As part of the national ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2021, Dr Katy Wheeler, Professor Sean Nixon and PhD researcher Norman Riley ran a public workshop event hosted at Firstsite, Colchester.

Conversations about climate change: reflecting on action at home, school and in local spaces, was well attended and the audience reflected a diverse range of ages. As well as getting the opportunity to hear about research being done at the University and put questions to the panellists, audience members got to try a variety of vegan cakes and compete in a quiz for prizes.

Professor Nixon discussed his research on the challenge of low-carbon ornithology. Ornithologists, or birdwatchers, are conscious of the damage wrought by the impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Bird species are vanishing due to habitat loss and warming temperatures. And the practice of birdwatching itself is one which contributes to climate change as it can involve, for example, enthusiasts travelling significant distances via high-carbon emitting travel such as airplanes and cars. Thus, the challenge of how to balance a cherished pastime with limiting the damage it can cause is one that many within the wider birdwatching community are striving to tackle.

Norman Riley spoke of the potential for combatting climate change through plant-based living, either via a transition to veganism or a reduction in the intake of meat and dairy.

Riley discussed the impact of animal agriculture on environmental degradation through land loss and methane emissions owing to the increasing global demand for meat and dairy products.

His presentation demonstrated that shifting away from animal-based foods could not only lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but growing crops for human consumption on the land currently used to raise animals could add almost 50% to the global food supply. Further, arguments were made seeking to counter common myths around veganism such as the expensive financial cost of the lifestyle, its negative impact on health and how the vegan demand for soy is equally or more deleterious to the environment than animal agriculture.

Dr Wheeler discussed her work on educating young people about climate change and sustainability. The aim of the research was to discover how young people are encouraged to become sustainable citizen-consumers and how collective responsibilities for sustainability are imagined and allocated within society. The audience learned that the educational materials provided to school children are mostly of the technical eco-literacy sort. Such materials teach children an understanding of the basic science of the bio-physical world and how it is relevant to social life, knowing how societies can affect ecological systems and how appropriate technologies may allow the progressive co-evolution of society and the rest of nature.

Thus, young people are told they have the power to bring about positive change through their individual choices and local actions. There is a lack of cultural (understanding the ways in which different cultures comprehend and value nature) and/or critical (requiring learners to think about existing and alternative forms of democracy and their links to sustainability) eco-literacy within educational resources. This suggests a lack of critical voice as those government, public and private sector organisations providing the materials seek to promote their own organisational priorities while avoiding scrutiny of their damaging practices.

Attendees put a broad range of questions to panellists. Discussions centred around the meaning of ‘plant-based meat’, and whether a society-wide transition to a more plant-based diet might lead to increasing carbon emissions due to higher demand for the imported crops required for meat replacements. A couple of audience members commented that they appreciated being encouraged to contemplate reducing their meat and dairy intake without feeling as if they were being judged for their current dietary choices. Previous research has indicated that vegans advocating for the lifestyle can be portrayed as hostile by non-vegans. The potential for animals currently raised for human consumption to contribute positively to combatting climate change was also discussed. An audience member informed the panel that such grazing animals are effective at contributing to the maintenance of grassland and heathland where other crops and flora cannot grow. There were also questions about individual action and what might be some of the alternatives to behavioural change campaigns. Collective campaigns (targeted at procurement policies for instance) and localised community actions (such as Transition and Fairtrade Towns) are effective for making a difference on sustainability and climate change issues.

The evening finished with the Factfulness quiz which tested audience members’ knowledge of sustainability, planetary health, and geography. The top three were awarded prizes of books on plant-based living and ‘Fairtrade’ organic chocolate. The winner by a considerable distance was someone of secondary school age, which perhaps indicates just how aware young people are to the environmental issues that will shape their futures. The audience capacity was set at thirty. However, thirty-five people attended and this, coupled with feedback indicating many attendees plan on eating less meat based on what they learnt, suggest the event was a success.