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date: 19 March 2018

Sustainability Science and Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

Direct experience, scientific reports, and international media coverage make clear that the breadth, severity, and multiple consequences from climate change are far-reaching and increasing. Like many places globally, the northeastern United States is already experiencing climate change, including one of the world’s highest rates of ocean warming, reduced durations of winter ice cover on lakes, a marked increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events, and climate-mediated ecological disruptions of invasive species. Given current and projected changes in ecosystems, communities, and economies, it is essential to find ways to anticipate and reduce vulnerabilities to change and, at the same time, promote sustainable economic development and human well-being.

The emerging field of sustainability science offers a promising conceptual and analytic framework for accelerating progress towards sustainable development. Sustainability science aims to be use-inspired and to connect basic and applied knowledge with solutions for societal benefit. This approach draws from diverse disciplines, theories, and methods organized around the broad goal of maintaining and improving life support systems, ecosystem health, and human well-being. Partners in New England have been using sustainability science as a framework for stakeholder-engaged, interdisciplinary research that has generated use-inspired knowledge and multiple solutions for more than a decade. Sustainability science has helped produce a landscape-scale approach to wetland conservation; emergency response plans for invasive species that threaten livelihoods and cultures; decision support tools for improved water quality management and public health for beach use and shellfish consumption; and the development of robust partnership networks across disciplines and institutions. Understanding and reducing vulnerability to climate change is a central motivating factor in this portfolio of projects because linking knowledge about social-ecological systems with effective policy action requires a holistic view that addresses complex intersecting stressors.

One common theme in these varied efforts is the way that communication fundamentally shapes collaborative research and social, technical, and policy outcomes from sustainability science. Communication as a discipline has, for more than two thousand years, sought to understand how environments and symbols shape human life, forms of social organization, and collective decision making. The result is a body of scholarship and practical techniques that are diverse and well adapted to meet the complexity of contemporary sustainability challenges. The complexity of the issues that sustainability science aspires to solve requires diversity and flexibility to be able to adapt approaches to the specific needs of a situation. Long-term, cross-scale, and multi-institutional sustainability science collaborations show that communication research and practice can help build communities and networks, and advance technical and policy solutions to confront the challenges of climate change and promote sustainability now and in future.

Keywords: climate change communication, environmental communication, sustainability science, knowledge co-production, team science, interdisciplinary collaboration, solutions


Direct experience, scientific reports, and international media coverage make clear that the breadth, severity, and multiple consequences from climate change are far-reaching and increasing. The northeastern United States is already experiencing one of the world’s highest rates of ocean warming, reduced durations of winter ice cover on lakes, a marked increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events, an increase in infectious diseases such as Lyme disease, climate-mediated ecological disruptions of invasive species, and threats to the safety and well-being of coastal cities and communities (Fernandez et al., 2015). Given current and projected changes in ecosystems, communities, and economies, it is essential that we find ways to anticipate and reduce vulnerabilities to change and, at the same time, promote sustainable economic development and human well-being (Chapin, Folke, & Kofinas, 2009; Folke et al., 2010).

The emerging field of sustainability science offers a promising conceptual and analytic framework for accelerating progress towards sustainable development. The Brundtland Report, Our Common Future (United Nations World Commission on Economic Development, 1987) defines sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 43). Sustainability science is “use-inspired … with significant fundamental and applied knowledge components and commitments to moving such knowledge into societal action” (Kates, 2011, p. 19450). Sustainability science draws from diverse disciplines, theories, and methods organized around the goal of maintaining life support systems, ecosystem health, and human well-being, with a particular emphasis on poverty reduction. This approach has been used to identify and advance solutions for sustainable development in New England for nearly a decade (Hart et al., 2015; Hart & Calhoun, 2010; Silka, McGreavy, Cline, & Lindenfeld, 2012). Some of the major outcomes include an innovative landscape-scale adaptive governance mechanism to balance wetland conservation with residential and commercial development (Calhoun et al., 2014), emergency response plans for invasive species that threaten indigenous livelihoods and cultures (Voggesser, Lynn, Daigle, Lake, & Ranco, 2013), decision support tools for improved water quality management and public health for beach use and shellfish consumption (McGreavy, Randall, Hathaway, & Quiring, 2016; Smith et al., 2015), and robust partnership networks across disciplines and institutions (Bieluch et al., 2016; Levesque, Calhoun, Bell, & Johnson, 2017).

Across these efforts, communication shapes collaborative research and social, technical, and policy outcomes from sustainability science (McGreavy et al., 2015). Communication as a field has, for more than two thousand years, sought to understand how environments and symbols shape human life, forms of social organization, and collective decision-making (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001; Craig, 1999). The result is a body of scholarship and a set of practical techniques that are diverse and well-adapted to meet the complexity of contemporary sustainability challenges. Long-term, cross-scale, and multi-institutional sustainability science collaborations show that communication research and practice can help build communities, networks, and institutions and advance technical and policy solutions to confront the challenges of climate change and promote sustainability in the coming decades and beyond (Clark et al., 2011; Hart et al., 2015, McGreavy et al., 2015).

Approaches within environmental communication are especially relevant for mobilizing use-inspired knowledge to build adaptive capacities and implement solutions to climate change (Cox & Depoe, 2015; Depoe, Delicath, & Elsenbeer, 2004; Lindenfeld, Hall, McGreavy, Silka, & Hart, 2012; Moser & Dilling, 2007). Like sustainability science, environmental communication as a field arose at “a moment of conjunctural crisis, defined in not insignificant ways by human-caused threats to both biological systems and human communities, and also by the continuing failure of societal institutions to sufficiently engage these pressures” (Cox, 2007, p. 7). Sustainability science and environmental communication have identified ways to respond to crises brought on by climate change through interdisciplinary research and analysis, engaged scholarship and teaching, critical reflection, and social-environmental justice initiatives (cf. Cox & Pezzullo, 2016; Hansen & Cox, 2015; Moser & Dilling, 2007; Schweizer, Davis, & Thompson, 2013) to build communities ready to respond to climate change.

In this essay, we demonstrate how sustainability science and environmental communication can advance efforts to link science with technical and policy actions and build resilience to climate change. Resilience refers to the ability for linked human-natural communities to anticipate, and respond to changes to adapt or transform as needed (Chapin et al., 2009; Folke et al., 2010). For example, a resilient coastal community is one in which residents understand current trends and future predictions about rising sea level and storm intensity and can engage in proactive coastal planning and community development initiatives to prevent and reduce the impact of these changes. Policies informed by multiple sources of knowledge and set within flexible and connected governing institutions can support adaptive capacities (Boyd & Folke, 2012).

We begin with an overview of trends in sustainability science, drawing from quantitative and qualitative analyses that describe global patterns in the structures, processes, and outcomes from sustainability science (Bettencourt & Kaur, 2011; Miller, 2013, 2015; Yarime, Takeda, & Kajikawa, 2010). We focus on three case examples to illustrate multiple ways in which sustainability science is practiced internationally and the tensions that occur in use-inspired research. These cases focus on agricultural systems in the Yaqui Valley, Mexico (McCullough & Matson, 2012, 2016), coastal planning and ecosystem service valuation in Belize (Arkema et al., 2015), and multi-sector and community-led development projects to confront rural poverty in villages in sub-Saharan Africa (Kates & Dasgupta, 2007; Sanchez et al., 2007). We then turn to the work of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions (hereafter, Mitchell Center), based at the University of Maine and with partnerships that extend to academic, governmental, business, and non-governmental institutions throughout New England. The three case examples drawn from the Mitchell Center’s portfolio of more than 30 projects build from the preceding discussions of sustainability science to demonstrate how environmental communication and sustainability science, together, can support efforts to link multiple forms of knowledge with action. We highlight tangible solutions to help communities anticipate, plan for, and identify ways to respond to the effects of climate change. We conclude by proposing ways to engage inevitable tensions in sustainability science by attending to the complexity of communication; exploring practical, experimental, and creative approaches to knowledge co-production; and by addressing issues of social justice in the effort to build resilience to climate change across levels of society.

