Runciman on democratic politics and climate change

Flooding in Minot, N.D. (CC BY 2.0) DVIDSHUB / Flickr

Flooding in Minot, N.D. (CC BY 2.0) DVIDSHUB / Flickr

How to sustain democratic politics in the face of climate change? This is the central challenge raised by David Runciman, Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge in this review essay of recent books on climate politics originally published by the London Review of Books.

Runciman guides us through the ongoing debate between two key protagonists, Nicholas Stern and Dieter Helm, who offer different visions of how we can achieve necessary carbon reductions. Runciman is emerging as an important commentator on climate change and democracy, a theme that appeared briefly towards the end of his excellent book The Confidence Trap.

He is particularly suspicious of those who argue that we need to bypass democratic politics in favour of a technocratic solution to the climate challenge. As such, we wholeheartedly agree with the concluding comment at the end of the review: “Our politics is the block in the way of taking action, but we can’t act in a sustainable way without it. The longer we delay, the harder it gets.”

The review can be accessed here. The odd title is explained in the text!

JRF evidence review on community resilience to climate change

Image (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) courtesy of Diamond Geezer /

Image (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) courtesy of Diamond Geezer /

The concept of community resilience to climate change in the UK is multifaceted and comes with a wide range of associated activities. In order to build the evidence base and help support the development of community resilience to climate change, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published a review of evidence and practice to explore this varied and contested field.

Community action on climate change in the UK is diverse, “but patchy and fragmented”, the report argues. The current ‘reactive approach’ by the government “focuses on direct shocks, both related and unrelated to climate change.” To be more effective and pro-active though, “governance of community action to build resilience to climate change requires a clear vision from central government of the role of local authorities as enablers of community action, alongside the voluntary sector and members of local communities.”

Effective governance of community action needs to be “in touch with local realities and linked into wider governance networks.” The report stresses that empowerment and engagement of citizens are vital – in order to “develop links and involve committed, confident, proactive stakeholders with a shared agenda.” Simply trying to use local communities as ‘delivery tools’ for top-down inititatives is unlikely to succeed. It is “a joined-up approach between grassroots and top-down interventions” that “can build longer-term community resilience and address the needs of communities more vulnerable to climate change.”

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Summary and footage: EAC conference on the Government’s approach to sustainable development, 10 November 2015


Image © EAC

The Environmental Audit Committee, a Select Committee in the UK Parliament, has published the transcript and video of its first conference, held on 10th November 2015, on the Government’s Approach to Sustainable Development.

Following the EAC’s public inquiry from July 2015, to which the FDSD has submitted a response, a panel from various sectors and interest groups discussed the Government’s policy towards “protecting the environment, supporting the low carbon economy and improving wellbeing”.

The Chair of the Committee, Huw Irranca-Davies, noted that the general conclusion from more than 100 submissions to the Committee was that the Government’s record was rather mixed. Whilst it was widely acknowledged that “the Government had set out some encouraging ideas in some areas, for example, agreeing to extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee, integrating natural capital accounting into national accounts and committing to a 25-year plan for nature, … it was also clear from many of the responses … that in other areas, for example, on renewable energy and on energy efficiency, the Government were sending out mixed or even perverse signals.”

As part of the wider discussion with the audience, Farooq Ullah, Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum challenged the UK government to catch up with developments, including public engagement, elsewhere in Europe, and closer to home in Wales: “Germany has a sustainability code; Finland has taken a bottom-up approach to produce Finnish society’s commitment to sustainable development; in Wales we have just seen the recent legislation of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which of course is around sustainable development for future generations. These are all things that exist elsewhere. At the moment, we do not even have a national sustainable development strategy in the UK.”

Beverley Hall from the Trades Union Prospect pointed out that “in terms of sustainability in Wales and Scotland, there is a very holistic approach, an acknowledgement of people, skills and communities, as well as the environment, because the environment needs people to protect it or to change behaviour, whereas we have seen within the UK and within England that there is this policy vacuum.”

The clearest call to listen to the public came from Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business, Marks & Spencer: “We listen to consumers as much as Government listen to the electorate: 35 million people in our shops every year, we listen, and 80% of them are telling us they are concerned about the future. They want a better future, they want more from central government to take a lead on solving it. … They have seen the linkages of what is happening in their locality, they have seen the issues to do with noise, to do with transport, to do with air quality all the time.”

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How the UK is really doing: NEF’s five headline indicators of national success

NEF indicators

Image: NEF / Dan Farley

With their latest report “Five headline indicators of national success – a clearer picture of how the UK is performing”, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has launched a campaign to end “short-term obsession with narrow economic measures and … flawed conception(s) of national success” in UK policy-making processes. With their five new indicators they propose to enrich the information available for citizens and democratic debate, reflecting public priorities better than our exclusive attention to GDP, and very clearly addressing sustainable development.

