A New Agenda on Climate Change - RSA

A New Agenda on Climate Change

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  • Climate change
  • Social brain

‘To know and not to act, is not to know.’ *

‘To know and not to act, is not to know.’ *

Today we are releasing our report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding down on Fossil Fuels.

The piece was covered in The Times earlier today and I have a piece distilling the report in the Guardian. We also experimented with conveying the report's message through Buzzfeed, which will appear soon, and was a lot of fun to create.

The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions. 

The website preamble is copied below, but the main thing I want to convey now is that researching and writing this report really opened my eyes. At the start of the process I  thought of climate change as a problem of emissions, and that the purpose of behaviour change was about using behavioural insights to reducing personal carbon footprints. However, the more I looked into it, the more I felt the issue is unavoidably political, and that 'behaviour change', to be worth its salt, had to connect with the core issue of gradually substituting our energy supply. We can still play nicely, but if you care about climate change, you have to talk about the price of fossil fuels, and think hard about what it would take to keep them in the ground.

Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels

The human response to climate change is unfolding as a political tragedy because scientific knowledge and economic power are pointing in different directions. The knowledge of the reality, causes and implications of anthropogenic climate change creates a moral imperative to act, but this imperative is diluted at every level by collective action problems that appear to be beyond our existing ability to resolve. This challenge is compounded by collectively mischaracterising the climate problem as an exclusively environmental issue, rather than a broader systemic threat to the global financial system, public health and national security.

This report makes a case for how Britain can take a leading role in addressing the global climate problem, based on a new agenda that faces up to pervasive ‘stealth denial’ and the need to focus on keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Our data indicates that about two thirds of the population intellectually accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but ‘deny’ some or all of the commensurate feelings, responsibility and agency that are necessary to deal with it. It is argued that this stealth denial may be what perpetuates the doublethink of trying to minimise carbon emissions while maximising fossil fuel production, and also what makes us expect far too much of energy efficiency gains in the face of a range of rebound effects that lead energy to be used elsewhere.

This report argues that we should focus less on those who question the scientific consensus as if they were the principle barrier to meaningful action. Those who deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change are not at all helpful, but at least they are consistent. One corollary of facing up to stealth denial is that we should turn more of our attention instead to mobilising those who, like the author of this report, fully accept the moral imperative to act, but continue to live as though it were not there.

*- Wang Yang-ming (Neo-Confucian philosopher 1472–1529)

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  • I just read your New Agenda report. On p63 you say:

    “Researchers interested in knowing more are welcome to contact me about this or any other aspect of the survey.”

    I can't find the questionnaire used or the results or the basic
    demographics anywhere. Have they been published? If not, could I possibly have them?

  • Thanks for the comments and to Paul especially for fighting the good fight.

    I already responded to similar issues in the comment thread under the Guardian article linked to above. I think the most salient point to mention here is that highlighting the prevalence of 'stealth denial' is not the same as calling everyone a 'denier' at all.

    I am not too concerned about climate sceptics, many of whom are highly intelligent, informed, and engaged with the issue; and consistent in their political views and personal acts. I think there are very good reasons to think they are mostly wrong and dangerously so, but rather than waste more years and decades trying to prove it even more resolutely than is currently the case, I think we should move on, and focus on two much bigger problems: 1)Denialism- those who actively seek to spread misinformation to protect vested interests and prevent political action, and

    2) 'Stealth denial' - those who accept the reality of the problem but don't live as though they do.

    One purpose of the report is that facing up to 2 will gradually help to undermine 1 and therefore help to shape political will, and by the time that battle is won, most of the sceptics will be won round by further developments in science and in the climate.

    I understand that strategy of eschewing debate on the intricacies of the science must be infuriating for climate sceptics, but in light of the overwhelming scientific consensus I think it's time to play a different game.

  • Actually I agree that current climate models are inadequate. For me there's sufficient evidence that economic activity is disrupting the climate, but no one knows how sensitive the earth system is and how it will respond to rising GHG emissions. My view is that business as usual is not an option and that we should therefore adopt the precautionary principle. We won't of course.

    I enjoyed this article on the inadequacies of modelling: http://aeon.co/magazine/world-...

  • As I said, "Anyone who disputes this central failure of climate science is the one in denial".

    Paul quotes a news item reporting that November was (possibly) the warmest month recorded since 1880. Presumably he does so in the belief that this somehow this negates climate science's prediction failure. If it is correct that he believes that, then he is very clearly in denial of the failure of climate science's models - at one time considered the jewel in its crown.

    If you sat observing a stationary time series*, eventually you would observe a value greater than any previously observed value. That's just the nature of a stationary random process. Above all, it would provide no evidence whatever that the climate predictions documented by the IPCC were correct after all.

    * As every first year statistics student knows, a stationary time series is a sequence of values whose statistics, including the mean or expected value, do not change with time.

  • "Catastrophic climate breakdown is being driven .....the global economic system must also be talked about in our conversations about climate breakdown."

    Have we observed some of the climate breakdown to which you refer, can you give some examples?

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