Public engagement & climate change 2

It is the beliefs and values that our citizens bring to such difficult debates which puts breath into the inanimate skeleton of scientific knowledge. Censor or mock beliefs, and we are nothing: our knowledge counts for naught. – Mike Hulme ((In Andy Revkin’s discussion on whether scientists are from Mars and the public are from Venus, Dot Earth, June 2010

In the latter months of last year and the earlier months of this one, public debate on climate change became particularly charged and divided. The media’s fragmented reporting became more and more confused following a cold Northern hemisphere winter and the CRU email-hack, dribbling out contradictory reports about apparent (later largely disproved) IPCC mistakes, and there seemed to be disagreement between everyone. As an organisation thinking about various ways of communicating climate change, we started thinking about the broad idea of ‘public engagement’ and whether it could usefully be applied to discussing climate change. Public engagement – an umbrella term for a set of different approaches to getting citizens involved in issues to do with pretty much anything, usually related to society or politics – has become a widely used tool in decision-making processes in the last ten years.

In September last year, the Danish Board of Technology initiated an international discussion on climate change – World Wide Views on Climate Change – which involved a total of 4400 people in 38 countries sitting down and talking about what they believed about climate change, emissions targets, the whole issue. We started to wonder about whether you could do something similar but getting scientists participating too, and we stumbled across the consensus conference model, which involved getting citizens and ‘experts’ together on separate panels – the citizens taking charge, the experts inputting when invited. It was like a citizens’ jury, but with a lot more control for the citizens, and a really deliberative process, and we wondered whether it could be used.

Looking back at our original thinking, it was pretty reactive. The debate looked like a mess, so it felt right to suggest an intervention to get everyone talking; to overcome the real disconnect and lack of understanding on all sides – how the scientists think of the public, how the public think of the scientists, and the an endemic problem of media representation of the science. An illustration of this latter point: searching the Press Complaints Commission’s website shows 17 results for the word ‘science’ (a pretty broad thing); of the eight actually related to scientific research, four are about climate change. And these ‘controversies’ portrayed in the media have a real impact – the issue was beautifully graphed recently showing public perception of climate change in comparison with media reports and scientific opinion – unsurprisingly almost an exact match (26%) with media ‘belief in climate change’ (28%), and way off scientific opinion (97%) ((See:

So the initial problem seemed to be putting a fragmented debate back together. We, as with other commentators, struggled with how 20 years of progress in raising awareness at a public and political level on the issue had been brought, seemingly, so quickly to its knees. But as we talked more with people who know a lot more about this, and as we thought about it, we happened upon the notion that the issues with the scientists and the media and the public were actually just symptomatic of an underlying sociological problem. In a vague nutshell, this is ‘science in society’ and it’s an argument that’s been made by others. ‘Science’ has been given an elevated position in society, and we are often told, for example, that ‘the science tell us’ that we must do things, without the necessary qualifiers ‘if you consider this a risk’, ‘if you value this and that’, ‘if you want more than a 60% chance of living past the age of 70’ – which make the issue much less cut-and-dried.

Climate change discourse and policy discussion is in fact not just an issue of hard science and weighing up evidence or expert opinion. It may sound like a very basic point to make, but weighing up evidence itself is a subjective task. I thought this recently while reading (‘sceptic’) Nigel Lawson’s rambling An Appeal to Reason – A cool look at global warming. In one of his ‘cool looks’ at the evidence, he had come to the conclusion that as poor countries could be as much as 45 times richer in a hundred years, it didn’t really matter what climatic changes inflicted themselves on them ((Nigel Lawson, An Appeal to Reason, p23-38)). Not quite as enamoured with neo-liberalism as Lawson, my reaction to exactly the same ‘evidence’ involves a lot more concern. Firstly, it is not at all evident to me that even if this were the case, the miraculous new wealth would be distributed evenly amongst the populations of these countries. Secondly, I consider the increased risk of large changes which could effectively make a place uninhabitable, and the probability of more intense and frequent extreme weather events (posing huge shocks to vulnerable populations), an unacceptable prospect for it to be worth it even if there was an increase in a country’s wealth. But this is effectively a question of values and ideology rather than any science. This was a bit of a revelation.

