COP24 talks in Poland shortly, and who knows, maybe I’ll come back glowing with optimism at the ability of governments around the world to finally take this seriously. But in case that doesn’t happen, I’ll be wanting to know what XR are up to next…


Stuart Capstick is a Research Fellow who is interested in public understanding of climate change and sustainability. His present research entails cross-cultural analyses of environmentally-significant behaviour in eight countries worldwide, and he is co-investigator on a separate project assessing techniques for enhancing public engagement with climate change. He has previously published on the relationship between material consumption and well-being, interdisciplinary approaches to achieving radical emissions reduction through lifestyle change, and the communication of health impacts from climate change. His views on direct action are expressed in a purely personal capacity, and do not represent the views of his employer.


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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