Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely.

The curious idea of scientists striking came, almost in passing, from an article by Bill Mckibben(above), who is perhaps the best known climate activist in the USA (we don’t have an equivalent person in the UK), known for his advocacy of divesting in fossil fuels, and most famous for his celebrated Rolling Stone article which made it clear why the only serious solution to climate change is to keep most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground (and why, alas, that is never likely to happen).

His full post on MSNBC is here but these extracts give the jist:

“They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered colour-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand…

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free – working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others’ hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed…So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.”

Now there is an idea.


(From ‘Climate Camp‘. Image via

People typically go ‘on strike’ with trade union support, using the considerable strength of ‘collective bargaining’ to improve workers’ negotiating power over pay and conditions. Public support for this kind of action depends on our sense of whether the cause is just, and the action proportionate.

So what would we feel about strike action that takes roughly the form: “You say you value our approach and expertise, but your inaction in response to our outputs offends our collective sense of professionalism as Scientists, and we won’t work any more until you show through your actions that you are taking us, and our profession seriously.”

It is not clear if McKibben just means IPCC members should go on strike, but the idea has broader applicability. I hesitate to make an estimate, but a brief Google search suggests there are approximately (depending on definitions) six million ‘Scientists’ in the world.

At present, these six million or so Scientists do not have what Marx and Engels referred to as ‘class consciousness’, but they have a great deal to unite around; a shared commitment to certain methodologies, principles, values and practices and a worldview that respects appropriate responses to data and evidence.

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

From this shared sense of identity and purpose they would generally respect the verdict of their climatologist colleagues (better not to say ‘comrades’…) that climate change is happening because of what governments are allowing people and businesses to do, and that we ought to ‘do something’ rapidly to change that. (The most recent report helpfully gave some detail on that typically generic injunction ie we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy).

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

Could Scientists stand together in solidarity in this way? Can we imagine an ENT surgeon, an inorganic chemistry PHD student, and a recently graduated engineer feeling ‘common cause’ in this way and taking professional action accordingly? It’s a bit of a stretch, because Scientists of all stripes and seniority would need to feel somehow ‘offended’ by the lack of respect given to the work of their colleagues to take collective action. At first blush it sounds and feels drastic, but is it really? Given what is at stake?

Assuming the rationale makes sense, could it ever happen practically? What would it look like in practice?

A long shot it may be, but it could have a huge effect. Scientists carry a great deal of societal esteem because what they do requires knowledge and diligence and a respect for something other than their own opinions.

However, while they have lots of  ’soft power’ – the power of attraction – the relatively ineffectual responses to their IPCC reports suggest they tend to lack ‘hard power’ – the power to change policy at scale, and they don’t always want it either! Striking would be both a form of communication and a form of direct action; and we need both on climate change.

As with every other aspect of the climate crisis, Scientists have a collective action problem. If there was some way for Scientists to better make their collective presence felt, for instance by their collective absence, this might be a powerful collective action solution that would communicate more effectively than any report every could.

Scientists of the world unite! You have everything to lose but your brains.


Climate Change and the Creative Industries

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

A few weeks ago I popped into our Folkestone Room  to do a short interview for the good people at Swarm about our recent report A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing Up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.



This video was shown at the event #whitepencilswarm supported by D&AD, The Global Association for Creative Advertising & Design Awards, which this year created a #NewBloodAwards brief in partnership with Al Gore around Climate Change. 

The event included a presentation by the intensely honest Kevin Anderson, and focused on helping professionals within the worlds of Advertising, Marketing & Design to come to grips with climate change in particular, rather than just ‘sustainability’ in general, which they tend to find much easier to navigate. (For more on that distinction, this recent Guardian piece on The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change is a good place to start).

I gave a similar pitch when I spoke at The Hospital Club about Climate Change as part of their sustainability week, alongside Adam Elman, Global Head of Marks & Spencers celebrated ‘Plan A’, Jez Frampton Global CEO of InterBrand, and Jon Alexander, Director of The New Citizenship Project.

The essence of the climate change challenge is the wrong kind of energy(fossil fuels) in the wrong kind of economy(fixated with GDP) pursuing the wrong kind of objective(consumption without end).

