Scholar Spotlight - Penelope Milner

Laidlaw Scholar Penelope Milner on the connection between climate change threat and authoritarianism, stepping up into a leadership position, and staying motivated.
Scholar Spotlight - Penelope Milner

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Penelope Milner, a University of Leeds Laidlaw Scholar, on the connection between climate change threat and authoritarianism, stepping up into a leadership position and staying motivated.

Research title: Does Climate Change Threat Lead to Increasing Authoritarianism?

The key aim of my research project was to identify whether exposure to climate change threat would lead to the display of authoritarian traits in a representative sample of the UK population. As the severity of the climate crisis will rise in the future, it is vital that as a global community we understand how best to communicate and disseminate information to stakeholders including national governments and the general public, so that we can manage the impacts of climate change together.  

For this study, a sample size of 570 participants were recruited using Prolific, who were split in half for the study which was conducted using Qualtrics. One group watched a neutral video based on the topic of greenhouse gases and the other group was exposed to climate change threat by watching a video featuring a small town in Wales at risk of being destroyed due to sea level rise. Each group answered the same set of survey questions in relation to climate change in order to compare their responses depending on being in the control group or not.  

The experiment concluded that exposure to climate change threat does lead to increased levels of authoritarian attitudes among individuals with authoritarian predispositions. However, for individuals with libertarian predispositions, exposure to climate change threat led to decreased levels of authoritarian attitudes. Stenner (2005) outlined the same conclusions in the authoritarian dynamic theory. It was also found that the individuals who watched the threat video were not considerably more worried about climate change, but their responses to the survey did indicate that they were significantly angrier than those in the control group.  

Where did your passion for this research originate?

As a Geography BA with Quantitative Methods student, I think my passion for this research project came from my growing awareness of the severity of the challenges related to climate change and the desire to empower people in the face of the climate crisis. Thus, I was very intrigued by this research piece as I was keen to gain insights on a representative sample of the UK population to climate change threat and use these conclusions to develop some recommendations for how to approach informing people about climate change and at the same time develop conclusions on how to prevent the rise of authoritarian traits in individuals. 

The practical applications of the research and the potential to inform policymakers about communication surrounding climate change was really appealing to me. I am driven towards making a difference through my work and extra-curricular projects so the opportunity to be able to contribute to such a  beneficial piece of research was a huge honour and a valuable learning opportunity for me. I hope to continue supporting Dr Spaiser and Dr Dunn with their research going forward.  

Real-life leadership lessons 

One of the main learning experiences for me as a leader was managing the staff at the shop branch where I worked on a Saturday whilst I was studying for my A levels. I think one of the main things that I learnt is that you set the tone for your team; if you are positive, and enthusiastic, there is a high chance that this will motivate your team and make them feel optimistic even in the face of challenges or a high workload! Particularly during my Leadership in Action, Brenda, Davizz and Ailed always had high levels of positive energy even when there had been some setbacks within the projects, and this always boosted my motivation.  Most importantly, as long as you learn from each opportunity to lead a team, you have succeeded. 

By the time I started my second year, I had the confidence to set up my own society at Leeds University Union, the Leeds Rotaract Society, due to my experience of project management and leading teams in a range of contexts. Members take part in volunteering and fundraising projects with a range of charities and projects such as Feed Leeds. Currently, I am the President of both the Leeds Rotaract Society and Laidlaw Society. I feel that my Leadership in Action Project helped me to develop skills for example in volunteer recruitment, social media marketing, time management and planning and effective communication methods for a team both online and in-person which will support my ability to fulfil my responsibilities as President of both the Rotaract and Laidlaw Society. 

Penelope during her Leadership-in-Action project with makesense in Mexico

Top leadership tips

⚡️Spread your flowers: During my Leadership in Action project, one of the poignant messages from the temazcal (an ancient Mexican cleansing ritual) I took part in was the idea of ‘spreading your flowers in the world’ and leaving a positive legacy behind to create hope and beauty in the world.    

⚡️Celebrate the people in your team: Remember to thank the members of your team and make sure they know you appreciate their dedication to a project.  

