Why public engagement with climate change needs a rethink
This post is by Jason Chilvers and Helen Pallett of the 3S (Science, Society & Sustainability) Research group, at the University of East Anglia
The drive to engage wider society around energy and climate change in recent years has been impressive. There have been many examples of impactful government-led programmes, such as Sciencewise’s public dialogues, the Behavioural Insights Team, and community energy projects. An increasing appetite for engagement has also swept across civil society groups, academics and the private sector.
Yet existing approaches are still not rising to the sheer scale of the low carbon challenge. In many cases people feel shut out and ignored when it comes to key decisions and developments in the UK’s energy transition. Just look at the recent decision to allow horizontal fracking in Lancashire or to build a third runway at Heathrow.
A piecemeal approach isn’t enough
When it comes to positive low carbon policies and technologies, like smart energy technologies, public concerns and resistance threaten to derail urgent implementation. Most behaviour change programmes are delivering only marginal gains, side-stepping deeper forces driving unsustainable consumption.
In short, existing forms of societal engagement are not generating the speed or magnitude of change required by the 2015 Paris agreement and the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act.
Our research, funded by the UK Energy Research Centre, reported in a recent open access academic paper and policy brief, suggests a major reason for this malaise is the piecemeal, isolated and ‘one-off’ approach to public engagement with energy and climate change. For example, different government departments and research funding programmes house separate parts of the wider ‘engagement mix’, like public deliberation, behaviour change or community energy.
Without taking a more joined up approach, policy makers will not have the necessary evidence to properly account for diverse citizen concerns, to appreciate people’s low carbon actions that often go under the radar or to exploit the synergies between otherwise isolated public engagements. This could seriously undermine the radical societal and technological changes needed to address climate change.
We advocate a whole systems view of public engagement. In our work we have developed a new method to map diverse engagement activities across the low carbon energy system, acknowledging the interconnections and overlaps that exist, helping system actors to see the bigger picture.
Better evidence of action is needed
In this project we have seen early indications that this approach can lead to better, more comprehensive evidence about public responses and actions around energy and climate change, which can be put to good use by policy makers, businesses, academics and civil society.
Our mapping has produced more comprehensive and nuanced evidence than ever before about public concerns related to the energy system. For example, around the issue of fracking we have identified not only concerns about the earthquake risks and human health, but also broader concerns relating to the UK energy mix, equity and justice, and the direction of travel of the energy system. Around emerging smart technologies, we have not only identified potential barriers to implementation and the impact of these technologies, but also new worries about governance and privacy.
The mapping also reveals emerging social innovations and bottom-up actions, such as DIY movements creating their own solar panels or participatory art projects that are getting people talking about energy climate change. Ongoing evidence about these forms of citizen action, such as the information we have collected, can be harnessed to aid low carbon transitions. For instance, it can help to identify small but successful citizen-led actions, such as makerspaces creating solar panels and other low carbon technologies, which could be quickly boosted with well-targeted funding or other policy support. Conversely, it might identify already successful movements, like community energy, which are threatened by recent policy changes.
And there are productive interconnections. For example, a notable anti-fracking protest in Balcombe has become a community energy project, and several behaviour change initiatives have encouraged participants to engage with policies around energy and climate change. Policy makers could make more of these potential connections, which at first might seem irrelevant. Using systematic mapping evidence which flags potential connections, they can see where productive transformations could be replicated.
A public observatory for energy and low carbon transitions
The implications of this approach are quite radical, in that they suggest a change in focus away from instances of one-off public participation. And, from the interest we’ve had in the idea from policy makers, companies and civil society organisations, there is clearly an appetite for a new approach.
New methods, like our mapping, have much to offer energy research and policy. They could form the basis of new systems of evidence and policy advice, such as our recommendation for a UK observatory of public engagement with energy. This would provide ongoing social intelligence and enhance the capacity of the government and other organisations to respond to emerging public attitudes to energy system change.
Working with a range of partners in government, industry and civil society we are now building these ideas from our research into a new nationwide programme for citizen centred low carbon transitions.