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ClimateKeys part II: An interview with Stuart Capstick

25 October 2017

ClimateKeys is coming to Cardiff on Friday the 10th of November. In the second of this two-part blog, I turn from the founder of ClimateKeys, Lola Perrin, to Stuart Capstick, who has played a key role in bringing the event to Cardiff. The timing of the event is very deliberate, it aims to initiate a keyboard conversation on climate change – multiple conversations in fact – at the same time that the international community comes together for the UN climate conference in Bonn (COP23). I ask Lola and Stuart how and when they first became concerned in the issue, and what they hope to achieve through hosting a music encased climate conversation.

Stuart Capstick is a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, and an affiliate of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Stuart researches public understanding of climate change and sustainability. He is currently working on a cross-cultural study of attitudes and responses to environmental risks in seven countries worldwide and a recently announced project to draw together key research findings on how best to communicate climate change. His interest in working with artists has led to collaboration on a play performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, and research into the use of visual arts in Fiji.

How long have you been studying climate change and how did you first become interested in the issue? 

I’ve been studying it since 2007. We were living in New Zealand at the time and I was working in a completely unrelated area. Climate change was receiving a lot of attention because of Al Gore’s film Inconvenient Truth and the UNFCCC climate change conference (COP 13). I had this sort of light bulb moment about the importance of the issue, and somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered there was this thing called environmental psychology. I began doing some research and enrolled on a Master’s in Research Methods at Bath University. My Master’s research looked at personal carbon allowances as a way to assess and reduce carbon footprints. Then I came here to Cardiff University to do my PhD working with Nick Pidgeon, which looked at discursive approaches to understanding perceptions of climate change and whether these have developed over time.

How would you describe your perspective on the climate change issue?

Fundamentally, I think of climate change as an issue about human survival, and I would identify climate change as the defining problem of our era. I consider that we are at a critical juncture in our development and existence as a species, which climate change challenges. I mean, it’s hard to say where climate change stops – it has relevance to and implications for every sphere of life: how we go about our daily lives as individuals, as communities, how we economically organise ourselves, how we work together as nations and our relationship to nature. I find it profoundly concerning and that is what motivated me to do my research in the first place.

Has your understanding of the issue changed over time?

Probably initially, when I was developing an interest, I would perhaps have thought of it as more of an environmental problem. But over time, I have come to recognise climate change as something that has a lot of other dimensions to it. I’d say it is about how, as a culture and as societies, we understand what matters. I guess that’s why I became increasingly more interested in the cultural ways of bringing climate change into the public discourse – to explore these aspects of the issue. I have also increasingly come to feel that it is necessary for the social sciences, including Psychology, to be more outspoken on the real scale of the challenge. It is frustrating that there is still a reluctance to recognise and speak out about just how unsustainable modern living is. It is not enough to fiddle about with recycling and switching off lights – we need to face head on the problems arising from our patterns of consumption, including our diets, and our expectations of ever-increasing international travel (including by researchers such as myself).

Where did the idea for keyboard conversation come from?

From Lola. It’s her idea, so she can tell you better than me. I think I first spoke to her about it the summer before last. She was becoming concerned about climate change, and as a professional pianist, she wanted to find a way to bring her concerns to the audience. I went to one to one of her concerts in Bath after she had been in touch. I talked the idea for the upcoming concert over with Adam Corner, from Climate Outreach, and we thought the ESRC Festival of Social Science could be a good way to link up and create an audience.

Lola, Adam and I have a shared motivation, we think it is important to break the silence around climate change. On the one hand, climate change is all the things I’ve mentioned above, but at the same time, it is also invisible to many people on a day-to-day basis. We wanted to generate new conversations and new ways of thinking and talking about climate change. We wanted to look at the role of hope and optimism. We have quite a lot going for us, as a species, we can recognise the problem and we have begun to take action. We need to explore more the values and capacities that we have as human beings to address this problem, rather than the focus being “we’re screwed!”.

What would you like to achieve by bringing music into the conversation on climate change?

I think music puts people in a different emotional place. The standard way we talk about climate change is to say how terrible it is, and your audience gets a bit tense and wants to leave the room. When you listen to music or watch a play or look at a piece of art it puts you in a different way of responding and thinking about the problem – maybe it reaches a more intuitive part of ourselves. Music is a very powerful way of responding to things and the keyboard conversation enables us to embed climate change in the music.

 What’s your hope for the future of climate action?

I hope that it becomes a wider social reality. Climate change tends to be thought of as a scientific thing, an environmental issue, a political issue and a guilt-inducing problem. Climate conversations often end up going a certain way that people recoil from – there is a lot of resistance and discomfort around the issue. We want to have a role in opening the conversation up so that people can talk about it and become part of the fabric of it, rather than climate change remaining a technical issue. At the same time, we don’t have a fixed objective with the climate conversation, we just want to contribute to opening things up. We hope that people will have more conversations between themselves about climate change – talk to someone about it that they might not have talked to before and in their own words, which we can’t prescribe.

Read the interview with Lola Perrin, the ClimateKeys founder.