Climate change action needs more than scientific evidence

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve, a think tank and charity specialising in public participation. Their mission is to inspire, innovate and embed effective citizen engagement, to enable members of the public to take and influence the decisions that affect their lives.

Simon’s guest blog has also been published on this website as a FDSD Provocation.

Image (CC BY 2.0) DncnH / Flickr

Image (CC BY 2.0) DncnH / Flickr

The UN’s Climate Conference in December 2015 achieved a much tougher negotiated agreement than many were expecting, including the first set of commitments by all countries to reduce carbon emissions.

The agreement, hard as it was to achieve, was the easy bit. Moving from commitment to action will be much harder. The reason for this is because we don’t have adequate mechanisms for surfacing the types of debates we need to resolve the tensions and trade-offs that emerge as soon as decisions about carbon reduction are anywhere near the table.

In part this problem is because, as I highlight in our recent publication Room for a View, we don’t have adequate mechanisms for any area of public policy. But it is also a particular feature of the problem that climate change presents.

Climate change is one of a class of public policy problems, which includes genetic modification and a number of other highly technical innovations, where the public debate is almost exclusively framed in scientific terms. In the case of climate change, the public debate largely revolves around the evidence generated from a myriad of scientific disciplines. The evidence generated by, for example, meteorology, hydrology, the physics of the sun. are reviewed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and provide the best estimate of the extent and impact of changes to the earth’s climate as a result of CO­2 emissions.

One thing that climate change has in common with many public policy debates is that the policy options are significantly informed by, and often dictated by, a different science ‒ economics.

Both economics and climate science are important elements of the debate about how to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. In this post, however, I want to argue that they have undue precedence. I believe that we will be unable to take the comprehensive action needed to remove carbon from our economy unless we also draw on other sources of evidence.

Tensions and trade-offs

One of the most important reasons for this need to consider other views, is that the decision to decarbonise the economy raises a series of tensions and trade-offs which come in different forms. Three important, but by no means comprehensive, examples, are trade-offs between: different communities and groups; investment and mitigation; and various visions for the future.

  • Different communities and groups

The debates about the siting of wind farms, for example, highlight the problem that some communities are more likely to be affected by carbon reduction strategies than others. Merely stating the evidence that a particular technology ‒ wind, nuclear or shale gas, for example ‒ is the most technologically and economically efficient mechanism for reducing carbon does not begin to take into account the different perspectives that people will have about the value of their local landscape, the industrial history of their area or the potential income for their family.

A boy plays basketball in front of an oil well that is covered with large colorful flowers. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Faces of Fracking / Flickr

A boy plays basketball in front of an fracking well that is covered with large colorful flowers. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Faces of Fracking / Flickr

Take fracking, as another example, and a particularly live political issue. The national debate is almost exclusively framed in scientific terms around the risk of groundwater contamination, and the extent to which the gas extracted will contribute to carbon reduction targets. It takes no account of, for example, the affected communities’ perspectives about potential increases in noise or changes to the visual landscape. Notwithstanding the on-going debates about the safety and efficacy of fracking, how should these possible localised dis-benefits be balanced against any potential wider benefits to society?

Finally, any serious attempt to decarbonise the economy will see the costs of carbon-based energy rise. During this transition, the overall costs of energy are likely to increase, particularly as the new technologies required to produce renewable energy are likely to be more expensive during their early stages. The relative impact of these costs are likely to be higher for poorer families and communities than for society as a whole.

All three of these examples highlight that there is no right or wrong answer. Any course of action, as with any policy decision, will create winners and losers. Buried within these losses and gains are very different perspectives on what is valuable ‒ for example, the value of a particular landscape, versus the value of someone’s livelihood.

  • Investment in mitigation or adaptation

Public resources are constrained. Investment in technology for climate change mitigation, funding insulation to reduce energy use by poorer families, or the cost of relief for industries in energy transition, for example, will reduce funding for other public policy choices, including adaptation.

The devastating impact of the UK floods, over December 2015 and into January 2016, demonstrate the challenges any government will face if emerging crises suggest that it has not prioritised adaptation. And yet there is no serious debate about the choices our society needs to make between mitigation and adaptation. Given that the adaptation budget itself is finite (and small compared to the problem) where is the debate about how to prioritise this kind of spending?

  • Visions of the future

We aren’t part way down a pre-determined path towards a better future. The choices we make now will determine the future that we and our children will live in. A significant, and hidden, debate at the heart of the climate change challenge is about different visions of a better world. It encompasses the whole of public policy from the best way to produce our energy, distributed and community owned, or centralised and by financially profitable companies, to the extent to which we should live with nature and ‘rewild’ our ecosystems, or reshape nature to support the way we live now.