Drawing from the “latest international research on indicator design, and consultation with experts and organisations across the UK”,  these are the five headline measures identified by NEF:

  1. Good jobs: everyone should be able to find secure, stable employment that pays at least enough to provide a decent standard of living.
  1. Wellbeing: improving people’s lives should be the ultimate aim of public policy, measured at headline level as average reported life satisfaction.
  1. Environment: our prosperity and that of future generations depends on a healthy environment. UK carbon emissions must not exceed the set limit if we want to avoid dangerous climate change.
  1. Fairness: high levels of inequality, evidenced by a growing gap between the incomes of the top and bottom 10% of households, have been proven to have corrosive effects on both society and economy.
  1. Health: good quality healthcare and public health provision, measured by a reduced percentage of deaths considered avoidable, is a pre-requisite for all other social and economic goals.

NEF acknowledges that such diverse policy goals already exist across individual government departments, “but given the dominant role of the Treasury in British political life, its primary policy objective – increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – has become shorthand for national success… Better headline indicators are essential for better policymaking”, the authors Karen Jeffrey and Juliet Michaelson argue, “by using them to guide policy decisions, rather than assuming economic growth will automatically translate into other benefits, we can build an economy better suited to the needs of the individuals, communities and businesses it serves.”

The New Economics Foundation aims to inspire a real change of approach in policy-making and is calling on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) “to adopt and refine these new headline indicators, and giving them highest priority in their schedule of regular data releases.” Readers are invited to support this shift by signing up here.

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Sophie Howe appointed first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales

Following the adoption of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act in April 2015, the Welsh Government has appointed its first Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, currently Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales.

“Public bodies in Wales have been put on warning”, WalesOnline reports, “…if they think their duties under the Well-being of Future Generations Act amount to no more than a box-ticking exercise, they have another thing coming.”

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act places an obligation on specified public bodies to meet wellbeing goals whilst observing the sustainable development principle – to create wellbeing plans and demonstrate how they are maximising their contribution.

Responsibility for delivering on the Act’s ambitions falls to the Future Generations Commissioner, as Anna McMorrin – former specialist adviser in the Welsh Government – explains in exploring the challenges that the newly appointed Commissioner is facing. She points out that real change will require an early focus on collaboration across all sectors and industries; with early examples that demonstrate the Act’s positive potential; as well as real courage for radical solutions. “We need to move away from judging developments on the basis of a potential conflict between the environment and the economy and move to a process where decision-making engages with local people to energise and empower. … The role of the new Commissioner is one that offers us real opportunity. We have the legislation in place to provide real change but we need the Commissioner to deliver it.”

The FDSD board congratulates Sophie Howe on her new role.

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Autumn 2015 Newsletter

In the wake of September’s adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, this second edition of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development’s quarterly newsletter focuses on SDG 16, which aims to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”, among other targets.

The UK, the SDGs, and particularly SDG 16

The UK Government hasn’t yet involved the public or any other stakeholder in discussions about the relevance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for domestic application in the UK. According to BOND’s report on Bringing the Goals Home: Implementing the SDGs in the UK, there has been some discussion across Whitehall, but the results are not publicly available. This is very different to Scotland and Wales, where there has been fairly widespread engagement, and specific commitments made by governments.


Image: UN / Cia Pak

SDG 16, which is the theme for FDSD’s Autumn 2015 Newsletter, focusses on “peace, justice and strong institutions”. It appears as though the UK Government feels this SDG, like the others, is aimed predominantly at ‘developing’ countries. But, like Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) (Goal 12), or reducing inequality (Goal 10), it is applicable to the UK, and in ways which may not have been appreciated.

FDSD is particularly interested in two sub-goals: 16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels; and 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

Given the current challenges to our political system, with widespread disaffection, and a reluctance to move away from centralised policy-making (despite flirtations with somewhat disconnected and limited ‘localism’), these two goals are clearly part of moving towards a more participative, and deliberative democracy. At the same time, a more open and engaged democracy can be more effective at bringing together government, business, the public and civil society, to understand and tackle complex challenges such as climate change, or excessive inequality.

