The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change report - RSA

The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: Introducing a new way to think, talk, and act

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  • Community and place-based action
  • Environment

Einstein said everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. So what's the right kind of simple for the world's most complex challenge?

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In this discussion document, produced to provoke feedback ahead of a final report later this year, we argue that climate change is best understood as a challenge with seven dimensions:

  • In Science we need a new social contract between scientists and society; moving away from a hands off view of just giving the facts towards deeper engagement with communication and policy.

  • 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 collective action problems generally prevail.

  • Our Economy needs to invest in the future; which is mostly about sending money away from fossil fuels towards renewables, but may also be about rethinking economic growth models.

  • 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 financial impact of that ('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 is to:

  1. Highlight the systemic nature of the challenge, and the range of possible solutions.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

The report looks at some of the main issues in each of the seven dimensions, and begins to explore why seeing the problem through this lens might help to accelerate constructive action on climate change.


Picture of Dr Jonathan Rowson
Director, Perspectiva

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  • Sorry to disturb the green millpond of the RSA but I think that Trump may be right. "Paris" is ineffectual, in part because the measures suggested would cripple western economies, reducing productivity and allowing others who do not respect the supposed virtues of renewable energy to fill the gap while using more coal, oil and gas. Do we really want to outsource all our remaining manufacturing to China and India? Besides, there is no so-called "consensus". Engineers know that existing alternative technologies are unreliable, ruinously expensive and cause serious environmental harm. Many believe that a little more carbon dioxide in the air will contribute to agricultural productivity while making negligible impact on long-term warming. Forget the computer model forecasts and study the actual measurements!

  • Agree Michael - it's a great report, hopefully we can further the debate on this page.

    I think "Time" is missing from these dimensions. Both in terms of history (geological, human, ecosystems) and the future (what do people expect when they think of "progress"?). The dominant view is that the way we consume and use energy now is normal. Over millenia, it just isn't it. Up until the Industrial Revolution it seems we lived pretty sustainably, if you look at CO2 production.

    The report Charmain links too is fascinating. Chapter 1 has a superb explanation of how the economy "is – and always has been – a surplus energy equation, governed by the laws of thermodynamics, not those of the market."

    The points Charmaine raises about EROI are critical to this, yet all this is hidden by the machinery of modern life. As a designer I'm increasingly aware that the products that consume, and waste, the most energy have been designed to make it all appear magical. When did you last actually see the fuel that goes in your car? You don't see it, you don't see the wasted heat from your engine nor the invisible emissions. You just see a little dial on the dashboard.

    As the report says:

     "A single US gallon of gasoline delivers work equivalent to between 360 and 490 hours of strenuous human labour, labour which would cost perhaps $6,500 if it were paid for at prevailing rates. Of the energy – a term coterminous with ‘work’ – consumed in Western societies, well over 99% comes from exogenous sources, and probably less than 0.7% from human effort."

    Lucky us.

  • There are a number of interesting - and provocative - comments here, but I don't see much sign of a discussion of this "discussion document" - where is it going?

  • "Reaffirming the Social Contract Between Science and Society" - an interesting commentary (from the perspective of science) from Bill Hooke, Associate Executive Director of the American Meteorological Society can be found at

    An extract:

    Stresses over the past decade or so have frayed the fabric of the social contract between scientists and society. The complexity and costs of science have been growing. Urgent societal challenges (in education, environmental protection, foreign relations, maintenance of aging critical infrastructure, national security, public health, and more) demand quick fixes even as they compete with the funding for science. Society has asked scientists for more help, even as research budgets have remained relatively constant. Relations have been strained on both sides.

    How have we faced these new stresses? Unfortunately, many scientists have responded by resorting to advocacy. Worse, we’ve too often dumbed down our lobbying until it’s little more than simplistic, orchestrated, self-serving pleas for increased research funding, accompanied at times by the merest smidgen of supporting argument.

  • This is a really interesting start of a process on how we get real climate change into action at a serious level.  However the analysis in the report misses out a few aspects which are significant to how and where we choose to go to change the present trajectory towards the end of our society within a few years.

    The links between climate change and the "imperatives" driving our present world system  are hinted at but appear to be one of those things "not talked about" in this report as being too difficult. It is vital that we address key drivers such as the structure of money ie it is created out of thin air by lending which has to be paid back through interest and capital payments, which drives the need for economic growth, and the neo-classical economic approach to capitalism which drives ever more seriously uneconomic growth by leaving the payment of externalities to the masses rather than the corporations  and the major fossil fuel vested interests. It is these two things which put us where we are now in regard to climate change.

    As regards moving to a low carbon society the report seems to focus on the change to renewable energy supply, which obviously has to happen fast. However the keys to success in moving this way fast enough are stopping investing in any more fossil fuel extraction or using infrastructure- ie  no more coal mines or ports or power stations- these all lock us into high carbon use for 40 years or more- too long for keeping below 2 degrees temperature rise.  The other element of the move to a low carbon society is to recognise that we have to move to dramatically lower demands on the energy system by reducing demand, increasing efficiency and stopping buying new stuff (which is around half of our individual carbon foot print in the UK, according to some analyses).  So suggesting we allow fracking in the UK is precisely what we should  not do- when in a hole, stop digging...

    Other key points are two:-

    1 all energy exploitation renewable or otherwise is subject to physical constraints limited by the Energy Return on Energy Invested, ie for every unit of energy for sale a certain amount of energy has been expended to get there. Oil used to be 100:1, in the 1970s it was around 30:1, tar sands and deep sea oil  are 3:1 ie around one third of the energy is used up in extracting and refining it for the market. Renewables vary from 1:1 for corn ethanol ( ie a complete waste of time) to 25-30:1 for wind in windy places.  Unless we have around 15-20:1 energy return on our energy sources then there is  no money or energy for society to survive. I.e. no money for government, law, education, hospitals, road repairs, etc.. Our society would be reduced to mediaeval times in such a system.  for details of this see.   which suggests we will be at this point within 10 years. The author is head of research in a large finance house in London.

    This brings me to my final point.

    2 We need to understand the concept of limits and how rapidly we are approaching them.  Planetary boundaries have already been mentioned. EROEI as noted above is a profound limit we have to be aware of. We do not accept limits in our education system or health care demands or seasonal food requests, so getting real about climate change will require  dramatic changes in attitude.

    There is little time left to change course and no real sense of urgency in this report, even as the present trends tell us we have few years left to enjoy the present lifestyle of us in the west.