Addressing Climate Change With Sustainability Science: The Role of Knowledge Co-Production and Boundary Work

Kates et al.’s (2001) landmark paper in Science helped establish sustainability science, emerging out of conversations about how research communities can respond to the pressing challenges of the 21st century (Gallopín, Funtowicz, O’Connor, & Ravetz, 2001; Kates & Clark, 1999; Lubchenco, 1998). In the 15 years since this paper was published, subsequent research has expanded and refined the theory and practice of sustainability science (Cash et al., 2003; Clark et al., 2011; Clark, van Kerkhoff, Lebel, & Gallopín, 2016; Hart et al., 2015; Miller, 2015). Importantly, leaders in sustainability science have resisted the tendency that occurs in many disciplines to normalize the approach. Instead, as Clark and Dickson (2003) argue, sustainability science strives to be “a vibrant arena that is bringing together scholarship and practice, global and local perspectives from north and south, and disciplines across the natural and social sciences, engineering, and medicine” (p. 8060). Sustainability science is thus an interdisciplinary research endeavor that includes the aforementioned disciplines and is also, increasingly, drawing from the humanities to focus on key ethical questions (Anderson, Teisl, & Noblet, 2012, 2016), aesthetic considerations (McGreavy, 2016), and spiritual dimensions of sustainability (Winthrop, 2014). Diverse perspectives are thus combined to bring research to bear on some of society’s most pressing social-environmental problems (Kates et al., 2001).

Problems that occur at the intersections of society, ecosystems, and economy are now commonly referred to as “wicked” due to their intractability, inherent value conflicts, cross-scale interactions, and indefinite stopping points and thresholds (Horst & Webber, 1973; Kreuter, Rosa, Howze, & Baldwin, 2004). Climate change has, in many ways, become the quintessential wicked problem (Head, 2014). Issues related to climate change occur at multiple scales; the complexity of climate systems defy simple explanations and models; the need for political compromise in the face of enormous social-environment trade-offs is complicated by dramatic power imbalances (Vasconcelos, Santos, Pacheco, & Levin, 2013); and there are fundamental disagreements about climate change as a problem (Head, 2014). Moreover, climate is just one of many interacting factors that influence the well-being of social-environmental systems, so a singular focus on climate change per se will often constrain our ability to identify the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to sustainability problems. The seeming intractability of climate change means that solutions will need to go beyond panaceas (Ostrom, 2007) and adapt interventions to the scale and the unique needs and features of a given context.

Though some have described a need to shift from a dominant focus on understanding problems to instead focus on advancing solutions (Hart et al., 2016; Miller, 2015), a two-fold commitment to understanding problems from multiple perspectives and forming partnerships to identify and implement solutions is still essential for making progress on climate change and related issues. A two-fold problem focus means first understanding fundamental relationships between nature and society by “combining different ways of knowing and learning,” and second, to “permit different social actors to work in concert, even with much uncertainty and limited information” (Kates et al., 2001, p. 641). The goal, in many cases, is to produce information that is seen as salient to decision-maker needs; credible and able to withstand scientific, public, and legislative scrutiny; and as legitimate by those who would seek to advance the knowledge or information for specific types of action (Cash et al., 2003). In situations characterized by complexity and high levels of uncertainty, sustainability science can potentially help produce interdisciplinary insights to generate a more enriched understanding of systems, reduce uncertainty in decision making, and bridge among different actors and institutions (Pielke, 2007; Tengö, Brondizio, Elmqvist, Malmer, & Spierenburg, 2014).

Despite the promise that sustainability science holds for advancing sustainable development, the challenges inherent in working across disciplines, worldviews, institutions, value systems, and geographic distance cannot be overstated (Macmynowski, 2007; Miller et al., 2008; Silka, 1999). Knowledge co-production has been proposed as an essential feature for effectively combining differences and advancing use-inspired research (Cash, Borck, & Patt, 2006; Clark et al., 2011; Guston, 2001). In our use, knowledge co-production refers to two levels of social production that occur within any collaborative effort (Jasanoff, 2004). On one level, knowledge co-production refers to the commitment to understand needs for information and preferences for partnerships that facilitate the creation of systems for producing new knowledge and mobilizing existing knowledge that reflect the priorities and interests of the people involved in a given project. On a second level, as people work together in collaborative partnerships, they simultaneously produce the social organization in which that knowledge is developed, contested, negotiated, and/or used (Jasanoff, 2004). From a communication perspective, acknowledging how communication as a process shapes individuals, relationships, and organizations is referred to as a constitutive or constructivist approach (Craig, 1999). A constitutive approach to communication assumes that using symbols and acting together creates identities, builds and maintains interpersonal relationships, and weaves together the social fabric in which people live out their lives (Craig, 1999).

The focus on information sharing, translation, and coordination across difference and the active shaping of the self, relationships, and world that occurs through communication has much in common with the concept of boundary work (Clark et al., 2011). Boundary work, and the related activities of boundary spanning, crossing, and the use of boundary objects, refers to coordinated efforts to use processes that enhance the development of shared understanding and language across difference. Boundaries that occur between new and established knowledge, research disciplines, and context-specific and generalizable research are particularly important in efforts to build knowledge systems (Clark et al., 2011). For example, of the boundaries that formed among disciplines within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), Clark et al. (2011) note, “Differences among disciplines in jargon and rules of evidence, plus an initial lack of mutual respect, made the creation of knowledge judged to be credible by all seem almost beyond reach” (p. 3).

For each of these boundaries, they identify key considerations in the participation, accountability, and objects that may facilitate boundary crossing. Their empirically-supported framework shows that the effectiveness of boundary work strategies depends on where the knowledge is coming from and the purposes for which it is used. Further, “The joint creation of tangible products by scientists and farmers played a significant role in linking research with action at the [sites]. Drawings, maps, and physical models of relevant landscapes were the most valued knowledge products” (Clark et al., 2011, p. 4). In their experience, the shared creation of maps and other knowledge products helped link science with policy. Boundary objects can create spaces for communication to occur and promote learning across difference (Star & Griesemer, 1989; Wilson & Herndl, 2007). The transformative learning that occurs when people find ways to combine differences and create new frames of understanding can promote the formation of adaptive capacities and governance essential for resilience (Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005; Pahl-Wostl, 2009).

Learning From Diverse International Contexts

There is much to be learned from reviewing cases where researchers and practitioners are solving complex social-environmental problems and building resilience through collaboration. We organize this review at three levels of granularity. At the first and most coarse level, we draw from reviews that have used comprehensive bibliometric and qualitative approaches to identify patterns related to structure, process, and outcomes from sustainability science in global contexts. In recent years, quantitative analyses using bibliometric methods have allowed the identification of broad patterns in sustainability science projects globally (Bettencourt & Kaur, 2011; Yarime, Takeda, & Kajikawa, 2010). It is useful to pair analyses such as these with qualitative assessments at a second and finer-grained level of analysis to provide details about how people work in partnerships, the ways in which they conceptualize and advance sustainability, the quality of the experiences and outcomes they produce, and the needs for improvement in these collective efforts (Miller, 2013, 2015). At a third level, case examples provide finer detail about the kinds of tensions that emerge in collaborative efforts to solve problems and where and how these tensions have been engaged in international sustainability science efforts to successfully link knowledge with action.