Fellow Trustee Cat Tully talks in her latest Provocation about The critical role of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Our Submission to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Inquiry into “The Government’s Approach to Sustainable Development” also underlines the importance and opportunities for greater participation and accountability to achieve the SDGs and sustainable development more generally. But first, a large part of the UK, and its political representatives, need to recognize that the SDGs are actually relevant.

cifal - SDGs in Elgin Town Hall, Moray

Moray prepares for action & implementation of the SDGs (Image: CIFAL Scotland)

It’s very different in Wales and Scotland. Mind you, if you are based in England or Northern Ireland, you wouldn’t know it by reading the mainstream press which does not seem to have grasped that the SDGs might also be relevant to us. To some extent, the SDGs’ wording emphases reducing poverty in the poorest countries, and its universality, as well as appropriate targets, are either purposely or inadvertently downplayed.

But Wales, inspired by the UN’s WorldWeWant international consultation, took a bottom-up approach to see what people wanted for their future through TheWalesWeWant conversation. The recommendations became part of the Well-being and Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which came into force in July 2015, and whose policies, practice and monitoring stress the importance of ongoing and widespread participation of people and stakeholders (including business) to realise their objectives. It was also the first legislation to mention the SDGs, and how Wales is contributing to them.

Scotland directly addressed the relevance and implications of the SDGs through the creation of a cross-sectoral Post-2015 Working Group, with particular coordination by CIFAL Scotland and NIDOS. It continues to arrange, events and workshops around Scotland to raise awareness of the goals, discuss priorities and explore what might be possible to address them, for example, by engaging the business community. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced that Scotland would sign the goals back in July 2015, and is committed to their adoption both at home and abroad. She cited their compatibility with Scotland’s National Performance Framework, which among other things is focused on tackling inequality.

As we noted in our EAC Submission, the UK Government is already committed to transparency and engagement. It is an active participant in the international Open Government Partnership and the Cabinet Office is leading on Open Policy Making.

The SDGs provide a renewed impetus and necessary excuse to get moving on addressing sustainable development challenges. SDG 16 provides the means to do it effectively, transparently and accountably. The challenge is there for Westminster to catch up with the rest of the UK, start the conversation, and bring people together to make things happen – or else for local authorities, business and civil society to do it themselves.


Open Data supporting democracy, sustainable development and the SDGs

airtrafficvizImage: Air traffic visualisation, NATS Press Office

Open data is a term used to describe data that is free and openly available for anyone to use. Many governments around the world are challenging software developers to help identify applications that help citizens and organization make innovative use of open data. Some US cities have had a number of successes. Examples include apps that leverage vacant city lots or track cyclist activity as a way of planning cycle infrastructure.

The World Bank’s August 2015 policy paper, “Open Data for Sustainable Development” identifies a number of benefits of open data in enabling the monitoring and achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The paper also highlights two areas particularly related to SDG Goal 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Although the collection and use of good data will enable all the goals to be more effectively monitored and reached.

Firstly, the World Bank paper suggests that open data will further accountability because it enables more stakeholders to access data about government performance, thus discouraging and sometimes exposing corruption. The paper notes that, “several national governments are considering open contracting standards, which would bring new transparency to government contracts a move that could increase trust in those governments both among citizens and for foreign investors.”

And secondly, open data also facilitates creative and cooperative sharing of data, which might help in developing more accountable and responsive services. Some governments are providing open data on extractive industries, and indeed The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative offers guidelines for this type of open data.

Ultimately the paper highlights that successful open data initiatives require both willing governments and active communities of programmers and end users who can help leverage the data for good governance outcomes.

You can download the report here (pdf, 1.4MB).


Governance the Key to SDG Success

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the UN

The UN: success of Sustainable Development goals depends very much on process. Image: number10gov/flickrCC BY-NC

James Patterson, Florian Koch, and Kathryn Bowen have written an article examining key governance issues underpinning the success of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals which were adopted in September 2015.

In, “How can we prevent the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals from failing?” the authors highlight factors such as bringing together the right stakeholders, making trade-offs, and building in accountability.

You can read the full article here.

SDGs: precious lever for progress in the UK | Ann Pfeiffer, Green House

Green house AP

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which focus primarily on social development priorities in low-income countries, the Sustainable Development Goals are intended to apply to developing and developed countries alike.

In her Green House essay What do the Sustainable Development Goals mean for the UK?, Ann Pfeiffer argues that underestimating the SDGs “would be to underestimate their ability to provide a means of holding up our own government’s domestic policies on renewable energy, austerity and economic growth to scrutiny on a global stage”. In her view the “current limited approach by the UK government risks giving a superficial interpretation of what the SDGs are designed to achieve.” “If groups that stand to benefit from the Goals do not understand how they can be used in campaigning and fail to take ownership of them from the start, there is a risk that the implementation of the Goals will become diluted and toothless.” Applying the right vision and strategy is key to ensure that they will be a useful lever and powerful indicators of real progress going forward.

 You can download the essay here (pdf, 231 K).

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