I am Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Exeter, UK. Previously, I was a Postdoc in Geography at the University of Melbourne, and prior to this a Lecturer at the University of East Anglia. I completed my PhD in Environmental Science at UEA in 2008.
My research explores the social science dimensions of climate variability and climate change, particularly in terms of climate change communication and public engagement. My work examines the diverse places in which people experience climate change in their everyday lives: from personal attachments to valued places, to interactions on social media. I am particularly interested in how visual representations shape our interactions with climate change. From 2012-2017, I held an ESRC Future Research Leader Fellowship titled ‘Visualising Climate Change’.
In 2019, I published a longitudinal analysis of visual images of climate change from UK and US newspapers: ‘More than meets the eye: a longitudinal analysis of climate change imagery in the print media‘, at Climatic Change (part of the ‘Practicing Everyday Climate Cultures’ Special Issue edited by Mike Goodman, Julie Doyle and Nathan Farrell). I am also using this dataset, alongside other data, to explain how polar bears became a visual metonym for climate change, and what this means for how we engage with the issue (manuscript under revision). I’ll be presenting this paper ‘Climate Bear; Visual Metonym’ at the PSA Annual International Conference in Edinburgh, April 2020. I am active in online debates about the use of imagery to communicate climate change; see for example my guest post on the Carbon Brief blog commenting on the 2019 summer heatwaves: ‘How heatwave images in the media can better represent climate risks‘.
Following our collaboration examining social and legacy media coverage of the IPCC AR5 (published in Nature Climate Change), I continue to work with complexity scientist Hywel Williams to examine networks, circulation and engagements with climate images on social media. Most recently, we are using an innovative combination of quantitative data science methods and qualitative visual analysis to examine how social media users, on the platforms Twitter and Facebook, construct climate imaginaries through visual imagery.
I am interested in how people experience climate change adaptation and deal with climate risk in their everyday lives: whether that is responding to extreme heat, drought, flooding, fire or other events; or in how people might lead lower carbon lifestyles. For example, we’ve just had our paper accepted at Environmental Research Letters examining climate change adaptation at the household level and the risk of bushfire (led by PhD student Colette Mortreaux). And, working with Tim Kurz (University of Bath) and others, we’ve just had a paper accepted to the Journal of Social Issues titled ‘Could vegans and lycra cyclists be bad for the planet?’, where we examine how moralised minority practice identities could inhibit (or encourage) wider societal sustainability goals. And, one of my PhD students, Kath Lee, has lead-authored a review examining youth (aged 8-19) perceptions of climate change, which has just been published in WIREs: Climate Change.
My teaching at Exeter reflects these research interests. I convene an interdisciplinary second year module Climate Change: Science and Society which attracts a diversity of students from Geography and beyond. Students are challenged to think about the interlinked human and physical geographic dimensions of climate change by taking part in topical debates about climate change. Past debate topics have included: ‘Geoengineering is morally wrong and should be avoided’, ‘Social media has polarised the debate on climate change’ and ‘Climate change has already triggered civil wars and conflict.’ New for 2019-20, and inspired by the ‘C-Challenge’ teaching of Karen O’Brien and Robin Leichenko, we are asking students to undertake a week-long challenge to address an aspect of climate change mitigation or adaptation (e.g. related to food, travel, waste or energy use), and to reflect on the opportunities and barriers for climate action which they have experienced. I also supervise third year dissertation students working on climate and environment issues, and those using visual methods or undertaking media-related research. I was delighted to be nominated by my dissertation students for an Exeter Guild Teaching Award in the category of ‘Best Supervisor’ for academic year 2018-19.
I supervise five inspiring interdisciplinary PhD students based in a diversity of departments (Geography, Psychology, Computer Science) at two universities (Exeter, Bath). Four are funded through the ESRC SWDTP. I have co-supervised a further three PhD students to completion. You can see more about the exciting work being carried out by my students here. I welcome approaches from potential PhD students who wish to carry out research in an area aligned to my interests.
I was awarded the 2011 UK Scopus Young Researcher Award 2011 (Social Sciences) a prize given to the most highly-cited early-career researchers, based on citation data and jury assessment. My H index = 27 (as of January 2020).
I have had two year-long periods of maternity leave (2015-16 and 2017-18), returning to work part-time (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday). Please note these days when getting in touch.
I tweet about climate change, communication, media, imagery and being a part-time academic/working mum @SaffronJONeill.