Developing an effective volunteer program focused on combating climate change

Eiseman, D. L., Armstrong, A. K., & Chatrchyan, A. M. (2020). Designing an extension Climate Stewards volunteer program: incorporating sense of community, social practice, and self-efficacy theories. Environmental Education Research, 26, 1636 - 1655.

Despite the increasing awareness that climate change poses a serious threat to human and planetary wellbeing, local communities may have limited ability to mitigate or adapt. Educational programs are essential to improve communities' preparedness for the consequences of climate change and reduce the severity of damage. In the US, Cooperative Extensions Masters Volunteering (CEMV) programs have been effective in combating other environmental challenges in the past. This paper used data from focus groups and an online survey to determine how a CEMV type volunteering program, which the authors named Climate Stewards, could be applied to the problem of climate change.

In the US, social factors like political affiliation predict an individual's belief in anthropocentric climate change more often than education levels. Storytelling and personal methods of communication, as opposed to scientific knowledge transfer, can increase the belief in anthropocentric climate change and the willingness to engage in pro-climate action. Peer to peer learning programs can be useful in this case to build climate change awareness in groups with similar worldviews and mutual trust. The Cooperative Extension Service (CES) is a program developed in the United States of America in 1914 to transfer environmental knowledge from universities to rural communities. Within the CES, Master Volunteer (MV) training programs employ peer learning to build community knowledge around conservation issues and promote volunteering with a focus pertaining to ecological preservation. Climate change is a particularly difficult topic to address because of its global scale with varying local impacts, long-term and seemingly distant effects, and the trend that even those who believe in climate change do not always engage in pro-climate behaviors.

This study took place in the District of Columbia and eight states in the Northeast of the United States between February and April of 2018. A combination of focus groups and surveys were used for data collection. Eighteen focus groups were held across the study area, and participants were selected based on their awareness of the implications of climate change in their local community and local volunteering efforts with an environmental focus. There were 122 participants across all focus groups (42 male, 80 female). Conversations from the groups were transcribed and software analysis was used to illuminate trends surrounding climate change and volunteering. An online Qualtrics survey was also emailed to 3,645 researchers, CES members, and other educators in the study area. Of the surveys distributed, 510 were completed and used in the data analysis to look for common responses and trends.

In both focus groups and the survey, most participants stated they were highly concerned about climate change, but their communities were unprepared to deal with the consequences of climate change. Another trend was that stakeholders said their communities were starting to plan for climate change, but there was a focus on short-term solutions, and they lacked the funding and resources to implement those plans. A majority of respondents (80%) said that their organization would be interested in engaging with a climate change-centered volunteering program, while 74% said they would be interested in participating as individuals.

Participants identified organizational structure and support, meaningful projects, research-based information, and a sense of community as the most important factors in making volunteer programs successful, while identifying online programming as the least important factor. The factors that respondents identified as being important for the success of Climate Stewards specifically included education, funding, leadership, and collaboration. When asked which actions would be most valuable for the Climate Stewards program to facilitate, the most frequent responses were 1) educating the public and 2) outreach to decision-makers in the community. Generally, respondents thought the program should build self-efficacy by providing individuals with tools and skills to make them feel like they could have a real impact on the climate.

This study had a few limitations. The response rate to the survey was relatively low (14%) which resulted in a smaller sample size and limited the generalizability of the survey results. However, the authors stated that the combination of focus groups and surveys represented sufficiently broad and representative perspectives from stakeholders throughout the study area to make the study viable. The data in this study was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, so attitudes towards in-person versus online community learning and networking may have changed.

The researchers recommend Extension programs develop new Extension Climate Change Master Volunteering Programs, like Climate Stewards, to educate their local communities, including decision makers, about climate change and assist in implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. A Climate Stewards volunteering program should combine the theories of 1) social practice, the analysis of daily practices of individuals and the meaning they attach to those practices; 2) sense of community, the positive feelings associated with belonging to a group; and 3) self-efficacy, the self-belief and capacity to adopt a new behavior, along with the confidence to influence others to adopt behaviors. The combination of these three theories within a climate-centric volunteering program would provide the necessary social support to impact behavior change within communities. Volunteer programs should actively promote a sense of community within the program because it is a key motivator for individuals to participate in volunteer programming and has a positive impact on pro-environmental behaviors. Sufficient funding is also necessary for a successful volunteer program.

The Bottom Line

<p>Climate change is a major threat to human and planetary wellbeing, but communities' ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change are still limited. In the US, Cooperative Extension Masters Volunteering (CEMV) programs have proven to be effective in fighting environmental issues. This study used focus groups and an online survey administered in the District of Columbia and the Northeastern US to determine how a climate change-focused volunteer program could positively impact local communities' ability to combat climate change. The data showed there was a need for improving climate change preparedness, and a significant interest in a climate-centric volunteering program. The study also revealed factors that contribute to a successful program (funding, collaboration, sense of community), and primary goals for the volunteering program (educating the public and local decision makers). A Climate Stewards program could effectively train volunteers to educate their local community about climate change and help implement mitigation and adaptation strategies.</p>

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