New Report: The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change - RSA

New Report: The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change


  • Climate change
  • Social brain

A talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change – Richard Rorty

Today is a climate change bonanza at the RSA. We are hosting ‘Seven Serious Jokes about Climate Change’ tonight (live streamed from 6.30) and launching our paper (co-written with COIN): The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change.

This is a crucial year for climate change. 2014 broke national and global temperature records, and with a UK general election in May and key international negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015, the policy levers for making progress are once again lining up for attention.

But this time, for goodness sake, we need to do what we can to get beyond endlessly drawing attention to the problem and issuing generic calls for ‘action’.

Instead, we need a more acute analysis of why the calls to action are not being heeded, and propose and demonstrate solutions to that problem.

In short, we need to reimagine the world’s toughest problem. This means seeing the full range of opportunities and constraints on climate change, holistically and systemically, and working on multiple fronts simultaneously, while communicating clearly and intelligently. An ambitious goal! But perhaps the reason climate change seems so hard is that we don’t realise just how hard it really is.

Perhaps the reason climate change seems so hard is that we don’t realise just how hard it really is.

The seven dimensions idea was the distillation of my learning from A New Agenda on Climate Change, but to be honest, few people seemed to ‘get it’ at first, and you need strong allies with a firm grasp of the climate problem as a whole to put such ideas to work. In this respect I was delighted that the good people at COIN seemed to immediately grasp the value of the idea, and the need to get it out in to the climate change community (i.e. everybody). I was delighted to have a chance to develop the idea with Adam Corner, initially in the Guardian and now as co-authors of today’s report.

Turning a scientific fact into a social fact

Our starting point is that climate change is not only (or even mostly) about ‘the environment’. A better approach is to start thinking and talking about climate change as a shared challenge with multiple identities – and in this report we explore the ‘Seven Dimensions’ which we think illuminate this unique challenge: Science, Behaviour, Technology, Culture, Law, Economy and Democracy. For each ‘dimension’, we ask what the key challenges are, how progress can be made, and how it links to the other six dimensions.

  • From Science we need a new social contract between scientists and society; moving away from a ‘hands-off’ view of expecting ‘more facts’ to somehow produce deeper engagement with climate policies.

  • With Behaviour we need to face up to ‘stealth denial’ – the fact that the majority of those who understand the problem intellectually don’t live as though they do. From Technology we need deep decarbonisation at scale – we need more and better tools to decarbonise energy, and as quickly as possible.

  • Our Democracy needs to overcome the governance trap – people expect the government to act but government thinks people don’t care about the issue enough; and climate change is a collective action ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem at almost every level.

  • Our Economy needs to invest in the future; this is mostly about moving money away from fossil fuels[1] towards renewables, but is also about getting beyond the fetishisation of economic growth and reimagining economic models and purposes.

  • In Law we need a constraint on extraction at a global level i.e. a legal mechanism to keep fossil fuels in the ground, but we need to be mindful of the steps towards that, and the financial impact (‘carbon bubble’).

  • Throughout our Culture: we need to break ‘climate silence’ and normalise discussions on the issue; moving away from whether it’s happening to what we’re doing about it.

The purpose of this reframing of climate change as an issue with ‘Seven Dimensions’ is to: Highlight the systemic nature of the challenge, and the range of possible solutions. Allow people who might otherwise be disengaged from the challenge to see themselves in it, and identify their scope for action within that domain, rather than be daunted by ‘climate change’ as a whole.

Encourage necessary conversations between individuals and groups across these dimensions, with an emphasis on moving beyond unilateral (e.g. Science alone) or bi-lateral (e.g. Economy to Democracy) connections. Climate change must move from being a scientific to a social fact before any significant progress can be made, which requires a multi-lateral approach.

To differentiate it from broader environmental concerns, but also to clarify what it really means – for people, business and governments – to ‘act’ on climate change with conviction.

This discussion document reflects a work in progress and as such we welcome critical engagement with the ideas presented to help inform the public discussion, and to shape our final report later this year.

The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: A new way to think, talk and act by Dr Jonathan Rowson and Dr Adam Corner is now available for download.

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