This post is an interview conducted with SCARC student employee Liz Thorley who has been conducting oral histories with people on the Oregon State campus who are involved in climate change research from a variety of perspectives. Liz is a post-bacc student in environmental engineering and will be graduating this June. She has a BA in English from UCLA and worked seasonally as a field botanist for several years before returning to school. In her free time (so when she’s not in school…) she likes to hike, backpack, forage for wild mushrooms, and ferment things.
Tell me a little bit about the project and what interested you in this job?
This project is a documentation of the careers and research of people in the OSU community who work on and/or care deeply about climate change. I interviewed researchers, academics, the OSU Sustainability Officer, and a fellow student.
I was drawn to this position because it seemed like a unique opportunity to delve into climate change research and to talk to people about not only their research, but also their thoughts on the future of the planet. The oral history format was intriguing, and I liked that it was completely different from my engineering coursework.
Had you done oral histories before?
No, I had not. I was aware of the interview format, but did not know much about it. My supervisor, Chris Petersen, who conceived of this project and has conducted a lot of interviews, trained me before I started working on it and provided guidance.
What surprised you about the interviews you conducted for the project?
I can’t think of anything in particular that stands out. I found it interesting in talking with people about their lives that themes would often emerge. Childhood experiences or interests seemed to resurface in careers or life choices later on.
What did you learn about interviewing?
I learned how to better articulate questions that would elicit expansive answers. Ideally, you want to avoid yes or no responses. You’re acting more as a guide or prompter for the interviewee to tell their story. Oral history interviews require being very present. You don’t want to miss something important that you could follow up on. I also improved my listening skills. I realize that this sounds clichéd, but it’s true. An oral history interview is about the interviewee, not the interviewer. So while you may have a question in the back of your mind to ask them next, you’re not inserting yourself directly into the interview.
How did you select interviewees?
Chris had done some background research on potential interviewees and had sought recommendations from Phil Mote (the director of Oregon Climate Service (OCS) and Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI)). So when I came on board, most of the interviewees had already given their consent to participate.
How did you prepare?
I developed chronological outlines for each interviewee, using any information I could find online (such as resumes or interviews). Since most of the interviewees were researchers, I spent a lot of time reading their published work and trying to think of expansive questions that I could ask them.
What were some of the issues you encountered in conducting the oral histories?
I didn’t really have any major issues. Initially I was concerned about people committing to an interview time, given how busy academics are and that an interview was a one to two hour time commitment. Fortunately, people were pretty responsive and generous with their time.
What did you already know about climate change and the issues surrounding it?
I had learned about the science of climate change in high school and as a college student. So I knew the basics of the physical processes that are occurring, and how anthropogenic climate change differs from long-term climatic trends in the Earth’s history. It’s something I care about and think about, so I also read about follow climate science and policy in the news.
What were some of the things you learned in the course of conducting the interviews?
While performing background research, I learned a lot more about the impacts of climate change to our planet in a variety of contexts-oceans, atmosphere, forests, grasslands, etc…It was a unique opportunity to further my understanding of climate science. I also got to learn about the intersection of philosophy, epidemiology, economics, and policy with climate change.
How did the interviews shift your perspective?
The last question that I asked each interviewer was “do you feel optimistic about the future of the planet in the context of climate change?” Many people responded with cautious optimism. It was useful for me to hear how researchers who have been documenting the impacts of anthropogenic climate change for years (if not decades), still retain some sense of hope in the face of an urgent issue. For example, some people place their hope in technology, some in the progressive actions of their community or other countries, and some people reframe how they think about the future.
Quite a few people brought up the importance of communicating science to the public, and how politicized the subject of climate change has become. It made me reflect on how people can effectively communicate technical information or how to better integrate science into our culture. It also made me think about how people communicate from polarizing viewpoints, and at what point people stop being receptive to listening. So I don’t know that my perspective really shifted, but I found the interviews to be thought provoking, and they often made me reflect on how people communicate and value our planet.
Oregon State University has long been a center for groundbreaking ecological research and many of those who work and study here are presently wrestling with the implications of climate change as it relates to a number of different disciplines.
Want to learn more? Check out the oral histories Liz conducted here, including those interviewees pictured above!