Structured listening is key to tackling climate change

While the clock is ticking down to the United Nations climate change conference COP26, which opens in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of this month, student leaders from around the world are growing impatient with ruling elites who do more talking than taking action to halt global warming.

So, with excellent timing, a recent international conference organised by the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities provided a platform for global students from developing countries to say how they think universities, individuals and nation states should tackle what many believe is the greatest threat to the planet.

The online Talloires Network Leaders Conference (TNLC Boston 2021), on the theme “Global Institutions, Local Impact: Power and responsibility of engaged universities”, was held from 30 September to 3 October and hosted by Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School in the United States.

Highlights included US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, telling universities to encourage their graduates to hold the US Congress to account for failing to act with urgency to tackle climate change, as University World News reported.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

But it is not just the US Congress that needs to act now, according to students from developing nations in Asia and Africa, who used their Next Generation Leaders’ climate justice track at the Talloires event to highlight how ‘structured listening practices’ could be used to make sure the voices of those suffering the most from climate change were also heard in the growing clamour for something to be done.

Listening to the under-represented

Duaa Shah, a student majoring in economics at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan, explained that structured listening meant ensuring that under-represented, vulnerable and marginalised groups are not just present in any discussion – but that barriers to their active participation are eliminated so that they can be heard.

A good example of this practice in action is the East Belgium Citizens’ Assembly, said Shah. “It makes recommendations which parliament has to implement or provide public justification for not implementing.”

She told University World News that she initially came across structured listening methods during a Talloires Network programme session with the Kettering Foundation and developed the concept with fellow students for the climate change justice track at the Talloires conference.

The Kettering Foundation is a US-based research organisation which has partnered with the Talloires Network to work with a group of youth leaders, including Duaa Shah, to engage their fellow students in deliberative experiments on their campuses.

The foundation’s programme officer Derek Barker told University World News: “Structured listening, also known as public deliberation, is important for issues like climate change, where the debate has become polarised and stakeholders don’t agree on the best action to take.”

Develop strategies going beyond one issue

Shah said in her group’s panel discussion she specifically delved into environmental choices, telling University World News: “From the context of a developing country, it becomes imperative to consider resource and capacity limitations and develop strategies that go beyond one issue and work towards several.

“To this end, enhancing public transport safety for marginalised populations; eliminating the digital divide; integrating relevant climate-resilient agriculture training in rural education systems; incentivising locals to deliver environmental services like forest protection; and providing shelter, security and necessities to vulnerable climate migrants may address multiple areas like poverty, gender inequality and climate change simultaneously,” she said.

The climate justice track at the Talloires conference took the form of an interactive online discussion among Next Generation Leaders from different countries and was expertly chaired by student nurse Mercy Koti, who grew up in a rural community before enrolling at Redemption Higher Institute of Biomedical and Management Science, Cameroon.

Koti has already helped set up a number of community-based non-governmental organisations, including a micro health insurance scheme to promote and maintain good health among students.

She got involved with the Talloires Network conference through a suggestion from a lecturer supervising student projects and told University World News: “Chairing the structured listening methods group helped me to be more patient as a leader.

“With virtual meetings and different time zones, you can’t get everyone involved at the same time and ideas can come in even after conclusions have been made on certain issues. As a leader, I learnt to blend in everyone’s opinion in a nice way for a smooth flow.”

Lead by example

Koti is determined that the Next Generation Leaders’ climate justice project, with structured listening at its heart, should lead by example and she is getting back into her community to share knowledge acquired.

“In our daily life, as we are creating our green spaces, planting more trees, reducing our carbon emissions and meat consumption and so on, we should not forget to educate our community and close friends.

“When you tell someone about climate change, tell them what action to take and you are helping to spread the message and going a long way to solving this problem,” she said.

Akmaljon Akhmedjonov, a student at the Central European University (CEU), which has moved from Budapest, Hungary, to Vienna, Austria, told the Talloires conference that action to tackle climate change should start at the individual level.