With the diversity and breadth in sustainability science, there is an understandable impulse to try to lump, characterize, or otherwise make sense of this diversity by identifying normative criteria and typologies (Miller, 2015). There is much merit in doing so for the sake of clarity, cross-case comparison, and learning, but there are also challenges in creating typologies for sustainability science. The first challenge is one of simple terminology. There are countless efforts to work collaboratively across diverse sectors to solve problems at the intersection of nature and society. Sustainability science exhibits similarities to a suite of collaborative research-based and problem-solving efforts such as action and/or participatory action research (Trickett & Espino, 2004); community-based participatory research (Delemos, 2006; Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998; Silka, Cleghorn, Grullon, & Tellez, 2008); community-university partnerships (Silka, 1999, 2004); transdisciplinary research (TDR) (Brandt et al., 2013; Jahn, Bergmann & Keil, 2012; Klein, 2004; Lang et al., 2012); engaged or action research (Van de Ven, 2007); integrated assessment (Gough, Castells, & Funtowicz, 1998); and policy sciences (Lerner & Lasswell, 1968). Though projects associated with these areas of research and practice often share a commitment to addressing complex interlinked social-environmental problems, project leaders and collaborators may not identity as using a sustainability science approach.

Further, the discipline-specific journals in which these researchers publish may expect the use of a specific term recognizable to the readership, which can reinforce silos between approaches that are otherwise very similar (Silka, 2013). This is not to argue that sustainability science should be the catch-all or unifying phrase to describe these approaches. Instead, typologies need to be sensitive to the fact that names or terminologies alone are not sufficient for characterizing complex collaborative processes and that it may be useful to look further afield than those efforts that self-identify as “sustainability science” to describe common characteristics in how this kind of work occurs internationally. Given the scope of our review, we restricted our focus to efforts that have been described as sustainability science or published in sustainability science journals, but we acknowledge the limitations in doing so and encourage subsequent reviews to expand beyond these constraints.

A second challenge arises when we accept that organizations that form in response to complex problems are themselves complex systems characterized by multiplicity, uncertainty, nonlinear changes, learning, and adaptation (Dooley, 1997; Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001; Norberg & Cumming, 2008). Approaching an organization as a complex adaptive system means seeing it as a product of ongoing interactions between diverse parts, where the parts and the whole are continually changing. When we treat sustainability science organizations as complex systems, we assume that the form of sustainability science changes over time in nonlinear and unexpected ways (Clark, van Kerkhoff, Lebel, & Gallopín, 2016), and that a single characterization of any effort is inherently context dependent and incomplete (McGreavy et al., 2015). For example, one participant in a sustainability science project may describe the collaboration as based on a full partnership, where every member is involved during all phases of the research design and implementation. Another may describe the partnership as one in which they simply need scientific information for their eventual decision making, but they do not see the relationship as a partnership. A typology requires standardization yet differences in how participants would characterize any given collaboration complicate abilities to standardize. This does not mean that one perspective is more accurate than another. Taking a pragmatic approach to communication that accommodates multiple perspectives and ways of conceiving reality (Craig, 1989, 1999), and that focuses on how communication practices continually create different realities can help acknowledge this assumption and track how practices create different realities within an organization (Graham & Herndl, 2013).

Quantitative and Qualitative Patterns in Sustainability Science: Insights From Systematic Reviews

Quantitative analyses of sustainability science at global scales have revealed details about trends in the development of sustainability-focused research programs over time, and the geographic distribution and connectedness of these efforts (Bettencourt & Kaur, 2011; Yarime et al., 2010). In an analysis of more than 20,000 papers, spanning from 1974 through 2010, Bettencourt and Kaur (2011) describe pronounced growth in sustainability science, starting in the early to mid-1980’s, and distinct patterns in how researchers collaborate and publish. Sustainability science appears to be unique in how researchers across the globe collaborate, with a high number of multi-authored publications from developed and developing countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, Brazil, China, South Africa, Nigeria, and Turkey. Further, researchers in these countries also cite each other’s work, showing diversity in the collaborations and the influence of scholarship from multiple countries. In contrast to the global patterns identified by Bettencourt and Kaur (2011), others have found that proximity may be an important factor that influences whether or not researchers collaborate across national borders, as “communication and information exchange might be limited within the regional clusters” (Yarime et al., 2010, p. 124). This discrepancy aside, it is clear that sustainability research has rapidly expanded in recent decades and is being advanced in diverse international contexts that exhibit connectivity across geography and cultures.

Sustainability science also exhibits disciplinary diversity (Bettencourt & Kaur, 2011). The disciplinary orientations of journals that publish sustainability research reveal relatively even distribution between natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering. Others note that sustainable development and social-ecological systems (SES) research is strongly influenced by the natural sciences (Kates, 2011; McGreavy, 2016). There is also a need to find ways to more effectively integrate the arts and humanities into sustainability research (Hart et al., 2016), and this may be especially important for mobilizing intra- and inter-institutional responses to climate change (Nisbet, Hixon, Moore, & Nelson, 2010), a point to which we return in the conclusion.

Pairing quantitative analyses with in-depth qualitative studies provides descriptive and explanatory details about collaborative processes and outcomes (McGreavy et al., 2015; O’Rourke, Crowely, Eigenbrode, & Wulfhorst, 2013; Thompson, 2009); the quality of interactions across differences in culture and disciplines (Eigenbrode et al., 2007); and conceptualizations of sustainability, expertise, and success (Miller, 2013, 2015). Miller’s (2013, 2015) research advanced collective understanding about how sustainability science is conceptualized and realized in diverse international settings when he interviewed 28 thought leaders in sustainability science including, among others, Nancy Dickson, former co-Director of the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University; David Kriebel, co-Director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell; the late Elinor Ostrom, Distinguished Professor at Indiana University and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her research on sustainability and collective action; and Richard Welford, Deputy Director of the Corporate Environmental Governance Program, Hong Kong University.

The ways in which project leaders and collaborators define sustainability can influence how collaborations proceed and the ability for participants to combine their disparate ideas about what sustainability means and how it is practiced (Leith, Ogier, & Haward, 2014; Ruppert-Winkel et al., 2015). Miller (2015) notes that sustainability science leaders broadly describe two flexible ways of conceptualizing sustainability. Echoing the touchstone United Nations definition of sustainability, researchers in Miller’s study describe a universal approach to sustainability focused on maintaining human well-being, protecting ecosystem health, and addressing issues of justice and poverty. They also describe a procedural form of sustainability that grounds the more universal definition in the particularities of the context. Procedural sustainability “is defined through a participatory or democratic process contingent on place and time” (Miller, 2015, p. 33). This approach acknowledges the context-dependent nature of how sustainability is defined, negotiated, and practiced in places with unique needs, perspectives, values, knowledges, histories, geographies, cultures, governance systems, and ecosystems.