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0) Martin Fisch / Flickr

Image (CC BY-SA 2.0) Martin Fisch / Flickr

Changing how government works and listens

Climate science and economic modelling are presented as the sole frames for the debate about both the problem and the solution. However, the three examples above demonstrate that they are just the starting point for a much deeper set of debates that need space and time to be aired and feed into policy debate.

The solution is not to ditch either climate science or economics. Both provide critical boundaries for the debate. Just as there is a finite amount of carbon we can pump into the atmosphere before life on earth becomes unsustainable, there isn’t an unlimited supply of money available to solve the problems we have created for ourselves and our children.

Climate science and economics provide boundaries for our policy decisions, but don’t define them. It’s a bit like triangulating the position of a boat in the open ocean. Signals from only a couple of transponders can provide certainty about the area of the sea in which the boat is in, but they aren’t enough to define its absolute position. (I am shamelessly stealing a metaphor I first heard from Andy Stirling of SPRU, who also used it much more elegantly.)

A key challenge in our fight to stabilise the earth’s temperature is how to surface these necessary, alternative debates, viewpoints and perspectives. More than this, we need to find ways to do so in ways that policy makers can hear, understand and act on in a timely fashion.

Fundamentally, this will require the business of government to be pursued in a very different way. It means that politicians and civil servants will have to be much more open to alternative perspectives and ways of seeing the world. They will need to become more facilitative in the way they work. They will also need to move away from the model that sees them attempt to lead from the front, like heroes of old. Instead, they need to create time and space for alternative perspectives and views to be expressed and interact.

More than this, they need to understand that the public are already having the kinds of debates I identify above. Parliament and Whitehall will have to find new ways to tap into existing networks and spaces, and join these conversations as equals (as opposed to assuming a position of power and extracting what is needed and moving on). And they will also have to recognise that communities and individuals bring many assets that can help provide parts of the solution, but only if built on a relationship of greater equality.

Government will need to stick with policy questions for far longer than it does currently in order to build the trusting relationships necessary for networked and asset-based approaches. Paradoxically, given the urgency of the climate challenge, government will need to slow down and do less if it is to truly surface, engage with, and act on, the multitude of perspectives, views and assets that lie in our communities.

Government needs above all to shift perspective from a reliance on highly technical evidence, to one that recognises other forms of evidence and gives them equal weight to that of climate science and economics.

Managing the Psychological Distance of Climate Change


Image (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Dalio Photo / Flickr

Climate change is a notoriously ‘distant’ risk for most people. We hear about it in the news, but it rarely seems relevant to our everyday life – “it feels ‘not here’ and it feels ‘not now’”. This sense of non-urgency couldn’t be further away from the actual impact that the rise in global temperature is having already. Wider public awareness will be vital for the democratic processes that are so urgent to bring about transitional policies and practices.

Climate Outreach’s new guide outlines current thinking about how to respond to the significant numbers of people who still perceive climate change as something unlikely to have an impact on them. In arguing that bringing the issue ‘closer to home’ is the best way to engage the wider public, the guide provides useful advice on how to overcome specific aspects of individual psychological distance.

The strategies suggested may not always be appropriate or effective, the authors explain, as successfully managing the psychological distance of climate change requires an audience-specific approach. There is a lot of research to support the idea that reducing the psychological distance of climate change is important, but this guide explains why it may not be as straightforward as simply focusing on the ‘local’ rather than ‘global’ aspects of the issue.

Climate Outreach has also created the Climate Visuals website, aiming to be “a practical bridge between research and practice, and to be a tool for people to use in their work.” For more information on their activities, visit the Climate Outreach website. The guide can be downloaded here.

Climate change action needs widespread democratic change

Image (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) Aidan McMichael / Flickr

Image (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) Aidan McMichael / Flickr

This blog first appeared on the Involve website – January 8, 2016; and has just been published on the Democratic Audit UK website on January 14, 2016.

COP21, the UN’s December 2015 Climate Change Conference, created a toughly negotiated agreement with space to improve targets and aspirations.

To repeat the obvious, the focus is now on implementation. But by whom, where and how? And to what extent might we even need to change our current democratic system to help make these changes a reality?

Simon Burall’s Involve report Room for a View: Democracy as a Deliberative System  suggests part of the answer. He argues that we need to widen our discussions of democratic reform away from just electoral models and representation, to being “equally concerned with the range of views and narratives present and how they interact”. In other words, we need to look at how far our current political system supports widespread discussions as a way to enhance the health and effectiveness of our democracy.

Unfortunately his review of the current state of the UK’s political system and capacity for deliberation concludes that it is “fragile … [and] in general getting worse”.

This assessment is worrying, not just because any decent democracy needs to hear and incorporate all views and perspectives, but because we also need widespread engagement in finding, negotiating and implementing solutions. In an increasingly complex and fragmented world, we need more debate and discussion as well as more widely distributed, and possibly toughly negotiated action, throughout the economy and society.