⚡️Have a plan: Have a clear plan as often this can make it easier for people in your team to understand what you are aiming towards, and it is helpful for you as a leader to centre yourself on the core aim.  

⚡️There is no such thing as the perfect leader: Always be open to learning especially from members of your team by asking for feedback throughout and at the end of a project. You must always be aware of at least one thing that you would do differently the next time you lead a project. 

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

At its core, I believe that a Laidlaw Scholar is someone who is open and willing to grow as an individual, a researcher and a leader in order to empower others and make a positive difference in all that they do throughout their life.  

It also means being an active member of the student community and within the global network of other Laidlaw scholars. Even when I officially complete the final stage of my scholarship, I hope to continue contributing and supporting the Laidlaw Foundation as I really believe in the difference that the scholarship can make in someone’s life. I can definitely say that I would not be the person I am today without the lessons and guidance from my research period, the numerous leadership coaching sessions, the Leadership in Action project, and the amazing friends and connections I have made because of the scholarship.  

Penelope in Mexico over the summer

Which leaders inspire you and why?

I could not write this section of the spotlight without highlighting the legacy of the Queen. Despite the difference in opinions people may have on the Royal family, I think the Queen can certainly be admired for her devotion, professionalism, and loyalty to her country for 70 years. A recurring theme from those reminiscing about the Queen was the stability she represented and her willingness to embrace change throughout her reign. Although on a more local than global scale, to link to this idea of dedication and leadership, I also wanted to mention my Mum and Dad, who run a family bakery business together. My Dad has been a baker since he was 16, often working seven days a week which has instilled in me a strong work ethic and dedication to achieving my goals. My parents are strong leaders individually but also make a great team. I particularly admire my Mum’s adaptability to various roles throughout her time in the company and her ability to respond effectively to different challenges as they arise. I feel completely indebted to my parents for such a wonderful upbringing and I will never stop being inspired by them.  

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

Whilst I was on my Leadership in Action project in Mexico City, I spent my final day there visiting a retirement home located just outside of the city with a charity called Rotary International. It was an incredibly humbling experience, as I got to see first-hand how the donations from the charity and the time they spent with the people living at the retirement home meant so much to them. Reflecting on this, I want to live in a world where everyone volunteers. Even if this is just for an hour per month, I believe doing something to give back and build your community is one of the most powerful ways to bring people together.  

Something that I have realised is the benefit of being open-minded and having the willingness to learn; learn from other people, learn about different cultures and learn about yourself to improve self-awareness. 

Penelope visiting a retirement home outside Mexico City with Rotary International


Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: The Suspect

📚 My top book recommendation: Atonement by Ian McEwan  

🎵 My current anthem: GOOD TIMES / PROBLEMZ by Jungle

 🎧 Podcast obsession: The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett 

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Visiting my flatmates from second year for a pizza night! It was lovely to see them again after the summer!

🎓 Find out about Rotaract in the UK: To find out more about Leeds Rotaract Club and our volunteering projects, please follow our Instagram account leeds_rotaract_club, or message me if you would like to become a member of Rotaract! You can visit the Rotaract website for more information.

What is Rotaract? | Rotaract in Great Britain & Ireland

Penelope delivering a presentation about the Leeds Rotaract Club


You can find Penelope on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about her work on the relationship between climate change threat and authoritarianism, you can read her research paper or have a look at her poster.

Penelope is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at the University of Leeds. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

  • Aly Muhammad Sayani (University of Toronto) on understanding how political orientation affects environmental attitudes and addressing global issues with compassion.
  • Bronwyn Fulton (Tufts University) on designing and implementing affordable, empowering, enrichment-based summer programming for elementary students
  • Marcelina Lekawska (University of St. Andrews) on educating youth on nature conservation and developing an inclusive leadership style.
  • Aya Hammad (University of York) on understanding the origins of cancer, promoting equality in healthcare, and learning to be adaptable. 
  • Ainav Rabinowitz (Cornell University) on analysing the militarisation of law enforcement, sharing women's voices from MENA, and transforming personal dreams into shared dreams.

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