Akhmedjonov, or Jon as he is known by other student participants, said: “We can all reduce our own carbon footprint. Like all young people, we like to be fashionable and have all sorts of clothes that are not necessary, but are material goods.

“I’m trying to be a minimalistic person. We don’t need 10 T-shirts or luxury Gucci goods.”

Akhmedjonov, who is originally from Tajikistan, is a graduate from the American University of Central Asia and is now studying for a masters at CEU in international public affairs with a focus on democracy and higher education policy design.

Reverse globalisation

Akhmedjonov said urbanisation played a key role in the climate crisis and called for a change of emphasis from globalisation to local de-globalisation in terms of consumption.

“We are the young generation who will be living in the future, not those who are currently in power, and I would encourage everyone to reduce the behaviour of mass consumerism on an individual level. It is one of the biggest contributors to the rise of carbon emissions.

“We should reverse globalisation and strive for de-globalisation in terms of consumption. For good reasons, it is better to support locally made and grown products in our daily lives,” he told University World News.

Steve Mwangangi Munyoki, who is studying law at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, said that as world leaders are preparing to meet at COP26 in Glasgow they must realise that “what works for one country, can’t work for the next. Every country has different level of carbon emissions”.

In line with his support for environmental protection, he favours his government’s change of heart in burning plastic “to make parks and everywhere cleaner”, adding: “Climate change is not just an environmental problem; it is also a social and political issue.”

He told University World News: “The biggest takeaway from my experience working with global student leaders is the importance of being adaptable and open-minded.”

He focused on the psychology of climate action “because the subject has not been addressed adequately in my country as well as my continent” and criticised the ‘doom and gloom’ messaging used by 80% of mainstream media to report climate change news, saying: “It is important to outline the effects this type of messaging has on our minds and why it just doesn’t work.”

Munyoki now plans to share the findings from the research conducted in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation on different emerging media platforms and said podcasts should be suitable to demonstrate the potential of structured listening practices. “I’m also looking into posting content on social media, including TikTok,” he said.

Critical role for universities

As for the role of universities in promoting sustainable development, Funwako Bakhile Dlamini, originally from Mbabane in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and now on a masters in public health at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, told the conference: “Universities are critical to delivering national and global environmental objectives”.

He said universities should “rethink how we do our research and make sure it is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary and very much embedded in our communities and [that it] responds to the everyday realities of our communities.

“You can’t separate climate change research from inequality, poverty, unemployment and all the other socio-economic challenges that we are facing.”

He told University World News: “While climate change affects everyone, it disproportionately affects low to middle income households and socio-economic minorities as they often do not have the resources to adapt or escape the sudden changes brought by the changing climate.”

No ‘Planet B’

Farhana Shahnaz, who is studying for a masters in development studies at BRAC University in Bangladesh while working as a communication officer for a United Nations Development Programme project focusing on preventing violent extremism, had a key message for the world leaders gathering in Glasgow.

“Unfortunately for us there is no ‘Planet B’, so it is important for us that we understand the gravity of what we are doing and the risks of climate change,” she told the conference.

But just knowing that somewhere else “might be swallowed up” might not be enough to trigger the necessary action as people might think their country will not be damaged and people don’t like their ideas being challenged.

“We tend to shut down when we think we are destroying the planet, so when the narrative is pushed that it is beyond our control, we psychologically react to it by thinking there is nothing we can do,” she warned.

“So, it is vital to harness public opinion and leverage and mobilise the public to mitigate the impact of climate change,” said Shahnaz, who pointed to the Peoples’ Climate Vote – the world’s largest survey on climate change – which found nearly two-thirds of people in 50 countries said that climate change is a global emergency despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“But just understanding the climate change emergency is not enough. People need to have the desire for early action. And a large number still think climate change is not real or that humans are not responsible, with Indonesia and the US having the largest percentage of climate change deniers,” said Shahnaz.

She now hopes to help mobilise young people in her country, particularly from the grassroots communities, to drive the climate agenda, warning: “Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities, and structured community conversations are a good strategic place to start.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at