UMich students represent human side of the climate crisis through Wikipedia

One dominant narrative around the climate crisis is that it’s primarily an energy problem. If we invested in the right technology, if we transitioned to cleaner systems, and if we did it fast enough, we could solve it. But many social scientists would say that that’s too narrow a focus for a problem so large-scale and nuanced. As climate-related disasters increase in frequency around the world, the collective climate conversation is shifting from a focus on technology to an additional focus on the impacts that climate action and inaction have on human health, well-being, and culture — as well as biodiversity. We’re beginning to understand on a broader scale that the climate crisis is not only about what we need to invent, but also fundamentally about who (and what) we want to save.

University of Michigan students in Hieu Phung’s course last spring helped flesh out this side of the climate narrative by adding well-researched information to Wikipedia. Students studied the social impacts of climate change and mitigation efforts in Southeast Asia, a region that is likely to be one of the hardest hit by climate-related events the soonest. Students then added their research findings to related Wikipedia pages for an audience of thousands. Devashree Patel, a recent graduate, and Piero Guerra, a fourth year student, made particularly impactful changes that have been read 4.5K and 5.8K times, respectively, since their course ended in April. Let’s dive in to what they did.

Climate resilience and the legacies of colonialism

Piero Guerra is an international studies major with a focus in Latin America and East Asia. He decided to look into Wikipedia’s article about climate change in Indonesia. Indonesia, particularly its capital city Jakarta, is particularly vulnerable to climate-related disasters. Sea level rise is especially harmful for agriculture, mariculture, and fishing industries, which a majority of Indonesian people rely upon for their livelihoods. Piero added information to the article about how sea levels change during monsoons; how much sea level is rising each year (10cm per year) compared to average rising around the globe (3-10mm per year); and why land subsidence is happening. The more he learned from his scientific research, the more he began to see how legacies of Dutch colonialism were affecting the region’s ability to mitigate these problems.

“The article about Jakarta’s sinking made me dive deep into Indonesian politics and history to get the proper context about certain policies and historic events that may have led or directly caused the issues Jakarta faces today,” Piero says. “Both my parents are Peruvians who immigrated to the US in the 90s for better job opportunities and general safety from political violence. Considering how many infrastructural issues in Peru are caused by a combination of lack of funds and overall corruption I wanted to see if the Indonesian government played a larger role in the sinking itself (ie: infrastructure projects deforesting the island).”

Piero found that urban planning decisions made during Dutch colonialism have led to the crisis of land subsidence and clean water scarcity today. In the Wikipedia article, he noted the importance of water infrastructure in making regions more resilient to climate change, especially cities that are expanding as rapidly as Jakarta. Piero also noted that a large part of the Indonesian population is unaware of the connection between land subsidence, urban planning, and the extraction of groundwater (a common practice since much of the population lacks other access to water).

“I really wanted to emphasize in the article that while climate change is of course a compounding factor that makes Jakarta’s sinking even worse, whether it’s increased natural disasters or sea level rise, it is not the only or even most prominent factor in Jakarta’s case. Connecting land subsidence with the legacy of Dutch colonialism was paramount to show how much of the sinking was due to infrastructural issues and not an unavoidable climate disaster, which is what most assume.”

Clean energy technology and impacts to local communities

Devashree graduated this spring with a major in an international studies and South Asian studies. She chose to edit Wikipedia’s article about hydropower technology in the Mekong River Basin, which could produce almost 60K megawatts of power according to some estimations. While hydropower is a promising energy option for the increased demand in the region, the negative side effects for the river are controversial. Less discussed, but undoubtedly important, are the tolls that hydropower dam projects can take on local populations.

“I think I was drawn to this article specifically because it seemed like such an important topic that wasn’t often highlighted when we think of dam construction,” Devashree shares. “Also, as a student focusing on international security and Asian studies, I was interested in how people and communities reacted to their changing environment. As we learned more in class about the communities that lived in the Mekong River Basin, it became apparent that locals regard the water as another entity that they interact with and in many ways depend on for their livelihood and culture.”

Devashree added a new section to the Wikipedia article detailing social impacts of hydropower in the region. The more dams are built on the Mekong River, the more that biodiversity and fisherman livelihoods have been negatively affected. Projects have led to irregular flooding, food insecurity, psychological effects like anxiety and PTSD, forced relocation of local populations, and resettlement programs that have failed to provide adequate financial support for moves. These effects have led to increased poverty in the areas affected.

“I wanted to make sure that I emphasized how much dam construction can negatively affect riparian communities and highlight that it’s not just their livelihoods, but it’s across all spectrums of their lives: holidays, celebrations, and the culture built around the river’s ebbs and flows. Additionally, hydropower projects are renewable energy sources and the Mekong River is accessible to many countries in the region and I noticed that the economic benefits are seen above the social impacts. In showcasing the different vulnerabilities that these communities face, I hope that readers understand that the depiction of hydropower projects in media is not without its consequences.”

How Wikipedia writing is different

The Wikipedia assignment allows students to discover new research interests and passions while making a contribution to global knowledge. Piero and Devashree have both succeeded in bringing these particular social impacts of climate change and climate resilience to light for thousands of Wikipedia’s readers. In doing so, they also practiced a different style of writing appropriate for Wikipedia’s encyclopedic standards: neutral, well-sourced, and concise.

“One of the most beneficial aspects of writing the assignment was making every single sentence count, reducing fluff to an absolute minimum, and having references for every statement I made,” Piero says. “It made my writing sound more professional but also helps with the purpose of Wikipedia, which is for people to gain information and have the sources available to trace my writing back to actual, credible academic articles.”

“At first it was difficult to write without having an argument or taking a position,” Devashree says. “It’s also important not to paraphrase but instead to take different pieces of information and put them together so it’s factual without plagiarizing. I hope to be able to take this skill set and be able to apply it in any career since I’ve realized how easy it can be to plagiarize someone’s work. I think overall, it was a great experience and exercise in a different style of writing. I learned to convey information without it being argumentative and evaluate a source to be able to tell if it’s credible. It forced me to really understand what I was researching so I could write the content in my own words.”

With the Wikipedia assignment, instructors have a real opportunity to integrate course topics with praxis, allowing students to have a new sense of autonomy and empowerment in their learning.

Visit to learn how to incorporate a Wikipedia assignment into your own course.

Hero image by TrapperFrank via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.