This discussion about universal and procedural approaches to sustainability introduces how tensions such as this one shape sustainability science. There are many possible tensions we could explore, but at least six appear repeatedly in the literature and are also recognizable in our experiences in the Mitchell Center. These tensions center around claims about: (1) the interplay of universal and procedural approaches to sustainability; (2) epistemic authority; (3) the purpose of knowledge; (4) generalizability and context-dependence; (5) causal attribution; (6) and knowledge as power (Clark et al., 2016; Kates & Dasgupta, 2007; Miller, 2015).

The second tension, epistemic authority, is about whose knowledge counts and the relative influence of scientific knowledge compared with other forms of knowledge that do not rely on empirical truth claims (Gauchat, 2010). Epistemic authority is also continually (re)negotiated within and between disciplines, and the tension is encountered in these processes of negotiation (MacMynowski, 2007; Miller et al., 2008). Claims that sustainability scientists make about the degree to which research should be directed towards understanding coupled social-environmental systems and/or researching knowledge systems to promote social change is a third tension (Hart & Calhoun, 2010; Miller, 2015). Miller (2015), along with Kemp and Rotmans (2009), draws a distinction between knowledge-first approaches and process-based approaches, where the former seeks to advance coupled systems knowledge and the latter to “facilitate a process for determining multiple trajectories for a transition and continual, mutual learning” (p. 39). In the introduction to a special issue focused on sustainability science and poverty, Kates and Dasgupta (2007) summarize the fourth and fifth tensions when they say “place matters, cause is complicated, and experimentation is necessary” (p. 16749). Finally, the idea that knowledge is power is similar to the acknowledgment that communication and boundary work constitute social order (Jasanoff, 2004). Sustainability science occurs through discursive practices that govern and maintain the authority to produce knowledge. As one example, funding for sustainability science may come from agencies that have requirements about accepted outcomes, which may include publishing papers in prominent journals or implementing global aid programs. These types of rules shape practices of knowledge production and, subsequently, how knowledge functions as power (Foucault, 2000).

Our goal is not to resolve any of these tensions. Instead, through the use of boundary objects and other communication strategies, we can engage these tensions to identify differences in perspective about important concepts, like sustainability and the ideal role of science, and we can find ways to produce normative criteria that reflect the needs of the place and people involved (Miller, 2015). To that end, Clark et al. (2016) propose a framework to guide boundary work to co-produce knowledge and advance use-inspired science. Their approach to building teams, organizations, and institutions is based on an innovation model of organizational development, a complex systems worldview, active planning for adaptation, and attending to how power inescapably shapes knowledge production. They intend to develop an approach for crafting useable knowledge and specific capacities related to stakeholder engagement, social learning, knowledge governance, and researcher training. Acknowledging that tensions occur, difference is ontological, and power is an inescapable part of how this work gets done, does not necessarily make it easier to adapt. It does, however, establish a more informed starting point for meaningfully addressing the complexity inherent in sustainability-focused collaborations (Clark et al., 2016) and bringing those efforts to bear on responding to climate change.

Sustainability Science Patterns and Tensions in Practice: Insights From Case Examples

Diverse case examples further illustrate patterns and tensions that the above quantitative and qualitative analyses begin to reveal. The cases in this section include a long-term effort to sustain agricultural yield while minimizing negative effects of fertilizer in the Yaqui Valley, S onora, Mexico (Matson, Naylor, & Ortiz-Monasterio, 1998; McCullough & Matson, 2016); an initiative to link ecosystem service values with national coastal planning through an iterative stakeholder engagement process in Belize (Arkema et al., 2015); and a broad-based effort to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa (Kates & Dasgupta, 2007; Sanchez et al., 2007).

There were many possible cases we could have selected (cf. Miller, 2015; Oteros-Rozas et al., 2015; Weik et al., 2015). We sought exemplar projects outside of the United States that involved actors from diverse institutions. Given our earlier discussion about the need to address climate change as a wicked problem entangled with other pressing sustainability issues, we selected projects that demonstrate some level of attention to building resilience to climate and related social-environmental change. We also focus on projects instead of research centers or academic institutions, recognizing that international projects may be connected to institutions (e.g., the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Program in Sustainability Science, or The Earth Institute at Columbia University). Miller (2015) provides a review of these types of sustainability initiatives, and his analysis helps characterize how select leaders conceive of and practice sustainability science through these institutions. The three case examples also provide multiple forms of evidence for successfully linking knowledge with action, including the deployment of new technologies for fertilizer reduction (McCullough & Matson, 2012, 2016), the proposed inclusion of ecosystem service values into national legislation (Arkema et al., 2015), and measurable improvements in poverty and literacy indicators (Sanchez et al., 2007).

The Yaqui Valley in Mexico has been described as the home of the green revolution for its substantial increases in wheat productivity over the last 50 years (Matson, 2012). The emergence of farming technologies, including new types of fertilizer, approaches to irrigation, and the development of pesticides has produced some of the highest wheat yields in the world. The rapid expansion of agriculture has, in some ways, strengthened rural economies and provided an important food source for people within and outside the region. However, this growth has been accompanied by inefficient water use, aquatic systems impaired by polluted runoff, the expansion of shrimp aquaculture and the disruption of local fisheries, and air pollution and resulting pulmonary health effects, especially in children (McCullough & Matson, 2012).

Nearly two decades ago, Pamela Matson, an ecosystem biogeochemist, and Roz Naylor, an agronomist, both at Stanford along with Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio, an agronomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), based in Mexico, began to recognize the adverse effects of excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer. They, along with collaborators, studied the problem and identified the need to reduce the negative impacts of fertilizer on water bodies, fish stocks, and human health (Matson et al., 1998). Taking what they describe as an imperfect but persistent interdisciplinary approach, they found that the decisions farmers were making about fertilizer were not sustainable. Instead, these choices were resulting in “crop production and economic benefits for the farmers and others in the community, but they were having unintended negative consequences on neighbors, ecosystems, water resources, and human health. Community voices were beginning to call for a change” (Matson, Clark, & Andersson, 2016, p. 174). Through their research, they identified what appeared to be a win-win solution: by applying reduced levels of fertilizer at more opportune times in the growing season, farmers could maintain high yields, improve the quality of the wheat grain, and save money.

However, through a follow up survey, they found that farmers did not adopt the new practice despite the multiple benefits. In fact, farmers were applying more fertilizer because credit unions were requiring it to guard against uncertainty and variability. Learning from this seeming failure, the team began to work more closely with farmers, credit unions, government officials, and other researchers to develop a handheld radiometer and other data tools so farmers could adapt the recommendations to their farm and farming needs. This approach seems to be working but progress is slow (Matson et al., 2016; McCullough & Matson, 2012).

The Natural Capital Project is an international effort to link ecosystem services valuation with decision making for sustainability. Based at Stanford University in California and at the University of Minnesota, researchers work with core partners at The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and academic institutions such as the Universities of Vermont, California-Los Angeles, and Washington. Their international set of collaborators extends even further, working with groups like the Catalan Institute for Water Research, Inter-American Development Bank, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bogata Water Funds in locations such as China, Myanmar, the United States Gulf Coast, Columbia, and Belize, which is the focus of this case example. In all of these locales, their sustainability science goal is to start “with listening, [to] work with decision makers to develop solutions” (2017 Natural Capital Symposium). Guerry et al. (2015) further explain their approach, which includes building engagement processes around the identification of natural capital and ecosystem services to inform planning and policy.

