Imagination and Belonging in a Changing Climate

This is a time of crisis and uncertainty, with climate change being one of the most pressing global challenges that impact our practical, social and emotional life both now and in the future. Scientists believe that global heating is leading to sea level rises, the loss of natural habitats, and shifts in seasonal weather patterns. These can then lead to an increase in extreme weather events and cause concerns around where people can live, how they are able to travel, the sorts of occupations they can engage with, and how they can access adequate supplies of food and water. There is far less certainty among scientists about the speed and scope at which these changes will take place. Regardless of any short-term action to reduce the causes of global heating, the longer-term projection is that the impacts of global heating will continue long into the future.

Our arts-based research methods provide a way for people to explore their emotional understanding of climate change, how they imagine it will impact their communities in the future, and how they imagine future community responses might look like. Imagination and a sense of belonging can be a powerful tool that communities can use to transition and adapt to an uncertain future.


Our research project encourages people to both individually and collectively explore their emotional responses to climate change, before imagining how their community might be able to respond to climate change in the future. By considering the emotional element first, we reduce the risk of derailing rational and consensual responses as strong feelings such as fear and guilt are acknowledged at the outset. These strong feelings cut across the political spectrum and appear within those who strongly advocate for change and in those who want to maintain the status quo. To assist this part of the process, elements of social action art therapy are employed to help hold and contain the emotions that are expressed. Once the feelings are acknowledged, we can then move on to more cognitive processes.

The second part of the research process focuses on developing collective and imaginative ideas about responses to climate change and makes use of arts-based methods to encourage a playful and accessible form of engagement. From here collective ideas (both image and word formats) emerge about imagined community responses to climate change. These words and images are then used in two ways. Firstly, they are interpreted within an academic and policy context, to help shed more light on how collective responses to climate change are constructed and to further develop the arts-based methodology. Secondly, they are translated into aesthetic objects and performances that are used to communicate ideas to different audiences. An important audience for both parts are those organizations and individuals responsible for setting climate change policy, particularly at the local and district levels.

'We want to care, we want to be cared for' quote next to a tissue paper poppy
'nature is important, we notice when it is missing or spoilt' quote next to a plant

Research development

Our research began in 2019 at the University of Derby, where we worked with staff and students to consider their emotional and cognitive responses to climate change. This included asking participants to consider how they imagined the University responding to climate change. A range of ‘imagined future’ responses were collated, and responses varied from electric buses to the creation of green spaces.

The research in 2019 was also taken into community settings. This has progressed and the research and the research team are currently working with the community arts organisation, Artcore, to build relationships with diverse in the City of Derby and gather ideas around how the city might adapt to climate change and how the council can support communities. To date, the draft findings indicate that there is a strong link between the built and the natural environment when thinking about how the city of Derby can respond to a changing climate, and overall, the thoughts and feelings about how the city can respond to climate change can be expressed with three words: connection, care and belonging.

Research impact

Some of our earlier work within a university context has been picked up by local and national media, where this has touched upon the theme of climate anxiety. The work has been included in a book written by Dr Bird to be published by Routledge in 2022, that addresses social action art therapy as a response to a crisis.

We aim to incorporate our participants’ views within the climate change plans that local councils develop, and our participation in the CivicLAB event in Derby on 7 and 8 July 2022 showcased our impact to date. At the Civic-lab event, we showed the results of the work we carried out in conjunction with Artcore, using art-based research methods to imagine how the city of Derby might respond to climate change and crisis. Those who took part highlighted the need for the enhancement of care, community and belonging in any future responses to climate change. The project was funded by the University of Derby's public engagement funds.

Future auditing of council climate change plans will show how that incorporation has been judged externally and in comparison to other councils in other regions.

the top of a bin lid filled with plastic, behind is a hand written sign with 'Keep Clean' on it
a brown container and a green container with random items within them
A chocolate selection tray, but the chocolates are individual images of chocolates on paper

In the media


Profile picture for Jamie Bird

Dr Jamie Bird
Senior Lecturer in the discipline of Professional Psychological Practices

Dr Bird is based within the Health and Social Care Research Centre. His role is focused on helping to develop the College of Health and Social Care's research activity. This includes the development of funding bids, the conducting of research and the dissemination of findings. Dr Bird's research interests include art therapy, migration, domestic abuse, and climate crisis.

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'Amiga' Performance. Person crouching on the floor on a red mat. Another person stands nearby pointing to a wall containing written messages and drawings.

Dr Gemma Collard-Stokes
Lecturer in Therapeutic Arts

Gemma is a Lecturer in Therapeutic Arts within the College of Arts, Humanities and Education. 

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Rosemary smiling

Rosemary Horry
Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management

Rosemary is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Management. Her current role is within the College of Science and Engineering, in the School of Built and Natural Environmental. She tends to be involved in modules that discuss sustainability and environmental management issues and is currently the Sustainability Lead within the school.

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