So the issue is not just about people ‘believing’ in climate change or not, or understanding the science, it’s a whole host of other issues too. I heard Brian Wynne talk this year, and to paraphrase him, he said “science should inform policy, but it often dictates the terms of the debate too. In letting this occur, we are letting science dictate meaning’’. He wasn’t referring to climate change, but we can apply the same thinking to this issue. In discussing ‘dangerous climate change’, or proposing particular policy, we don’t always hear, or even think about, what values or sociopolitical structures are encompassed and reinforced by them. There is hidden meaning in presented information – when the Sun puts the word ‘bender’ in the headline about a gay man, they are condoning a level of homophobia, for example ((See: (though this is arguably not so hidden). Mike Hulme similarly touched on the relationship between science and meaning in a Wall Street Journal piece last year;

The problem then with getting our relationship with science wrong is simple: We expect too much certainty, and hence clarity, about what should be done. Consequently, we fail to engage in honest and robust argument about our competing political visions and ethical values ((In Andy Revkin’s discussion on whether scientists are from Mars and the public are from Venus, Dot Earth, June 2010

In the eyes of a hypothetical self-interested individual – we’ll say she has no children, is in a high income bracket, and lives in Leeds – there is actually little motivation to take action on climate change, or even think about whether it’s ‘real’ or not. In her lifetime, summers may get warmer, floods may get more common in the UK, but she is in a low enough risk group to be relatively unaffected by these things. Trade routes and a lot of produce could be hugely affected by a number of things and exacerbated by climate change, but this is unlikely to be a matter of life and death. Even in worst case scenarios, whereby areas of the world become uninhabitable through resource scarcity and/or conflict, and there are influxes of ‘climate refugees’, she’s not going to be particularly impacted. And these things are huge maybes anyway. ‘Dangerous climate change’ is not going to be here. This ‘we’re all in it together’ thing is actually a bit ‘all animals are equal’ in that ‘some animals are more equal than others’. So what values are we talking about when we talk about climate change? We’re invoking the point that we live in an interconnected world, and that (to varying degrees) we care about the fate of the other people on the planet who aren’t ourselves. But there are those who value these things differently. So, as Mike Hulme continues on to argue in his WSJ piece,

[The fallout from the CRU email hack may] enable science to function in the effective way it must do in public policy deliberations: not as the place where we import all of our legitimate disagreements, but one powerful way of offering insight about how the world works and the potential consequences of different policy choices. The important arguments about political beliefs and ethical values can then take place in open and free democracies, in those public spaces we have created for political argumentation [emphasis added].

As well as the missing discussions about the values involved in climate change science, impacts, and politics, the ‘swifthack’ pulled by the sceptics was enabled by the fragility of people’s engagement with climate change. Climate change has at times had a ‘faddish’ feel about it – it has been a superficial add-on to our lives, rather than – as many are calling for – a rethink of our underlying social structures. Climate change, a complex, ‘wicked’ problem, has not been mainstreamed into our consciousness, leaving policy, science and media assertions of its existence vulnerable. It would be pretty hard for the Sun to run an article about the discovery that gravity didn’t really exist without its whole readership checking the date for April Fools’, for example. But with climate change, the media’s near-monopoly on information has allowed a few the power to make the whole issue a bit farcical. It also doesn’t have a personal ‘hook’ for a lot of people – stories about red wine’s health effects, on the other hand, are easily related to. The media’s power over public knowledge isn’t something noticed only by ‘observers’; PricewaterhouseCoopers recently commissioned a citizens’ jury on the spending deficit, and one expressed sentiment highlighted was participants’ concern about their ‘apparent reliance on the “drip drip” of media announcements to inform’ them.

Public engagement therefore seems a necessary part of conducting the important arguments Mike Hulme refers to. So what does it look like? The most common and basic method of involving the public is the opinion poll – giving decision-makers a glimpse into popular take on issues. However, these are pretty limited in what they can tell you. What does the ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t mind’ response really mean, for example? There can actually be a lot in this response other than a lack of knowledge or indifference; namely, fear and apprehension, or an appreciation for both sides, if the question has not allowed for adequate flexibility. The lack of real engagement or participation shows in the transience of results. Obviously, large events should change people’s minds – consider Nick Clegg’s 64-point approval rating drop in a 3 month period – but it’s also worth considering if people had read everything Nick Clegg had written, and had an honest answer about what he would do and what he would compromise in a coalition government – in other words, been really engaged in Nick Clegg – whether the coalition forming and subsequent policy outcomes would have impacted his approval rating so deeply – regardless of whether it had been so high in the first place.