As Arkema et al. (2015) describe, the Natural Capital Project’s work in Belize sought to develop models to quantify ecosystems services provided by corals, mangroves, and sea grasses. Belize is a Central American country where 35% of the population lives along the coast and, through sustenance fishing, marine-based livelihoods, and tourism, relies directly on coastal ecosystems and the services they provide. Ecosystem service modeling research, including studies associated with the Natural Capital Project in other parts of the world, has helped quantify and describe the monetary and non-monetary values that ecosystems provide (Zhiyun et al., 2016). Their project in Belize is unique in how it paired ecosystem services with sustainability science and knowledge co-production. Project leaders took this approach because they recognized that “Processes that incorporate active participation, information exchange, transparency, fair decision making, and positive participant interactions are more likely to be supported by stakeholders, meet management objectives, and fulfill conservation goals” (Arkema et al., 2015, p. 7391). They compared ecosystem service effects under current ocean uses and three scenarios of development, conservation, and informed management to show that informed management was optimal for maintaining vital services and increasing the economic value of tourism and fisheries. Because they included stakeholders in the iterative development of this model, it has been accepted by key decision makers as salient and credible for decision making needs and has been included in legislative efforts to review coastal planning in the coming years.

The Millennium Villages Project (MVP), led by Columbia’s Earth Institute in partnership with the United Nation’s (UN) Millennium Promise, grew out of a commitment to implement practical, proven ways to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. This was an ambitious effort occurring from 2005 to 2015 to connect science with solutions-oriented projects in 78 villages, 12 sites, and 10 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, to address the “poverty trap” whereby “poverty, hunger, disease, rapid population growth, environmental degradation, and poor governance are all mutually reinforcing” (Sanchez et al., 2007, p. 16775). The MVP focused on targeted investment and community empowerment in the areas of agriculture and nutrition; health; infrastructure; education; gender equality; and water, sanitation, and environment (Sanchez et al., 2007). The MVP was guided by sustainability science principles, including empirically informed strategies and a community-based approach to involve key stakeholders and leaders within villages; investing in individual and community-level capacity building to grow technical, managerial, and participatory skills; and developing robust cross-institutional and multi-sectoral partnerships for funding sustainability and innovation (Kates & Dasgupta, 2007; Sanchez et al., 2007).

The evidence and multiple forms of documentation for the early successes of these sustainability science investments are impressive. The blog posts in a series entitled “All Field Notes” on the Millennium Villages website quickly reveals an extensive list of practical solutions, including information systems intended to improve detection and response to cases of Ebola in West Africa; the development of community-based mobile health tools to prevent the transmission of debilitating diseases; projects to raise the rates of literacy and improve education systems; and efforts to promote women’s empowerment. Further, a series of studies associated with this effort has documented marked progress in key indicators, including a controlled study that showed a 22% reduction in rates of child mortality in nine villages, along with reductions in measures of poverty, food insecurity, developmental stunting, and malarial infection (Pronyk et al., 2012). The major investments in creating a network of community health workers and using mobile health clinics and text messaging capabilities have shown positive gains in the ability to monitor the health of pregnant women and help them connect with resources (Mushamiri, Luo, Iiams-Hauser, & Amor, 2015). Given the efficacy of working with community health workers, other researchers have focused on addressing the important question of cost and scale and have identified a planning and implementation framework that would allow other countries to make decisions about how to best adapt this approach to their countries’ needs and resources (McCord, Liu, & Singh, 2013). Further, taking an ecological approach to human nutrition (DeClerck, Fanzo, Palm, & Remans, 2011), and focusing on interlinked issues of environment, food security, and diet diversity appear to have contributed to a 43% reduction in child stunting (Remans et al., 2011).

These cases illustrate the tensions introduced about the definitions of sustainability; the goals for sustainability science; whose knowledge counts, and in what ways; the ideal focus of knowledge production; how to generalize within situations with high levels of uncertainty and context dependency; implementing solutions to problems with multiple and sometimes unknown causes; and complex relationships between power and knowledge. The ways in which project leaders and participants engaged these tensions likely shaped their relative outcomes and successes. In the Yaqui Valley case, researchers studying the impact and sustainability of fertilizer use defined the excessive application as unsustainable because of the harmful effects on the social-ecological system. Credit unions and farmers viewed the inherent uncertainty in their livelihoods and the seasonal variability of crop yields as unsustainable, and they regarded the application of additional fertilizer as a bet-hedging strategy. Identifying this difference in perceptions about what to sustain and how to best meet multiple sustainability goals was key to making progress on limiting fertilizer application and reducing uncertainty in decision making to protect vulnerable livelihoods.

The Natural Capital Project in Belize implicitly calls attention to issues of knowledge as power. Knowledge that was produced in this project is being considered for national-level coastal planning policy. This policy will subsequently be used to make governance decisions that will inevitably affect the lives of those who live on the coast. This is not meant as a critique of state power, though one may be warranted. Instead, this point is a simple recognition that knowledge is produced through and reinforces systems of power. It is therefore crucial to openly acknowledge this dynamic to more effectively identify issues related to power and to change power relations for enhanced equity. Tensions around power are also present in the MVP project. The economic investment approach that supported this project and the collaborative nature of the community involvement in the funding disbursement has been critiqued (Rich, 2007), as has sustainable development as a mode of control over people and environments (Peterson, 1997).

The MVP recognized that, just as knowledge is power, gender is power (Negin, Remans, Karuti, & Fanzo, 2009; Scott, 1986). The difference between power over and power with or through relations that construct subject positions and sense making is an important distinction (Foucault, 1979). Knowledge and gender as power assumes that power is produced through the continual performance and negotiation of what is seen as valid knowledge or what is assumed as normative roles for men and women (Butler, 1990; Foucault, 1979). As Negin et al. (2009) describe, the majority of African farmers are women. Thus, projects that seek to respond to the UN’s call for an African Green Revolution must attend to women’s empowerment in food production. The Yaqui Valley Green Revolution case further affirms the importance of taking a critical and systems approach that looks beyond the farm fields to contextualize the multiple intersecting forces through which power is produced and circulates.

With a suite of dozens of applied projects, the MVP clearly demonstrates the need to generalize to leverage major financial investments. However, in a context with high cultural and geographic diversity, there are limits to scalability (Deaton, 2010; Sanchez et al., 2007). One way that the MVP appears to have engaged this tension is through a multi-pronged effort to archive and share project information, as seen in the story projects, blog posts, annual reports, and scientific studies available on the website. The project also developed decision frameworks, such as the Community Health Workers cost analysis (McCord, Liu, & Singh, 2013) to encourage learning, innovation, and adaptation within and across contexts. In the following section, we introduce a set of case examples from the Mitchell Center that develop the communication issues highlighted here to show how an expanded focus on communication can help engage inevitable tensions in solutions-driven sustainability science to effectively and meaningfully co-produce knowledge and build resilience to climate change.

Connecting Communication and Sustainability Science: The Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions Approach

The Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions is the outgrowth of a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded to University of Maine in 2009 that created a statewide network of sustainability science teams known as the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI). This initiative involved most of the institutions of higher education in the State of Maine and hundreds of faculty, students, and stakeholder partners who participated in one or more of about 20 interdisciplinary teams (Hart et al., 2015; McGreavy et al., 2015). Each research team included expertise in both the biophysical and human dimensions of the specific sustainability problem, together with expertise in the stakeholder engagement and co-production processes needed to understand and strengthen connections between knowledge and action (Figure 1). The Mitchell Center’s focus on stakeholder-engaged, solutions-driven sustainability research expanded via two subsequent major NSF awards to create and advance the New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST), which broadened the network to include institutions in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Sustainability Science and Climate Change CommunicationClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions has developed a unique approach to sustainability science that emphasizes the importance of co-producing knowledge between researchers and stakeholders in iterative processes of research design, collaboration, and engagement, and the development of multiple types of solutions (Hart et al., 2015).

