[IQP] Perceptions of Climate Change in Iceland

Matthew Jalbert
James McClung
Benjamin Seibert
Pheobe Yeung

Abstract: Scientific research is often prioritized over social research in climate change studies. Personal stories convey perceived vulnerabilities, adaptations and resiliencies while discerning societal influences. To better understand climate change perceptions, we collected stories of environmental changes from lifelong residents of Iceland. We conducted in-depth interviews with residents in four locations of interest. Stories from residents supported the climate change indicators researched by experts. Overall, Icelanders did not feel vulnerable to environmental changes but did worry for future generations. We also produced a documentary to share the stories. Future climate change perception studies should consider societal implications to gain a more holistic view of climate change impacts.

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Executive Summary

Climate change is a global issue that is transforming the environment and society alike. Many impacts of climate change can be seen in Iceland. The loss of its two largest glaciers by 2200 (Aðalgeirsdóttir, Jóhannesson, Björnsson, Pálsson, & Sigurðsson, 2006) is expected to seriously impact the Icelandic environment (Pagli & Sigmundsson, 2008). Offshore, fish migration will have major ramifications for the fishing industry (Poloczanska, 2016) and Icelandic traditions. Despite these adverse effects, Iceland also experiences positive effects of climate change. The increased glacial runoff has temporarily boosted the generation of hydroelectric power (Aðalgeirsdóttir et al., 2006). The warmer climate attracts more tourists (Jones & Phillips, 2018) and allows farmers to explore new crops (Gewin, 2017). To fully understand climate change, we explored the physical effects through three key terms: vulnerability, adaptation and resilience (Janssen, Schoon, Ke, & Börner, 2006). These have been studied extensively but research into social changes has been less thorough.

Understanding climate change through scientific terminologies explains observable effects but offers a shallow insight into experiences. It is crucial to explore cultural worldviews and social environments to understand climate change perceptions (Akerlof, 2013). In focusing on the science of climate change, valuable insight may be overlooked. Researching the stories of others grants a new or different understanding and is an effective way of meeting at the crossroads of perceptions between author and interpreter (Koch, 2012). This profound aspect of storytelling has been utilized as a powerful tool over many media platforms. The cultural significance of storytelling, specifically in Iceland, makes collecting stories effective at gathering societal influences on perceptions. This deepened our understanding of climate change vulnerabilities, adaptations and resilience.

Cultural insights manifest in the stories of individuals. A study on narrative methods by Erol Isik (2010) argues that people create narratives from their own self-image, but there is no dualism between self and society. Empathy is another important factor present in stories. It heightens an interpreter’s understanding of what an individual is trying to convey (Koch, 2012). Isik (2010) also found that storytellers live in a story’s moment, so the information recalled is more accurate and vivid.

The goal of this project was to collect stories of how changes in the environment have impacted lifelong residents of Iceland. With these stories, we explored similarities and differences between what residents perceived and what science has established. To complete this goal, we first interviewed climate change scientists to learn about Iceland’s climate change indicators and to identify towns most impacted by those indicators. Second, we used in-depth interviews to gather stories of experiences. We then used the gathered data to conceptually compare the perceptions between Icelandic residents with scientific findings.

Our first interviews with climate change scientists took place in Háskóli Ísland. We talked to Dr. Guðfinna Aðalgeirsdóttir, Dr. Þröstur Þorsteinsson, and Dr. Brynhildur Davidsdóttir and learned about glacial melt, ocean acidification and isostatic rebound. Based on those indicators, we were advised to visit Höfn, Vïk and Vestmannaeyjar for interesting climate change perceptions. We also learned about government adaptation policies and the scientists’ concern for Iceland in the next decade. These interviews allowed us to learn about climate change impacts specific to Iceland and provided a sturdy foundation for our data collection.

We went to Akranes, Vík, Stykkishómur and Höfn to conduct in-depth interviews. Early on, we preferred semi-structured interviewing but eventually switched to in-depth interviews for more open conversations. The interviews were guided conversations that targeted climate change indicators through the residents’ hobbies, occupations and cultures. Each interview lasted between 10 to 25 minutes. The conversations varied greatly depending on the person but the information we gathered was similar.

After transcribing interviews, we used content analysis to gather general codes and themes. The codes were generated by indicators mentioned by scientists and codes were added as we came upon new ideas. Because of Iceland’s diverse topography, we divided indicators into applicable regions. This made comparisons between scientific data and collected stories more effective. From these comparisons, Venn diagrams were made to distinguish similarities in perceived vulnerabilities between residents and the scientific consensus.

Glacial recession proved to be the most noticed change, having been mentioned by 60% of all residents. This was unexpected; of the towns in which we interviewed in, only Vík and Höfn were located near large glaciers. This hints at a nationwide understanding that all of Iceland is affected by the loss of its glaciers. Glacial surge flooding was predicted to be a considerable threat to both Vík and Höfn. However, only one respondent in each town mentioned the possibility for future larger floods. This could mean that the floods are not as detrimental to locals as scientists implied; that flooding is a part of local life, and is taken for granted; or that a minority of residents are impacted by flooding. Increased precipitation proved to only be noticed in Vík and was a main talking point of the people there. With Vík being such a naturally rainy area, it was surprising that half of our interviewees mentioned the increase. None of the other locations covered this point, so this could be indicative that Vík and the south coast experiences this change the worst.

Another interesting pattern lies in the disconnect between concern for climate change indicators. 68% of residents brought up glacial recession when asked what they have noticed in terms of climate change. However, no one was concerned about the direct effects of glacial recession. Instead, most interviewees expressed concern for their children and grandchildren. For example, a Vík tour guide was focused on being environmentally conscious but was not extremely worried about the effects of climate change in Iceland. She was more worried about her children not being able to experience the glaciers. The most widespread concern was the Gulf Stream. Nearly a quarter of the residents interviewed expressed worry for their country and explained that the disappearance of the Gulf Stream would render Iceland uninhabitable. This concern was often mentioned by residents in all four areas of focus.

While the vulnerability mapping is a good indicator of what people perceive, it does not utilize other valuable data from our interviews. To display the stories of residents experiences and concerns with climate change, we produced a fifteen-minute documentary. Overall, there was not a linear correlation between what scientists emphasized and what Icelanders perceived (Figure 8). The R2 value of .006 is extremely low. The lack of correlation indicates that scientific data alone cannot predict how residents perceive climate change. Therefore, social research is crucial to understand how to help communities adapt.

Iceland is a kaleidoscope of perspectives and phenomena, and our research is just the tip of the iceberg. We gathered stories from four distinct communities, with each one adding insight into how people are impacted. By better understanding the experiences and concerns of each community, future adaptation strategies can more fully address the multitude of interconnections between environment and civilization.