A step up from this in public engagement is deliberative polling, where members of the public are given information on specific subjects and allowed time to give more detailed and considered responses to questions. And at the other end of the scale are more participatory approaches where public input is an integrated part of a decision-making process – such as consultations, citizens’ juries or consensus conferences. These generally involve a small (10 – 100) group of people being brought together for a period of time (a few hours to a few weeks) and discussing a particular issue or set of issues, sometimes with the input of ‘experts’ or ‘witnesses’. They then produce some sort of report, which is sometimes incorporated in decision making. Consultations have become a recognised part of decision-making, and the citizen’s jury became similarly popular under New Labour. However, they became a somewhat hackneyed concept, viewed by some as little more than political tools, used to legitimise decisions already made, and as PR.  As Matt Nisbett argues (though talking about a US context), these methods are sometimes;

…somewhat analogous to how democracy building is often thought of relative to foreign policy: The U.S. invests in democracy building in countries, but the implicit goal and assumption is that the outcome will lead countries to be direct allies of the U.S. If this doesn’t happen, then democracy building is considered to have failed ((In his input Andy Revkin’s discussion on whether scientists are from Mars and the public are from Venus, Dot Earth, June 2010

There is, for example, the anecdote about the decision-makers’ reasoning that they had just got the ‘wrong public’ after a citizens’ jury still refused to ‘get on board’ with the idea of GM as the future of Britain’s food.

There are lots of researched benefits to more participatory approaches; psychological and sociological evidence says that when people feel involved and included, they are empowered, more likely to act on issues, and happier ((See, for example, the stuff from PADHI about exercising participation  and its contribution to wellbeing: – there are both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons to involve citizens in decision-making. But these current methods aren’t allowing enough of this control. Involve, the organisation that coordinated the UK part of the World Wide Views on climate change discussion, recently published a pamphlet Talking for a Change: A Distributed Dialogue Approach to Complex Issues. In it, they propose an evolved version of this kind of participatory approach which isn’t just an obligatory add-on, but a continuous, consistent and iterative process whereby citizens are a critical part of decision making. They highlight the type of complex issues that need these approaches: ones that are inter-generational, international, and uncertain, like climate change. The idea has several benefits. The ‘public’ get a voice, decision-makers hear what the public think. The debate also moves away from its caricatured dichotomy – recognising that the majority of people aren’t on sides. They just have a range of understandings, opinions and related values, which may lack articulation or even recognition. The idea of deeper participatory methods was also proposed by the (late?) Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) earlier this year ((See:, and has been discussed by Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) ((See:

Involve’s proposal for distributed dialogue implicates the participation of communities and pre-existent groups – they talk about devolution of participation, launched from the centre but involving a variety of local actors. So you could have church groups and rugby clubs involved in talking about climate change – encouraging people to realistically think about issues in comfortable and natural environments. They also suggest using lots of different approaches. Conscious of impact and effectiveness, it’s recommended that public engagement should be well-promoted, and have a planned method of contributing to policy making. And lastly, the processes should be open and flexible. Talking for a Change gives several case studies, for example ‘participatory budgeting’ (PB) in Brazil, which involves 40,000 people a year in budgetary assemblies to decide on spending. PB has a lot of reported success in decreasing poverty and redistributing resources. Ideas like this should become a model for how we move forward in talking about the complicated issues we’re facing.

To qualify, I recognise that even discussing these ideas is in itself part of a value system. Public engagement of this sort is about a particular view of democracy. It is about valuing the public, for one thing – not just as consumers or voters or audience members but as active participants in society. It is also a tool, for use in reaching goals, such as an active citizenship. And proposing its use in the climate change debate is based on my view that the mess it has become is symptomatic of deeper issues with our society and public debate, including an unhelpful divide between those with ‘knowledge’, and those ‘without’; an inactive and often frustrated citizenship; and a societal avoidance of talking properly about the meaning behind our policies and behaviour. Whether others agree or not with these values isn’t the point; the point is, we should be talking about them.

This is the momentum of democracy. In the long run, it will also be the best thing for science. – Daniel Sarewitz ((Nature, August 2010.


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