by Simon Burall, Director of Involve
Over the past fortnight I have been asked countless times Why Kettering? Why are you going to Kettering to ask the public to spend a whole Saturday talking about climate change?
One of the implications behind these questions is that the public cannot possibly be expected to know about climate change, let alone start to make decisions about what we should do about it. The problem, the questioner implies, is too complex. It requires a sophisticated understanding of climate science, biodiversity, ice dynamics and atmospheric physics to be able to make an assessment of the implications for the world’s population. Not only that, implies the all too frequent questioner, deciding what our collective response should be requires a deeper understanding of economics, politics and behavioural psychology than a mere member of the general public can be expected to have. The soothing assumption is that it would be better to leave decisions of this type to the experts and not waste the time of the public in this way.
Putting this implication to the questioner would result in denials; it is too deeply engrained in the psyches of decision-makers, in the UK at least, that the public ‘must be involved’. Some will even say that I’m setting up a straw man; the evidence suggests otherwise however. It is undeniable that, beyond the obligatory polling, there have been very few attempts to engage the public in a dialogue about climate change. There have certainly been no intensive dialogues, involving citizens getting a better understanding of the evidence and arguments, as systematic as the WorldWideViews (WWV) process starting on Saturday 26th.
The assumptions that lie behind the questions are patronising, to the citizens of Kettering in particular, but also to the public in general.
Firstly, there are few people in the world that can possibly understand the range of disciplines needed to understand the implications of man’s effect on the climate and simultaneously chart a sensible course for dealing with them. Any expert involved in the debate will only truly understand a part of the picture.
Secondly, and more importantly, those people involved in the debate as experts must, by the very nature of the debate, spend their time locked up in conference centres around the world. This disconnects them, to lesser or greater extents, from the public who will end up feeling the consequences of any decisions, in particular in terms of the actions that will have to be taken to reduce their own carbon emissions.
In the end it is individuals who will have to make changes to their own behaviour, and consent to government action in whatever forms this takes, changes in taxation, in energy mix, or in planning regulations for example. And it is the public who know best where they can make these changes and where they want to make the changes. Global agreements are an absolutely necessary component of any plan to deal with climate change, but not if they ignore the realities of the lives of the individuals who live together in our world.