Engaging Campus Conversations about Climate Action

Nicky Phear, University of Montana
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: August 1, 2017 | Reviewed: December 2, 2020


Campus Climate Conversations are campus-wide gatherings that bring together students, faculty, staff, and key campus leaders to deliberate together about climate action strategies. Lasting 2.5-3 hours in length, they can be a powerful vehicle for education and engagement as well as a seedbed for new climate actions going forward. They create space for dialogue, where new ideas and synergies can inspire the learning and innovation necessary for addressing complex challenges like climate change.

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Learning Goals

The big idea with these Campus Climate Conversations is that they can educate and engage participants by providing hope and inspiration for climate action. The events can also generate new ideas and strategies for campus climate action.

Each Campus Climate Conversation, broadly speaking, seeks to:

1) Educate and inspire attendees (students, faculty, staff) about climate action strategies across various sectors of campus;
2) Allow participants to gain experience in civic engagement, dialogue, and collaborative problem-solving;
3) Generate ideas and strategies for furthering climate action;
4) Build momentum and synergy across campus by inviting participation and developing expanded networks; and,
5) Make recommendations about priorities for new policies and practices.

Specific learning goals can be considered for both individual participants and for the campus as a whole. For individuals, the intention is for participants to leave the event feeling both more knowledgeable about ways to take action to address climate change (pathway thinking, or 'way power'), and more capable of being agents of change (agency thinking, or 'will power'). According to researchers, pathway thinking and agency thinking are critical cognitive components for hope (Snyder et al., 2002). Also important are the emotional components of hope; that is, the inspiration and meaning-focused components that give individuals strength to act amidst uncertainties (Ojala, 2015). The following specific learning objectives refer broadly to building "way power" and "will power".

Learning goals for participants (students, faculty, staff) include:

1) Enhanced issue learning about climate action strategies via a panel presentation, small group discussion, and resource guide (individual way power)
2) Improved skill in dialogue and collaborative problem-solving capacity, demonstrated by learning the views, challenges, and priorities of others, and engaging openly and constructively with different viewpoints (individual way power)
3) Strengthened sense of agency by working through challenges to find solutions (individual will power)

Learning goals for the collective campus include:

1) The generation of new ideas and strategies for climate action (collective way power)
2) Improved understanding for what climate policies and practices are plausible and supported (collective way power)
3) New partnerships and processes that improve campus's ability and commitment to dealing with complex challenges (collective way and will power)

Context for Use

Campus Climate Conversations happen outside the classroom. They are typically large, single evening events (2.5 to 3 hours) that bring together students from multiple classes and campus sectors, alongside faculty, staff, and administrators. Faculty can encourage student participation by granting extra credit, requiring participation as part of a class, or simply by encouraging involvement on a volunteer basis. An attached document provides details for how to organize an event and what to consider in generating a participant list and agenda.

Campus Climate Conversations typically take two to three months to organize, and involve the following steps:
- Develop a core planning and working group (3-5 people)
- Determine the focus, goals, and guiding questions on a campus specific climate-related issue of concern
- Logistics: reserve a room, determine catering needs, secure funds
- Generate an invitation list and recruit participants, panelists, and moderators
- Prepare a 10-12 page resource guide
- Develop survey materials
- Prepare materials: an agenda and conversation guidelines
- Train moderators for small group discussions
- Convene the conversation: recruit additional help for check-in and note-taking
- Assess data, debrief, write, and share final report

Campus Climate Conversations can focus broadly on campus climate action goals (setting targets and strategies), or more specifically focus on one aspect of climate action, such as how to expand climate change education, develop guidelines for a carbon-offsets policy, or better integrate sustainable food or transportation systems into campus education and operations. It is important to convene a core working team early to discuss and deliberate on the specific focus and goal for the event.

Campus conversations can easily be adapted to focus on topics other than climate change. The process is valuable for addressing what Robert Heifetz calls, "adaptive challenges." These are problems for which there are not yet adequate responses. They contrast with technical challenges, which can be solved by specific expertise and good management. Adaptive challenges require learning and innovation. They require changes in numerous places across organizational boundaries with approaches that are co-designed and co-produced involving a range of stakeholders through sustained education and engagement.

Description and Teaching Materials

The following document offers guidelines for how to convene a Campus Climate Conversation. The guidelines are based on my experience organizing four such events at the University of Montana and two in the City of Missoula. They draw from guidelines developed at Carnegie Mellon University's Program for Deliberative Democracy [hss.cmu.edu/pdd], and specifically Dr. Robert Cavalier and Tim Dawson's efforts to convene campus conversations on climate change in the fall of 2012. See here: Guidelines for Convening a Campus Climate Conversation (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 44kB Aug1 17).

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have led four Campus Climate Conversations at the University of Montana and two "climate summits" in the broader Missoula community. At the first campus event, we invited only students to participate (approximately 100 total). It became clear that to enact the changes they deemed important (specifically, scaling up our climate and sustainability education) required participation from faculty and administrators. So, at the next event and subsequent ones, we included faculty, staff, administrators, and students at each conversation. We carefully crafted invitation lists to include those who would add value to the conversation, and who were in a position to implement the ideas generated during the conversations. Then, in designing the events, we included a mix of students, faculty, staff, and administrators at each table for small group discussion. Involving a mix of experiences and perspectives led to more interesting and fruitful campus conversations.

