Climate Change, Citizen Science, and the Reasonable Person Model

Climate Change, Citizen Science, and the Reasonable Person Model

Abstract: Climate change is inarguably one of the greatest threats that life on earth has ever faced. Climate change is expected to have widespread effects that creep across all domains of life, touching everything from the life cycle of a butterfly to the availability of food for all people. Any problem that threatens to have such widespread effects is best met with an equally widespread response; people, however, have been fairly slow to mobilize – in part because the problem is hard to understand, does not feel not relevant, and seemingly best left for “experts.” In this paper, I explain how nature-based citizen science programs can help people build models about the natural world, bring about a sense of effectiveness through imparting new skills and competencies, and offer opportunities for meaningful action. I evaluate a handful existing citizen science programs through the lens of Rachel Kaplan’s Reasonable Personal Model (RPM) and conclude with a description of what an “ideal” climate change-focused citizen science program might look like.

Climate Change Engagement as an Information-Processing Problem

It is generally agreed upon that climate change is notoriously hard for scientists to explain and even more difficult for laypeople to understand – information is difficult to transfer. To add to this, the causes and consequences of climate change are often perceived as abstract as well as temporally, spatially, and psychologically far away.[1] Although many people claim to care about climate change, most do not feel engaged with it.[2] Should they be? Not necessarily – however, many people want to be, and so efforts to engage must be improved.

The lack of engagement with climate change – or any large-scale environmental issue – is partly a problem of information processing. Unlike easy-perceptible problems like litter on the side of the road or an oil spill in a river, climate change is a problem that, by and large, exists outside of that which one person can individually perceive or experience. In other words, it’s difficult to miniaturize; it’s hard to build a mental model of. Climate change is daunting, confusing, and often left for the “experts” to deal with. If we want to engage people with climate change issues, then our approach to engagement needs to change – by making climate change perceptible, tractable, and relevant to people and what they care about. Inviting people to participate in citizen science programs is one way to accomplish this.

Model Building: Citizen Science from an Information-Processing Point of View

Humans have always monitored – systematically collected and processed information about – their environments. Early humans learned to keep track of food, water, and natural cycles as they related to their basic needs; as human populations grew and became more advanced, monitoring efforts expanded to include things like weather and climate, plant and animal ranges, animal migration patterns, what kinds of crops to plant as well as when to harvest them, and natural disturbance regimes. This kind of information gathering continues today – but is experiencing a “renaissance” as new questions about the environment arise along with novel ways of exploring them. Today, we call this practice citizen science: public participation in scientific research.[3]

In the context of large-scale ecological research, citizen scientists act as “eyes” spread out across space and time working together to build shared mental models of the natural world. Happening simultaneously, to varying degrees, is the construction of the individual’s mental model of the natural world; through participating in citizen science projects, participants are given a chance to situate what is happening in their backyard within some larger context – while also building or expanding on their ideas about place. In many cases, neither the shared or individual models of the natural world as it occurs at different scales would be possible for any one person to make on their own; widespread participation from many people is essential for the construction of both.

Citizen Science as a Way to Feel Effective

By participating in citizen science, participants are given a chance to make measurable, concrete contributions to something “greater” that is of importance to them. Currently, citizen scientists are invited to submit observations of birds (eBird)[4], nest progress (Project Nestwatch)[5], blooming flowers (Project BudBurst)[6], caterpillar encounters (Monarch Larva Monitoring Project)[7], bee visitors (Great Sunflower Project)[8], or even water quality (Lousiana Bucket Brigade)[9]. Participants are usually given specific tools and training to help them do the task, and then provided feedback about their contribution – helping to foster a sense of “being effective.”

Citizen science projects that are time-bounded (rather than ongoing) are likely to be the correlated with success when it comes to bringing about a sense of effectiveness. Some of the longest-running are time-bound: for example, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count[10] – running since 1900 – is done for only one day per year; the more modern Great Backyard Bird Count[11] in done in even less – just 15 minutes. This year, over 150,000 checklists (more than ever before) were submitted in the course of three days.[12] While this “resounding success” is likely attributable to many factors (e.g., good advertising), ease of participation (including small time commitment) is probably a major one. RyanWard of Project Budburst supports the notion of keeping things short: “We’ve found that creating and publicizing short-term, seasonal campaigns increase participation in our year-round project” – he mentions that their shortest program, Cherry Blossom Blitz, is also the one with highest rates of participation. While there are some trade-offs here, keeping tasks short and sweet tends to make them less attentionally-demanding – and better at bringing out acute feelings of being effective.

