Climate change and social work: Our roles and barriers to action

by Tina Cumby

Institution: Wilfrid Laurier University
Year: 2016
Keywords: environmental social work; social action; social change; eco social work; green social work; environmental degradation; Environmental Studies; Social Work
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2134523
Full text PDF: http://scholars.wlu.ca/etd/1828


This qualitative research project was conducted using a grounded theory research methodology and was approached with the theoretical underpinnings of social constructivism and pragmatism. The purpose of this research was to assess what role, if any, that social workers can play in dealing with environmental issues such as climate change and what barriers, if any, they will likely experience as they engage with these issues. It is important to explore these roles and barriers because social work is a profession that is well equipped to mitigate environmental issues like climate change, yet there is virtually no social work presence in the literature on these issues. Key informants included six individuals who self-identified as social workers. Informants were interviewed over the phone for 45 to 60 minutes. Research questions focused on the roles that social workers can play in dealing with environmental issues like climate change, as well as what barriers social workers are likely to experience in doing this work. Results indicated that social workers do have a role to play in dealing with environmental issues like climate change, including as researchers, educators, clinicians, and community members, because doing so is a part of the social work mandate and because social workers possess the skills to help mitigate these issues. It was also found that there are a number of barriers and helping factors that contribute to social work (in)action on environmental issues like climate change. The central barrier identified was the cultural mindset of Western social work that views individuals as separate from the environment, which creates and maintains the other barriers and impacts the helping factors in negative ways. As such, an ideological shift is required in the social work profession to expand our understanding of the person-in-environment to include the physical environment, as well as the social environment, in order to encourage more social work action on environmental issues like climate change. To do this, social work research, practice, and education will need to better align itself with Indigenous worldviews and practices in a way that is inclusive to Indigenous peoples and that honours and acknowledges where these practices originate without appropriating or repackaging them.