Here are some of the critical lessons learned:

- Arrange to have a campus leader at the event (e.g., University President or Provost, Student President), even if only for the Welcome. This validates the effort and can help to link what ideas emerge into action.

- The quality of the Campus Conversation will depend on the individuals invited. Ensure you have a diversity of perspectives, experience, and knowledge base. Try to avoid inviting negative people who focus only on problems. Negative and closed-minded people can derail the conversation for all. Individuals who are positive and open-minded will make for a more productive event.

- The tone of the invitation is very important. I have found that people will agree to come to these events if you make it clear that you want them there because they will offer valuable perspective. Send personalized invitations. Email works fine. After you get confirmation from some people, you can use that list to encourage others to attend. Send a follow up invitation with the list of those already confirmed. People sometimes wait to see who else has confirmed.

- The three-hour, evening time frame works well. While people may feel at the end like they wanted more time, it is difficult for people to commit to longer time-frame.

- Remind people at the start of the event that the intention of the event is to engage in deliberative dialogue, and that they should review the conversation guidelines on their table and be open to new ideas.

- Take great care in crafting guiding questions. It works well to have three distinct questions, which flow from one to the next, and where the small groups can spend roughly 20 minutes on each. Make sure that there are not multiple parts to each question. Take time to think carefully about where you want the group to focus on given their limited time and energy. I recommend you not ask them to talk about challenges (groups can get stuck here for too long), but rather to consider opportunities.

- After all the effort to convene your first Campus Climate Conversation, it will be much easier to convene the second. There is a steep learning curve and many materials can be reworked for the second event. Those who helped with the first may want to take the lead organizing the next. I've found that this process is very attractive to people and it can be adapted for a variety of issues.


Learning objectives are assessed primarily through survey materials and student self-reporting regarding changes in their 1) knowledge about action strategies, 2) sense of agency to enact change, and 3) skill in collaborative problem-solving. Surveys can ask participants to rate themselves on a scale and also provide a narrative explanation. Notetakers and moderators can provide their own perspective and assessment regarding individual participation. These assessment tools are not oriented for providing a grade, but rather evaluating if the events were effective in building individual "way power" and "will power", at least in the short term.

Research I conducted at the University of Montana showed that, across the board, the Campus Climate Conversations increased participants' sense of agency in regard to acting on climate change. This change was particularly significant for women and young adults (college students verses older adults), and for those who engaged openly and actively, versus in a negative and closed-minded fashion. In addition, participants reported learning about climate action strategies, particularly when table discussions involved a diversity of perspective and knowledge bases.

The events can also be evaluated in terms of the ideas and strategies generated, as well as provide a ranking for which ideas are most supported. Post-surveys can ask participants to rank which policies and practices they most support, and also which idea had most support among their group. This provides important insight into which campus policies and practices might be most plausible and also most supported.

References and Resources

Heifetz, R., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Review Press.

Kaner, S. (2014). Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, 3rd Edition. Jossey-Bass.

Ojala, M. (2015). "Hope in the Face of Climate Change: Associations With Environmental Engagement and Student Perceptions of Teachers' Emotion Communication Style and Future Orientation." Journal of Environmental Education. 2015, 46, 133–148.

Phear, N. (2014). Creating Space: Engaging Deliberation about Climate Action. (Doctoral dissertation). Prescott College: Prescott, AZ.

Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2002). "Hope Theory: A Member of the Positive Psychology Family." In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 257–276). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Programs using dialogue and deliberation to address climate change:

- Carnegie Mellon University's Program for Deliberative Democracy: http://hss.cmu.edu/pdd/

- University of Montana: http://www.umt.edu/sustainability/campus-culture/current-campaigns-initiatives.php

- Cascadia College: http://www.cascadia.edu/discover/active_learning/climatetalk.aspx

- United States Forest Service, Resilience Dialogues: http://resiliencedialogues.org/about

Resource Guide Samples

- Cascadia College (2016): http://www.cascadia.edu/discover/documents/Resource_guide.pdf (modeled off the University of Montana resource guide)

- University of Montana (2014), focused on carbon offset policies and practices: http://www.umt.edu/sustainability/campus-culture/ResourceGuide_CarbonOffsets_Fall2014.pdf

Final Report Samples

- University of Montana (2014), focused on generating recommendations for new carbon offset policies and practices:http://www.umt.edu/sustainability/documents/Summary%20Report%20Oct%202014%20FINAL.pdf

- University of Montana (2013), focused on integrating sustainability into academics and campus operations:

- Carnegie Mellon's Program for Deliberative Democracy (2011), focused on the impact of climate change on food security: http://hss.cmu.edu/pdd/polls/climate/campus/Final%20Report_Qatar.pdf

Pre- and Post-Survey Samples

- Pre-survey developed by the PDD can be accessed at:http://hss.cmu.edu/pdd/polls/climate/campus/Qatar%20Pre-Poll%20Survey%20.pdf

- Post-survey developed by the PDD can be accessed at: http://hss.cmu.edu/pdd/polls/climate/campus/Qatar%20Post-Poll%20Survey%20.pdf