Ultimately, citizen participation allows for big discoveries to be made – through the collective tracking the spread of invasive species, timing of seasons, species declines, range shifts, impacts of urbanization, effects of climate change, changes in local water quality, and more. It would not be unreasonable to guess that continued participation in these programs is a function of how effective people are made to feel – through knowing about the importance of the project, learning new skills, practicing competence, or being given feedback.

Because citizen science engages participants in the process of science, participation has the potential to increase scientific and ecological literacy; improve participant attitudes towards science and nature; increase participant understanding of science and the natural world; improve participants’ scientific thinking and research skills; increase participant interest in scientific careers; and foster a sense of environmental stewardship.[13] So far, certain citizen science projects have been shown to increase knowledge of scientific concepts and increase sense of ecological place.[14] These findings suggest another “layer” of effectiveness – this time for educators who have educational goals to meet in non-traditional ways.

Citizen Science and Meaningful Action

One of the most important aspects of any program is its inherent meaningfulness. Participants may know what participation is important for science, but why is participation important for the participants? Do they do it just for fun, or does it give them a chance to connect to something that they feel is meaningful to them?

For some, citizen science offers a chance for people to get outside and connect to the natural world, often in a new way. For many, citizen science is used as a kind of “cognitive engagement plan” that serves to reveal totally new aspects of the environment while also effectively providing a mentally restorative experience. This aspect alone – the chance to connect with nature – makes many citizen science programs feel meaningful for many people.

Although, to date, no research has been done on the importance of ‘meaningfulness’ in citizen science programs, it would not be surprising to find that the most ‘meaningful’ programs are those designed by citizens themselves focused on something that is valuable to their community[15] (e.g., the Canadian Community Monitoring Network[16]). While most community-level programs are relatively small, local, and underemphasized, they may offer more opportunities for meaningful engagement with relevant concepts than large-scale programs (which tend to be “canned”).

This brings up questions about the importance of ‘control’ over questions and methods. Most citizen science projects take a ‘top-down’ approach, with questions and methods determined by the scientists. Could projects contolled by citizens, at least in part, have some advantages to participants not conferred by large-scale programs (like increased relevance and meaningfulness)? Furthermore, might they offer more chances for exploration and discovery? Some large-scale citizen science programs have recognized this as a kind of “trade-off” and have begun to make a place for citizen-driven investigations within their otherwise standardized frameworks – like through funding community-led projects (e.g., Celebrate Urban Birds[17]) or creating inquiry-based curricula that can be tailored to reflect the interests of participants (e.g. BirdSleuth[18]). It will be interesting to watch how the landscape of citizen science changes over time with respect to meaningfulness – and the role that participant values have in shaping how citizen science is done.


To date, there is no one major single citizen science program focused specifically on monitoring climate change – rather, climate change is one of the many cross-cutting themes explored by many existing programs (such as some of those mentioned earlier). Still, citizen science has the potential to make climate change more salient to people by exposing them to the effects that climate change will have on their local environment; making connections between what is happening at small and large scales; highlighting interactions between species, and so on. Because it is participatory, it can teach about climate change in a way that traditional approaches can’t.

Ultimately, it is people that lie at the heart of citizen science. Without people, we could not know what we do about how our natural world works – and how climate change has already begun to transform life on earth. As such, citizen science programs must be designed with peoples’ needs in mind – their need to explore, discover, care, build skills, demonstrate competence, feel needed, feel listened to, and take meaningful action.

[1] Spence, A., Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. (2012). The Psychological Distance of Climate Change. Risk Analysis, 32(6), 957-972.

[2] Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Hmielowski, J. (2012) Global Warming’s Six Americas, March 2012 & Nov. 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

[3] Citizen Science Central:










[13] Bonney, R., Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V., & Shirk, J. Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy. BioScience 59(11), 977–984. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2009.59.11.9 Retrieved from

[14] Evans C, Abrams E, Reitsma R, et al. 2005. The Neighborhood Nestwatch Program: participant outcomes of a citizen-science ecological research project. Conserv Biol 19 :589–94. [CrossRef]

[15] Wilderman, C.C., Barron, A., Imgrund, L., 2004a. Top down or bottom up? ALLARM’s experience with two operational models for community science. Proceedings of the 4th National Monitoring Conference, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA. National Water Quality Monitoring Council. National Water Quality Monitoring Council, Chattanooga, Tennessee

[16] Whitelaw, G., Vaughan, H., Craig, B., Atkinson, D., 2003a. Establishing the Canadian community monitoring network. Environ. Monit. Assess. 88, 409–418.




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