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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  • You state that "climate change is scary." Is it? Or is constantly portraying it that way contributing to the communication problem and inhibiting creation of a new social contract between science and society? Is there value in NOT adopting a scaremongering approach?

  • Hi Jonathan and Adam - a good contribution, so I hope you take the following comments as they are meant, constructively!

    I absolutely support the criticism of generic calls for action and of the framing of climate change as an ‘environmental problem’ which immediately triggers thoughts of badgers, wind-farms and tribal green/capitalist confrontation. There was a much more promising framing of climate change in the Climate Coalition’s ‘Show the Love’ campaign this past weekend, very much based on intrinsic values. When people take time to remember and declare their appreciation and love of our civilisation and the natural world which underpins it, we can look afresh at something like climate change which (like other planetary boundary transgressions) threatens to destroy it all. So I agree with Nadine Andrews here, and indeed Robin Jarvis: there’s something deeper here concerning growth, consumption and our attitudes to the natural world and to limits in general.

    Climate change is largely where my co-author and I were coming from in writing our recent book ‘Framespotting’, an introduction to framing for a popular audience. I like your cartoons - an approach we use too - to convey things such as the governance trap; we also agree on an upstream emphasis on extraction as opposed to the downstream emphasis on emissions. In the book we talk about frames in other contexts too, such as cars, taxation and obesity, and how frames (as you’ll know) are often triggered by words used. For example, the very words ‘resources’ (p14) or ‘reserves’ (p 15) set up frames which (subconsciously) justify a feeling that these fossil fuels are ‘ours’, ‘there to be used’ and ‘something we can rely on’ (compare the term ‘energy security’). And when you say ‘the US, China and Russia ... have most to lose’ (p15), are we really saying that any country will ‘lose’ from averting climate chaos? There’s a frame in there restricting attention to short term competitive economic gain/loss. It’s so very easy to fall into these traps of using a frame without realising it (not that I’m immune of course).

    OK, some quibbles. One could always argue with any ‘list of seven’ such as yours. I’d say ‘politics’ instead of ‘democracy’ (it’s not always clear by the way if you are talking about the UK or the world); and it’s not clear what the boundaries of ‘behaviour’ and ‘culture’ are. Where do the media, and vested interests, fit in: are they part of ‘economy’ or ‘culture’?

    One heartfelt plea: please edit any final report to get rid of ‘academic’ jargon: it gives ammunition to those who would pooh-pooh the serious points you’re trying to make (see the comments to your earlier Guardian piece). A perfect example of jargon is the paragraph ‘The growing body’ on p12.

    At the end we’re left with the ‘comically generic’ issue. It’s good to zoom out and look at seven dimensions, but there’s also a danger of widening the discussion until it dissipates into mist, while 2015 affords the opportunity to take some concrete action. I’d be happier with seeing how your framework could inform a concrete proposal - albeit in a systemic context. To this end, I hope to take a concrete proposal (a global upstream extraction-based ‘cap and dividend’ system) and to explore in a blog post how this system integrates the seven dimensions mentioned in your report - at that point I'd welcome your comments. Will report back.

  • Personally I think its a mistake to focus just on climate change: that is only one of several symptoms of a world out of balance, as a consequence of human behaviour. The Nine Planetary Boundaries model shows this well.

    What is missing for me in this 'new way to think' is critique of the underlying set of beliefs and values that have brought us to this precarious position - even if you're a climate change denier, the sheer scale of soil degradation, ocean acidification, species extinction etc is surely extremely alarming. As long as humans regard themselves as separate from nature, that through superior human ingenuity they can achieve mastery over nature, and that nature's value is as a resource to be exploited for human ends, then working on those 7 dimensions wont make much difference.

    Its a much much deeper problem that we have: denial of our interdependence with the rest of nature, and the narcissistic belief that humans as one part of a larger complex system can actually control that system in predictable ways. This is where the RSA focus should be directed, in my opinion.

  • Jonathan is quite right. The nature of the problem is systemic. Derek is also right. The 'new way to think, speak and act' offered is no different from the general stance and belief's of the Green Party which was questioned by Jonathan Porrit's talk at UEA last Autumn in which he asked if they are not their 'own worst enemy'. Although I feel that both gentlemen are right in different ways the sugestions of each are also 'wrong' in the same way.
    Both are calls for specific actions each set of which are expected to be effective in the face of what both agree to be a systemic failure in the manner in which people go about their many and varied activities. This is happening globally. In all societies to a lesser or greater extent. The only consensus of understanding the problem we have, let alone its solution, is that there are many very deeply imbedded interrelated pan-societal problems and that their solution will be equally complex to define, agree and to implement.
    Yes, we do know that we have created in many societies a massive dependence upon high consumption levels of finite and polluting finite resources to provide their relatively few citizens with massively high levels of personal consumption of all sorts of mostly inessential goods and services. But to focus on the consumption patterns of a few middle-class individuals with some small appreciation of the consequences of our systemic failures will not identify the axiomatic causes of those failures. These axiomatic causes are not the comfortably proximate causes of Green believers nor of diligent and hardworking members of third world rural development projects.

    Just as there is little compelling evidence of long term linkages between climate change and simian production of carbon based gases, there is no evidence that economic growth, cadastral frameworks or better health and education have unequivocally causal relationships to reductions in poverty and inequality as experienced by individual households, long term, in development target areas. In fact, just like climate change there is negative evidence as well as positive.

    RSA members would be better advised to ask why our economics demands ever increasing consumption, increasing inequality and persistent and growing numbers of urban poor. It would be better advised to ask why people who agree on the same principles cannot be brought to agree on any programmes of action, and why small elites in any society always find ways of claiming large rents out of the labour of the remainder who actually produce all of what is consumed. And to ask 'what is well being, what is wealth, who should our labours support?'

  • This so-called "report" smacks of Greenpeace propaganda.  At the best, I regard it as rhetoric based on "belief" masquerading as science. The true position is that we lack any credible scientific evidence in the form of physical measurements. Those in the RSA who "believe" in this original sin must depend solely on computer modelling which fails to represent the physical realities of global climate, notably the present so-called pause in mean global temperature of eighteen years. Terrestrial measurements of temperature-increase seem have been bedevilled by falsification (artificial reduction) of key historic comparison values and poor siting of modern detectors. Reliable measurements are only obtained using satellites. Rather than waste billions of $ tackling a non-problem, we should be addresslng present-day problems of famine, eradicable disease and improved education in the third-world, as well as improving our own healthcare.