The sustainability research projects developed within this broad network are diverse and, to varying degrees, focus on understanding impacts of climate change and building communities and networks to respond to social-environmental stressors over time. We highlight three projects associated with the Mitchell Center, including one project from SSI and two from NEST, that each produced tailored decision support tools to link science and other forms of knowledge. These tools accomplished two primary objectives to: (1) improve infrastructure planning as an adaptation to increases in the frequency of extreme precipitation; and (2) help stakeholders manage and mitigate climate change-mediated bacterial pollution of coastal waters, which in turn affects public health, tourism-based economies, and shellfishing as a livelihood and culture.

SSI’s Coastal Adaptation Project, led by Dr. Shaleen Jain, Esperanza Stancioff, and their colleagues, sought to help coastal communities in Maine identify and implement municipal infrastructure upgrades to build resilience to climate change (Hart et al., 2015). Although the original intent of the project was to focus on threats posed by sea level rise, early surveys of, and focus groups with, key stakeholders—especially those involved in municipal management—identified a shared concern with growing impacts from extreme precipitation. In particular, many stakeholders described the ways that the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme rainfall was damaging transportation infrastructure (e.g., culverts and roads), with adverse consequences for public safety, traffic, and local economies. Accordingly, an interdisciplinary research team was created that included expertise in modeling relationships between climate and hydrology, infrastructure design and maintenance, the governance of infrastructure decision-making processes, and strategies for effective engagement with and outreach to stakeholders. This team began a multi-year research process that included frequent interactions with a diverse array of stakeholders, including municipal planners and local citizens, as well as state and federal agencies involved in transportation planning and emergency management (Gray, 2012; Melillo, Richmond, & Yohe, 2014).

In the NEST Safe Beaches and Shellfish project, students and faculty at a host of academic and non-academic institutions in New England, including the Universities of Maine and New Hampshire, College of the Atlantic, Plymouth State University, Maine and New Hampshire Sea Grant, Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Maine Healthy Beaches Program have worked to connect multiple forms of knowledge with decision making for improved beach and shellfish management. Like SSI, NEST is a portfolio of tailored projects to develop collaborative partnerships and advance solutions for the sustainable use and management of New England beaches and shellfish beds. We focus on the development of a new decision support system that has been adopted for use in a state agency and on a project that contributed to the successful opening of clam flats that have been closed for decades. These efforts improved analytic capabilities for water quality analyses for state agencies and non-governmental organizations and helped identify and implement strategies for fixing pollution sources and opening clam flats that were closed due to persistent pollution.

Bacterial pollution from run-off and failing wastewater infrastructure poses a major risk to human health and a threat to the economy, which in New England is reliant on coastal tourism and seafood. This pollution results in two types of water quality closures for shellfish beds. Long-term closures of mudflats occur where digging is strictly prohibited or restricted to depuration, where the clams are subsequently filtered before being sold. Shorter term one- or two-week closures happen in areas where specific conditions, such as intense rain events or wastewater treatment discharges, cause contamination of mudflats for a brief period of time. Shellfish management occurs as part of a complex governance arrangement that includes clam harvesters, municipal officials, DMR, DEP, the Food and Drug Administration, and local and regional non-governmental organizations. The number of municipal, state, and federal government offices responsible for water quality and public health issues makes holistic shellfishery management a challenging governance situation. These challenges are amplified by mission, culture, and geographic distances between institutions and limited resources for monitoring, enforcement, and mitigation to effectively detect and fix sources of pollution.

Climate change compounds what is already a complex problem-scape. The frequency of extreme precipitation in New England has increased dramatically in the last half century (Spierre & Wake, 2010). Climate change models predict that rain events are likely to become even more frequent, intense, and patchy in their distribution (Fernandez et al., 2015). Given the central roles that nonpoint source pollution and combined sewer overflows play in degrading coastal water quality (Dorfman, Stoner, & Rosselot, 2009), these changes will likely increase the uncertainty in beach and shellfish management and regulatory decision making. Balancing the need to protect public health and maintain shellfishing and tourist economies is already challenging. Working with key stakeholders from state agencies and non-profit organizations listed above, we identified the need for improved water quality information and analytic capabilities to address this challenge and to help agencies and organizations anticipate and prepare for future changes.

Through an iterative stakeholder engagement process, we developed a hydroinformatics decision support system featuring enhanced water quality datasets, analytic capabilities, and management recommendations to support decision making about coastal vulnerability. The water quality tools this project produced help regulators and managers have access to scientific information to reduce uncertainty in decision making and make more informed choices to balance public health and economic impacts from coastal closures (Smith et al., 2015). We used a tailored approach to stakeholder engagement that combined formal and informal interviews, presentations at stakeholder events, like the Shellfish Focus Day at the Fishermen’s Forum and the Shellfish Advisory Council, and a series of focused meetings where we rolled out beta versions of the tools and incorporated feedback into the ongoing development.

With NEST’s focus on shellfishing, clammers were also a key stakeholder group, but their decision-making needs were different from those needs identified by public health regulators and water quality managers. Clammers posed the following research question: How do we open closed clam flats? In response to this question, we developed the 610 Project, named for the 610 acres of clam flats with a history of long-term closure in Frenchman Bay. We began by gathering information about the status and histories of these closures and information about the governance system. We invited key decision makers from a host of agencies to be involved, and through improved information sharing and coordination among groups, we made progress on prioritizing clam flats for potential opening based on the clam abundance, ease of access, known sources of pollution, and related factors. These efforts have contributed to the successful opening of 138 acres of clam flats to date.

In all three projects, communication shaped knowledge co-production in ways that allowed collaborators to engage in mutual learning processes and inform the crafting of useable knowledge, sensu Clark et al. (2016). The communication and knowledge co-production process used in the Coastal Adaptation Project was essential to the development of decision support tools that could be used in transportation infrastructure planning, including tools for mapping culvert locations, scheduling maintenance, and estimating the culvert size needed to carry greater amounts of runoff. These tools served as boundary objects that reflected a shared understanding of the complex issues that shape, and must be accounted for, in transportation planning. Researchers learned that these tools are much more likely to be viewed as salient when they can be synchronized with the decision-making calendars used by local, state, and federal agencies.

In the development of decision support tools for water quality and shellfish management, representatives from DMR became primary stakeholders in the development of these tools, in part because the researchers engaged with them early in the development of the grant proposal and also because, agency representatives have power to affect change and a sense of urgency to improve water quality and protect public health (Johnson, Jansujwicz, & Zydlewski, 2015). Because the potential changes in management resulting from this tool could affect shellfishermen, the research team also found ways to involve key stakeholders who had local ecological and business expertise related to water quality and shellfishing. Conducting informal and formal interviews, attending shellfish meetings, presenting research, and engaging in diverse fora helped the team provide access, standing, and influence in the efforts to link science with decision making to a range of stakeholders (Senecah, 2004). Doing so allowed us as a team to attend to identified best practices related to stakeholder inclusion and diversity and to the specifics of who needed to be involved and how to involve them in ways that worked for them (Daniels & Walker, 2001; Senecah, 2004).

