UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, March 2020

Engaging Others in Climate Solutions: Insights from UCSF’s Mica Estrada

How do people choose to join a community, such as a group of people united by a common interest, cause, or workplace? This is a question that drives the work of UCSF’s Mica Estrada, Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Science. Over the past decade Estrada has applied this inquiry to the challenge of increasing people’s concern about climate change and engaging them in climate change solutions. For people trying to engage the UCSF community in sustainability actions to meet the university’s goal of carbon neutrality, there are some great lessons that can be learned from Estrada’s work.

Estrada’s research on behavior change is based on a social influence theory that hypothesizes there are three factors that determine whether or not someone will join a particular community: efficacy, identity, and values. Someone is more likely to engage in the normative behaviors of a community when they believe they are capable of doing what the community does (efficacy), the community is a part of who they are (identity), and they share the values of the community (values). For people to engage in the community that’s concerned about climate change, they need more than just climate science knowledge: they need to have a relationship to the community. The social component is critical.

Estrada has utilized this theory to create some powerful programs that provide social structures for people to respond to climate change and participate in local solutions. Currently, she is helping to develop curriculum for and advising on the implementation of the UC Climate Stewards, an initiative of the UC California Naturalist Program that will train and certify people to engage others in their community in local solutions. For six years, Estrada directed the University of San Diego’s Climate Education Partners to help increase the understanding of climate change impacts among high-level leaders in San Diego. To this end, they created Your Community Toolbox for Leading in a Changing Climate, which can be used by organizations anywhere to address the impacts of a changing climate on their region. The toolbox contains the steps that Climate Education Partners took to engage leaders in San Diego—and can serve as a model for the UCSF community for engaging and educating others to advance sustainability or climate action efforts.

Estrada’s work is multi-dimensional, considering many aspects that influence how people respond to climate change. She says she arrived at climate work through social justice and equity issues more than environmental ones, which likely explains her focus on historically underrepresented ethnic populations that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and who have the potential to offer creative solutions. She believes that “underrepresented groups have the solutions to the problems perpetuating climate change” and that “if majority groups listened to minority voices who have been silenced and let people of color take the lead for a while, it would make a big difference.” 

She also believes there is an emotional component to engaging with climate change: “For people who care, it’s an assault to their nervous system every day.” In her view, kindness is an antidote, and focusing on building the positive, rather than focusing on getting rid of the negative, is a more beneficial approach. In a Commonwealth Club Climate One talk she gave last fall, Estrada acknowledges the pain of living with climate change and also the importance of finding practices to balance despair and joy. She has created a blog called Lead with Kindness that offers stories about navigating life successfully in these times. 

What You Can Do

Estrada offered these suggestions to the UCSF community for doing climate work and attempting to implement solutions:

  • Figure out how to increase efficacy, identity, and value connections in climate education and engagement attempts.
  • Be willing to humbly listen to voices from historically underrepresented groups on how to respond to climate change.
  • Take care of yourself. Make sure you have daily practices to help you release stress, worry, and anxiety to be able to sustain the work you’re doing.