The current rate of environmental change is unprecedented in Earth’s history and many aspects of climate change are understood. Yet, others are not. Scientists can say with a high confidence that temperatures and sea level rise – but continue to remain uncertain on the scale and speed of such processes. Policy makers are now challenged to make decisions that possess long term repercussions on the basis of information that is deemed uncertain. However, it is not just the science that may appear incomplete – social, economic and regulatory trends also remain unpredictable.
It is this relationship between policy and an uncertain environment that was the focus of the Cabot Institute’s Uncertain World: Question Time event on 21 October 2015. Chaired by Andrew Kelly of the Festival of Ideas, the panel included: Bristol Mayor George Ferguson; Bristol Youth Mayor Neha Mehta; Leo Hickman of the Carbon Brief; Peter Macfadyen, former Mayor of Frome and a leader in the Transition Town movement; and Ann Cousins, a Sustainability Consultant at Arup.
This Question Time event forms part of a wider ongoing dialogue between the Cabot Institute and the Bristol public, based on making climate-based uncertainty real, relevant and personal for all – whilst exploring what climate change means for this city and its inhabitants.
As George Ferguson said in his opening statement, “the stars do seem aligned for Bristol”. This is true – the city is European Green Capital, one of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities, and possesses a vibrant sense of community that previous conversations have drawn upon. Recent surveys have shown that over two thirds of the city’s population are concerned with the effects of climate change – as a local and a global issue. This provides a clear mandate for this city, and for its leaders to act.
Yet, as Ann Cousins and Leo Hickman argued, it is not just the traditional decision makers who must make these changes. The inspiration of figureheads cannot occur in a vacuum. We are all leaders – be it via changing our own behaviour or by engaging with others to change theirs.
What became particularly evident in discussions at the public dialogue event was the focus on the local community to meet uncertainty. It is this pooling of risk that resulted in some of our most innovative, and important, social institutions – with the NHS providing just one example. In the face of increased social uncertainty today, many have independently set up food banks and swap-shops – resulting in cooperative ventures and the circular economy becoming more commonplace. It is no secret that the effects of climate change will be first felt at the local level – and it is this pooling of risk that provides an important route to adaptation.
As Frome has shown – and Peter Macfadyen voiced – the answer lies at the community level. For meaningful change, policy must move beyond mere nudge theory and towards tipping points. Change can only occur by giving people agency – by inspiring them to embrace individual mitigation and adaptation strategies. From decreased wastage to selling the car and waiting at the bus stop. This cannot occur in isolation – it must embrace the complexity of climate change as a social issue and link it directly to the lives we live. Radical change will be necessary but it will be a quiet revolution, based on information and engagement.
Although there may be wide agreement that climate change is occurring – there is often a popular disconnect between the phenomena and its consequences for us as societies and individuals. When the media talk about climate change scepticism, they are usually referring to people who are uncertain about the reality or seriousness of climate change. Psychologists at the University of Illinois have found an important discrepancy between how the term ‘uncertainty’ is meant in scientific reports and how it is interpreted by others. This is a problem when the 2013 report of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change used the term over 2200 times – approximately 1.5 times per page of the report of the working group alone.
A number of the event’s questions focused on the need for radical change in Bristol – including the pedestrianisation of the M32, Oslo’s ban on cars, and a policies on inter-community recycling and reuse. This struck me – the desire for radical change was near-unanimous. But, how representative of this is Bristol as a whole? Many still posses a tunnelled vision and a drawbridge mentality in their understanding of shifting climates – “it’s not affecting me, why should I care?” Priorities lie elsewhere: securing basic needs, prosperity, health, etc. Sadly, climate change doesn’t possess the minds of many.
Climate change continues to feel distant. A question for science, rather than society. We have seen the images of Hurricane Sandy and of sea level rise – but these are from a different world, a great distance from our front doors. The biggest question of the night for me will continue to plague me for a while longer: Has Bristol felt climate change enough to cause this behavioural change on an individual level? And, if not what will it take?
This blog post was written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict. It was originally posted on the Cabot Institute blog.
Image: The Question Time panel, left to right: Neha Mehta, Ann Cousins, Peter Macfadyen, Leo Hickman, George Ferguson, Andrew Kelly.