In the 610 Project, improving the communication network allowed collaborators to prioritize areas based on pollution source status, abundance, and availability of the resource. We implemented an advisory group that used face-to-face meeting strategies, promoted public participation at shellfish committee meetings, and developed a project website to share and archive information. These communication strategies improved the access, relevance, and timeliness of information exchanged (Senecah, 2004) and increased communication frequency among collaborators. Promoting diverse leadership, building trust, and creating a shared articulation of a common goal enhanced interpersonal relationships and a sense of belonging within the group. We also paid attention to ecological factors that shaped communication, including how the tides affected when members of the group could meet, how going out on the mudflat together promoted identification of the status of the resource and social identification across difference, and how place attachment helped motivate and sustain participation (McGreavy, 2013). Attending to the complexity of multiple dimensions of communication helped us remain flexible and innovate when necessary.

Conclusion: Building Resilience to Climate Change Through Communication and Sustainability Science

Our concluding remarks about opportunities for connecting communication and sustainability science to build resilience to climate change reflect our belief that “the pathway to sustainability cannot be charted in advance,” but instead “will have to be navigated through trial and error and conscious experimentation. The urgent need is to design strategies and institutions that can better integrate incomplete knowledge with experimental action into programs of adaptive management and social learning” (National Research Council, 1999, p. 10). The diverse cases we describe from the Yaqui Valley in Sonora, Mexico; coastal communities and ecosystems in Belize; countries in sub-Saharan Africa; and states in the northeastern United States are examples of how to respond to the need to link multiple forms of knowledge with action. They also demonstrate the common tensions that occur when people try to work across difference to confront complex problems, such as climate change. The successes that emerged from these projects were inevitably shaped by the ways in which project leaders and collaborators communicated, engaged in iterative processes of experimentation and learning, and worked through persistent tensions to co-produce knowledge. Though all of the cases demonstrate a practical focus on communication, the Mitchell Center cases contribute new understanding to what communication is and how it works, because we actively incorporate insights from environmental communication. We conclude by reflecting on three important environmental communication and sustainability science commitments for charting a complex, practical, creative, and equitable path to sustainability.

Approach Communication as Complex and Multi-Dimensional

The earliest calls for sustainability science recognize that this type of approach is essential because the problems we face, like climate change, are wicked to the core (Head, 2014; Horst & Webber, 1973; Kreuter, Rosa, Howze, & Baldwin, 2004). This is a messy, multi-dimensional, unpredictably complex world that requires approaches equal to the task of confronting complexity and inherent uncertainty. It is well established that a linear, trickle-down, knowledge-deficit approach to science and communication does not work in contexts such as these (Cash et al., 2006; Pielke, 2007; Trickett & Espino, 2004). As Clark et al. (2016) argue, co-production of knowledge occurs through relationships within multiple intersecting systems, including innovation systems where there are pressing needs for information and where windows of opportunity open up to try new things and adapt; complex systems that are characterized by connectivity and also high levels of uncertainty; adaptive systems where insights promote learning and continual change; and political systems in which power is produced, negotiated, and transformed.

Much of the collaboration literature in environmental communication takes such a systems approach (e.g. Daniels & Walker, 2001; Norton, 2007; Rudeen, Fernandez-Gimenez, Thompson, & Meidman, 2012; Sprain, Endres, & Peterson, 2010; Thompson, 2009; Thompson, Forster, Werner, Peterson, 2010). In a synthesis of insights from twenty years of public participation and decision making about natural resources, Daniels and Walker (2012) emphasize the value of systems thinking informed by communication, conflict management, negotiation, and mediation literatures. They refer to this approach as Collaborative Learning (see also Daniels & Walker, 2001), which uses a holistic process of learning and understanding; takes a multi-issue view to problems like climate change; attends to accessibility and pluralism; works with complexity as opposed to over-managing and controlling; and pushes beyond constraints in how tasks are typically done.

Informed in part by their work, we have adopted a communication systems orientation to the Mitchell Center’s efforts in SSI and NEST (McGreavy et al., 2015). We take a holistic approach to the development of these projects, recognizing that a project does not start with the initiation of funding but is part of a much larger whole that extends through time and across space. In the immediate project context, we acknowledge that organizational development occurs in time periods that are not always recognized as part of the official project space, especially in terms of the influence of choices made in the grant writing stage (Lazarus, 2016). Paying attention to the outcomes from early interactions with core project partners and stakeholder collaborators and, when necessary, changing organizational practices to accommodate new goals and partners is essential for fostering organizations that can learn and adapt over time (Boyd & Folke, 2012).

Take Practical, Experimental, and Creative Approaches to Knowledge Co-Production

In the concluding section of his review of sustainability science, Miller (2015) draws from the work of American pragmatist John Dewey to call for a new approach to sustainability science. Miller’s proposed reconstruction encourages sustainability science to shift the emphasis from interdisciplinary, place-based, and problem-driven research to instead be more sensitive to context; exhibit values-based and epistemic plurality; demonstrate flexibility and durability in research pathways; and be oriented toward critical reflection. Realizing these characteristics would support efforts to advance solutions and establish processes to continually co-define what sustainability ought to be. Deliberative processes of equitable participation and meaning-making would be supported by the identification of best practices drawn from extensive case studies (Miller, 2015, pp. 89–94).

Environmental communication helps answer this call, as those within the field and in communication more broadly have long been influenced by pragmatists such as Dewey, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and others (Craig, 1989, 1999; McGreavy, 2016; Peterson, Peterson, & Peterson, 2007; Russill, 2005; Senecah, 2004). Peterson et al. (2007) articulate the value of a pragmatic orientation to meaning-making and world-building when they identify the need for environmental communication to become:

a system of practices aimed at creating a more inclusive community. This entails generating and debating multiple legitimate answers to the question of how to achieve a just and healthy Earth. Thus, each decision reached through the political process is most profitably understood as a temporary hegemonic configuration of power accompanied by dissent. (p. 83)

Here they highlight some of the tensions we described above related to power, inclusivity, and generalizability. There is an extensive body of scholarship in diverse disciplines that shows the practical value of systematically analyzing and generalizing across multiple cases to reveal shared characteristics (Cox, Arnold, & Villamayor Tomás, 2010; Ostrom, 1990, 2007; Oteros-Rozas et al., 2015; Wiek et al., 2015). Senecah’s (2004) Trinity of Voice (TOV) framework provides a compelling exemplar of the value of generalizable frameworks in environmental communication, as she applied this practical tool to analyze dozens of public participation processes associated with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Through the application of this framework, she identified how access to information and to the ability to participate, standing and the civic legitimacy afforded participants, and the influence within the participation or decision-making context fundamentally shape the perceived legitimacy, efficacy, and equity of public participation processes.

Yet, context-dependency and the power produced through top-down attempts to impose standardized practices complicate abilities to take approaches from one setting and use them in another. Applying the TOV to design public participation processes requires a finer-grained attention and a sense of practical wisdom about what is required in a given situation (Flyybjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012; McGreavy, Druschke, Sprain, Thompson, & Lindenfeld, 2016). Such a practical understanding can be enhanced through a series of questions, such as: Who needs to participate? How can access be accommodated in multiple ways to fit preferences and requirements for involvement and partnerships? What are we, collectively, trying to do, and how do we remain adaptive over time? The practical and experimental approaches to knowledge co-production can thus be enhanced by pairing identified best practices from case studies with best questions that help those practices remain sensitive to context.

