Qualitative Assessment of Climate Change in Georgia: Integrating Ethnographic Research on Social Vulnerability with Social Indicator-based Approaches

Global climate change represents an important area of public concern and research. Though people have always dealt with variations and extreme weather events, scientists project increasing uncertainty regarding such events in the future. There are different beliefs and responses to current climatic events and future projections among various populations in the U.S.  Little is known about climate change perceptions among populations in the U.S. South: its root causes and manifestations; how vulnerable communities in the region may believe they are exposed to changes in temperature or precipitation; or what kinds of resilience may be displayed on the ground.

We aim to identify understandings and interpretations of climate change, as well as capacities to respond to it, among members of various communities within and surrounding Atlanta, Georgia that are considered to be vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to social and/or climatic factors. These sites include one historical, predominantly African American, center-city community with low income and educational attainment rates; high crime rates, and lack of vendors selling nutritional foods.  Another is a majority black, moderate to higher income community suburban area; a peri-urban/suburban community with a high percentage of Latinos of differing socioeconomic statuses, and an exurban county on the periphery of metro Atlanta which is rural and predominantly Caucasian.

We employ an array of complementary research methods rooted in comparative ethnography. Following background research on social vulnerability, climate change, and our field sites, we will analyze the discourses and narratives on climate change in various media (scientific and lay). We have made initial visits to the sites and met with key community leaders, with whom we will continue to work closely to identify ways that communities can reduce vulnerability and increase capacity to respond to climate change. We plan to host several public meetings and conduct a series of individual interviews in each site; we are asking broad and open-ended questions about various physical and social aspects of each community, observations of recent changes in weather, and perceptions of and sources of information on climate change. We will conduct content analysis of transcript notes, interviews, and focus groups using a grounded theory approach. In addition, we will continue to participate in community events (such as community clean-up and garden work days and special events such as festivals and holiday celebrations) and to attend informal social events (including church services, community picnics, farmers’ markets, etc.).

In-depth, comparative ethnographic research across a range of sites in Georgia can elucidate the extent to which different variables of social vulnerability affect community exposure to and capacity to rebound from increased hazards related to climate change.  For example, aggregate-level indicators of vulnerability (such as census data on income, ethnicity, and housing type) do not show indicators of resilience such as strong community cohesion and familial support networks that may help communities recover from natural disasters. The integration of county-level climate change (historical and projected changes in temperature and precipitation) with quantitative and qualitative research on social vulnerability could help us to better understand the links between social vulnerability and climate change. This could in turn lead to lead to suggestions for policies that may enhance preparation for and mitigation of climate change effects and capacity of local communities to respond to and rebound from episodic weather events or gradual climate change patterns. In addition, we hope that this research will help us to identify perceptions of and values regarding trees in urban, suburban, and rural communities and assess whether and how community members perceive the role of trees and other vegetation as a mitigating force in climate change adaptation and or resilience.

Institutional Partners: USDA Forest Service (USFS), Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR) at the University of Georgia (UGA)

Researchers: Pete Brosius (CICR/UGA), Sarah Hitchner (CICR/UGA), Kate Dunbar (CICR/UGA), Cassandra Johnson Gaither (USFS), John Schelhas (USFS).