Climate change provides a good example of where we constantly come up against the challenges of balancing short-term political and adversarial decision making, as well as multiple interests and viewpoints, with attempts at long-term agreement over goals and the best ways to achieve them.

As a result, many people have argued that if only politicians could agree with each other then more and faster progress would be made. Back in 2006, the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG) asked “Is a Cross-Party Consensus on Climate Change Possible – Or Desirable?”. Their generally positive conclusion provided a range of recommendations, mostly unimplemented but probably part of a supportive political environment which led to the 2008 Climate Change Act including the creation of the independent Committee on Climate Change.

Before the 2015 General Election, the then three main parties – Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour ‒ made a cross-party agreement on climate change, initiated by Green Alliance and other stakeholders. They pledged to jointly seek a global climate deal limiting temperature rises to below 2C, a carbon budget in accordance with the Climate Change Act, and a new commitment to accelerate transitions to a competitive energy efficient low carbon economy, while ending coal power generation.

However, cross-party consensus can gloss over necessary debates and differences of opinion on how to implement.

And it also seems as though, this, generally mostly forgotten agreement, resulted in climate change being virtually invisible in the election debates and discussions. Whilst Simon Burall argues in his report that “elections rarely reveal what voters think clearly enough for elected representatives to act on”, he also notes that even in a widely deliberative system, elections can enable a variety of voices and views to be heard and debated very publicly. And in our current political system, any, even if unanimous, avoidance of issues limits their chance of being prioritised and debated.

Widespread public discussion is particularly crucial for any attempt to practically, rather than rhetorically, accelerate “transitions to a competitive energy efficiency low carbon economy” and to meet our COP21 commitments. It is fairly obvious that there will need to be tough negotiations between competing policies, stakeholder interests and joint problem-solving to make this happen at the speed required, and across all necessary areas and sectors. And not just at election time.

We will need to open up and increase our democratic spaces to make systemic and complex change happen in an accountable and relatively linked way. That might be, for example, through creating different kinds of multi-stakeholder partnerships, as well as new public spaces at different spatial and sectoral levels. It’s time, not only to refocus the lens of democratic reform on recognising and incorporating diverse views, but also to consider how to bring these together wherever and whenever needed to work out (or indeed sometimes thrash out) how best to tackle some of the most important and long-term challenges we face.

COP21 – the sound of the bell for system change

Paris (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Jean-Pierre Chambard /

Paris (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Jean-Pierre Chambard /

“Habemus consensus!” a Huffington Post article reads, summarising the sanguine diplomatic outcome of the COP21 conference in Paris. It might not be as binding as hoped by the hundreds of thousands of people engaging in the climate march; it does, however, signify a much needed paradigm-shift.

While French Foreign minister Laurent Fabius was widely praised for his outstanding skills and engagement as key faciliator of the COP21 agreement, “indaba”, a negotiation technique used to simplify discussions between many parties, seems to have helped bringing the 195 countries to consensus.

The historic agreement doesn’t come a minute too early, Alex Evans, Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, would argue. He was involved in facilitating the rather striking Call to Earth – A message from the World’s Astronauts to COP21, a plea for reason recorded at the International Space Station.

Back on earth, in arguing that “if we want a future based on social, economic and environmental justice, we have to organise for it now”, the New Economics Foundation compiled a useful list of six websites all campaigners should know about; assuming that constant learning within the system change community is vital for informed and generous movements.

Businesses are a major part of the transition and organise themselves too into powerful movements, as Nick Molho, Chief Executive of the Aldersgate Group, exemplifies. In his recent article for The Economist, he is urging the UK Government to reconsider some of its “rather incoherent policy decisions in recent weeks” and to re-align its goals in order to help tanslating the international success into ambitious domestic policy. In mid January 2016, the Aldersgate Group and Lloyd’s of London will be holding a joint event to explore the progress made at the climate change summit in Paris and the implications for the business community.

How the arts can help convey the message of climate change to the wider population is sympathetically explored on the Huffington Post website. With that and a re-link to our recent submission to the EAC’s consultation on The Government’s Approach to Sustainable Development, the FDSD team would like to wish its followers pleasant holidays and a happy new year.

Follow the Leaders by Isaac Cordal (CC BY 2.0) Objectif Nantes /

Follow the Leaders by Isaac Cordal (CC BY 2.0) Objectif Nantes /


People’s Climate March 2015 – largest mobilisation in history


Image (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) The Weekly Bull /

On 29 November 2015, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world joined the biggest day of climate change activism in history. 785.000 citizens participated in 2,300 events in 175 countries and thousands of cities to march for a clean energy future, aiming to influence the crucial climate talks in Paris, early December. Photo impressions from the worldwide demonstration can be found on the Avaaz-website and on


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.”

Related links

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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