That said, it is not enough to take a practice-based, experimental, empirical, and deliberative tact. We return to our earlier point about the need to strengthen connections to humanistic approaches. Moser (2015) makes this need clear when she says, in the face of attendant crises from climate change, what we need most is “not persuasion, education, and deliberation (though none of these will lose in importance), but kind and compassionate human support. Not conversion but respect and dignity. Not a battle of the minds but a meeting of the hearts” (p. 403). We thus bring arts-base, new media, storytelling (Ferrel, 2013; Quiring, unpublished manuscript), and spiritual perspectives (Voggesser et al., 2013) into the fold of our sustainability science collaborations. As part of this commitment, we have collaborated with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) to produce an award winning documentary series known as Sustainable Maine (Video 1); developed a series of science communication training workshops informed by arts and humanities disciplines; and created innovative storytelling techniques that help build relationships between researchers and within communities to promote communication with diverse audiences, and we describe these efforts briefly here.

Video 1. This video series was produced in collaboration with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, with support from the National Science Foundation and Maine EPSCoR, award # EPS-0904155.

The Sustainable Maine series resulted in a set of videos that showcased our sustainability science projects and partnerships, with catchy titles such as Desperate Alewives documenting the collaborative research focused on understanding the culture and ecosystems associated with the Kennebec River restoration and People, Pools, and Policy, highlighting the landscape-level planning for vernal pool conservation and regulation that relied on citizen science and adaptive policy development. In keeping with our focus on issues related to climate change, the film Culvert Operations, showcased here, illustrates the unique collaboration between academic researchers, cooperative extension agents, and municipal officials to advance coastal adaptation planning (Video 2).

Video 2. This video documents a sustainability science effort to understand the effects of climate change at a municipal level and to help coastal communities prepare for necessary changes in infrastructure.

As research on science communication demonstrates, the ability to convey complex ideas to different types of audiences is something in which many scientists need training (Groffman et al., 2010). Thus, in preparation for these films and as part of our broader set of capacity building efforts, we created a set of workshops and science communication resources that are directly informed by arts and humanities disciplines such as rhetoric, philosophy, and performance studies (cf. Druschke & McGreavy, 2016; McGreavy et al., 2016). In addition to helping scientists identify the frames they wanted to use to communicate their research to public audiences, and giving them a supportive environment in which to practice their media communication skills, these workshops created the spaces within research teams to help collaborators build relationships and create shared identities around their sustainability science collaborations.

Drawing from arts and humanities disciplines can enrich sustainability science collaborations by helping people find new ways to connect with each other and with audiences, promoting innovative ways to identify with and understand unfamiliar and complicated topics, and inspiring a sense of appreciation and care for sustainability-related issues. Related to these ideas, our unique approach to storytelling in the Safe Beaches and Shellfish Project and Future of Dams seeks to combine photography, videos, more traditional news content, and blogging on dynamic web-based platforms to both share information and actively build our collaborations (Quiring, unpublished manuscript; Quiring & McGreavy, 2016). These approaches have helped create new understandings about sustainability and interpersonal relationships across our organizations, demonstrating the power of stories for collaboration.

Attend to Power and Strive for Justice

Despite the brevity and seeming simplicity of this recommendation, in our experience meaningfully attending to and, when necessary, transforming power and injustice has been the most challenging commitment to realize. Scholars in environmental communication provide conceptual and practical resources for addressing power and promoting social-environmental justice in diverse contexts (Chen, Milstein, Anguiano, Sandoval, & Knudsen, 2012; Endres, 2009; Pezzullo, 2007; Sandler & Pezzullo, 2007; Sowards, 2012), including sustainable development (Peterson, 1997) and sustainability science (Cox & Depoe, 2015). Endres (2009) analysis of how indigenous and scientific values shaped public participation and debate about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste siting controversy clearly shows how “Local participation in environmental decisions is an issue of environmental justice” (p. 331). Critical approaches to power within sustainability-focused efforts can help researchers identify how to equitably involve partners in all phases of a project, acknowledge the choices and constraints in identifying community and stakeholders, and produce research findings that are meaningful for participants (Chen et al., 2012).

Yet, meaningful and transformative attention to power is the most challenging aspect of our sustainability-focused work due, in part, to the myriad ways in which power functions and because power operates at multiple scales. Turning to literature that has long focused on power in partnerships and community development, as in community-based partnership research, can help researchers grapple with issues of power and inspire continued efforts to improve how we attend to power (Chen et al., 2012). Partnership literature informed by social work, community psychology, sociology, and related disciplines and fields have extensively analyzed and developed approaches to address issues related to power (Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013). These approaches are marked by a commitment to egalitarianism, inclusion of diverse perspectives, and mutual empowerment and access of those involved as starting points for research and project development (Israel et al., 1998; Silka et al., 2008). Trickett and Espino (2004) describe three central considerations in the evaluation of these types of engaged research partnerships, including the long-term continuity of the research program; the utility of the knowledge produced; and the validity and trustworthiness of the final research products. There are several challenges in fully realizing these commitments, including the difficulty in building trust and equitably distributing power and control among group members (Israel et al., 1998). Further, multiple conflicts may arise from differences in perspective and values, funding, and task and process decisions. Finally, identifying collaborators and defining the community add to the challenges. All of these features combine to potentially undermine the research effort and the ability to connect science with societal need (Israel et al., 1998).

As above, these commitments can be grounded in a context when they are accompanied by questions like: How is power shaping this situation? How do we change our interactions and systems of power to be more equitable and inclusive? Doing so allows for the potential identification of unequal power relations. Continually posing questions such as these creates spaces in the collaboration to openly reflect on how knowledge as power is shaping and potentially complicating the collaboration (Clark et al., 2016) so that collaborators can negotiate and collectively define the rights and responsibilities for all involved and promote justice on campuses and within communities.

For example, in the development of the 610 Project, we announced and provided updates about the project at a shellfish committee meeting regularly attended by commercial clammers and continually invited participation from clammers in the community. At one point, however, we realized that these efforts were not inclusive enough because only those clammers who had the greatest ability to participate in project meetings, such as those who had access to a vehicle and the ability to take the time to attend, were better able to participate. This contributed to confusion among the other clammers about the grant priorities and how the funding was being used. We decided to change our meeting approach to meet in the hour before the monthly shellfish meetings so that those clammers who were already attending the shellfish meeting could come earlier to participate in the 610 Project. We also created multiple print and online archives of project information so clammers could review the budgets, minutes, and related project documents to maintain transparency. Finally, we met individually with clammers to talk about the project, take their feedback, and answer questions. This effort proved essential to broadening participation, addressing social inequalities that structured participation, and continuing to make progress towards opening closed clam flats. The everyday commitment to belonging within this community and the recognition that this is a long-term effort to promote justice, build resilience, and realize sustainability is essential (McGreavy et al., unpublished manuscript).

Climate change requires a shared commitment to belonging on campuses and in communities across scale, now more than ever. As our analysis shows, sustainability science can support our ability to belong to each other and the world by helping to bring multiple forms of knowledge to the development of solutions to complex problems. These efforts require recognizing communication’s complexity; taking practical, experimental, and creative approaches to knowledge co-production; and continually working to transform power and promote justice. Such commitments to communication, knowledge co-production, creativity, and justice help us collectively build capacities and prepare to meet the future together through effective, resilient, and equitable partnerships.


Our research was supported by National Science Foundation awards EPS-0904155 and IIA-1330691 to the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. We would also like to thank the several hundred colleagues and partners who have shaped and supported these collective efforts to advance sustainability solutions.


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