AGCI Insight

Listening to the lived experience of climate resilience

June 27, 2022
AGCI Climate Fellow Jessica Reilly-Moman and her co-captain/husband Josh aboard the Oleada, buying produce from local fisherman in Bahía Honda, Panama.

The slender farmer, face carved by age and sun, landed his fist on the table. I jumped in my seat and looked up from my note taking. I was interviewing Miguel (a pseudonym) in Bahía Honda, a rural bay in Pacific Panama, to inform my research on coastal climate resilience. I had invited him to my home and research platform, a 39-foot sailboat named Oleada, which means “swell” or “uprising” in Spanish. As we sat in the shaded cabin with the midday sun cooking the decks, I asked him about the biophysical climate impacts to his community. Miguel acquiesced and answered, but kept returning our conversation to the challenges facing his family, such as the lack of education for his teenage grandchildren, who had to live in a city that required two days of travel to reach their island home. As I repeatedly leaned on his good will and pursued more information about the physical impacts of climate hazards, that fist on the table finally snapped me into his space. He was sharing his lived experience of climate change, impacts that were inextricably entangled with systemic inequities. He was willing to share his story of these burdens. It was time for me to listen. 

“Making knowledge is not simply about making facts but about making worlds.”

This quote from feminist theorist Karen Barad addresses many aspects of social research: the responsibilities of a researcher; the challenges of the spaces where facts and values meet; the ways in which stories and narratives continually shape how we create our world(s); and the awareness of navigating and respecting worldviews not just as perspectives, but as distinct and equally valid worlds.

Research sailboat, the Oleada, sets sail at sunset.

Each of these aspects underlay my social research in Latin America. Over three years, I visited over 70 coastal communities to ask people about their experience with climate change. In my conversations and interviews throughout 6,000 nautical miles of coast, I asked questions about biophysical changes, and how people coped with the impacts of those changes. Participants would answer my questions, but something else kept happening: we would end up talking about the “other” problems on people’s minds. I often heard about a lack of health care, a lack of local education, the rural diaspora, or sadness around the loss of community. At first, I would steer the conversation back to my list of topics: sea level rise, changes in precipitation, shifting species. But this was not their focus of resilience, it was mine. So I started following the conversations, even as they led me away from the dominant narrative of climate change that I knew, in which climate was central and context was peripheral. My interview partners reshaped my understanding of not only climate resilience, but how to conduct applied research. This was both a rigorous social science process and a personal exploration. 

As ecofeminist anthropologist Donna Haraway writes, “It matters what stories tell stories; it matters whose stories tell stories.” When I retell the stories from these communities via my research, my focus and orientation to the story and my world shape our global climate discourse. This is an architecture of power that I hold when I distill experiences into stories, something I undertake uneasily and with deep reverence for the dignity of the people who shared with me. Because my world is often dramatically different from the people who gave me their time and knowledge, we share “interests in common that are not the same interests,” as philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers writes. Our common interest may be resilience, but our experiences and knowledge behind what that means can be worlds apart, so we leave space for those myriad understandings and potential actions. 

My conversation with the judicious islander—who took the time and energy to get me to listen—continues to shape my work. At AGCI, as I interview people attempting to adapt well to coastal climate change, I stay vigilant to context and my responsibility as a researcher and storyteller. Staying open is a critical aspect of my interviews, because my narratives and hypotheses may not fit the regional and local stories I hear. There’s listening, and then there’s fist-on-the-table listening. As my work seeks to support climate adaptation actions, social science and storytelling provide imperfect but reflexive pathways for those critical insights from the front lines of climate change. Fists are, after all, made of human hands, and how we treat our knowledge partnerships shape our path forward.