In each case I had the felt sense that the challenge for those working in the creative industries is that many of the implicit associations relating to ‘climate change’ (emissions, floods, existential threat) are quite different from the buzz surrounding sustainability(chic, desirable, caring).

The essence of the climate change challenge is the wrong kind of energy(fossil fuels) in the wrong kind of economy(fixated with GDP) pursuing the wrong kind of objective(consumption without end). That’s quite a different vibe for those professionals sometimes termed ‘creatives’ to work with, compared to the challenges relating to waste and broader ecological constraints, which are more tangible and tractable for companies and consumers alike.

Anyway, the video is 16 minutes long, features a yellow jumper, and, in case you’re wondering, there is a cup of coffee at the end of my right arm that you can’t see.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The 7 Dimensions of Climate Change: Science, Law, Money, Technology, Democracy, Culture, Behaviour

February 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Everybody is speaking about the link between flooding and climate change, and many are saying it is time to ‘act’ on this understanding. The trouble is, as I’ve written before, this injunction to act on climate change is often simplistic and painfully generic, which serves to dissipate political will.

With this in mind, the Guardian’s behavioural insight blog features my latest thoughts on how to improve the quality of our thinking on climate change, following up on our report at the end of last year: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.

The point of this particular piece was to begin to flesh out what it might mean to think of climate change as being distinct from more general ‘environmental’ concerns, and to explain why that reframing matters. The following is an abbreviated version, so if you feel you have another click in you, please go here for the fuller version and leave comments or tweets there, but if you’re happy with ‘the gist’, read on:

“We need a form of simplicity that rejects the lazy conflation of climate change with environmentalism by presenting a more energising set of associations. … Second, the right kind of simple would offer a vision of human behaviour informed by political consciousness, so that calls for “behaviour change” connect with the deep roots of the problem in fossil fuel production, rather than a misplaced emphasis on energy efficiency…Third, the right kind of simple would promote systems thinking, such that the climate problem is not viewed as having discrete independent elements, but rather multiple inter-connected dimensions that co-exist in the same space…

1. Science matters because it is the closest thing we have to an objective reference point for debates that might otherwise lack grounding.

2. Law matters, because it acts as a powerful constraint at scale…

3. Money matters, because capitalism is the planet’s operating system, and given the time constraints, we will need to respond to the climate change problem from within the system that created it…

4. Technology matters because we need innovative forms of creating, storing and transporting energy urgently…

5. Democracy matters because it is a mechanism for making collective decisions, and climate change is the biggest collective action problem of all time

6. Culture matters because our response to climate change is informed by everything from its place in formal education to implicit consumerist values in advertising to how the media frames judgments on systemic risk as scientific “uncertainty”.

7. Behaviour matters because while our choices are shaped by the facts (science), the rules (law), the resources (money), the tools (technology), the institutions (democracy) and the ideas (culture) around us, it is ultimately what we individually and collectively choose to do (behaviour) that matters.”

I hope you can read the fuller version in the Guardian, but based on the gist here, what do you think?

Too simple? Not simple enough?


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

How do you tell a powerful story?

February 5, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

magic book x120v2One evening over the Christmas break, I found myself at the home of a friend and her partner, both of whom happen to be psychoanalysts. Over dinner, whilst attempting to steer the conversation away from work, we began discussing the role of storytelling in our lives; the social narratives we believe in, the stories we pass on to others and the ones that resonate at a personal level.

The conversation led us to conclude that whilst a good story will always have readers, a really powerful story, will inspire people to act. In the Fellowship department, we often discuss how to make this shift. When there is so much great material available, it can be difficult to know how to piece it all together and the power in a story can easily be lost.

At first glance, social change appears to lend itself well to narrative. For a start, there is natural beginning; if we are trying to solve a problem, first we have to understand it. The starting point has to be-

What exactly is happening here?

This is especially poignant when encountering subjects that people might be uncomfortable talking about. Rachel Clare FRSA is Assistant Director at the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) which deals with the issue of male suicide. According to recent government statistics on mortality rates, suicide is a bigger cause of death in young men than HIV, traffic accidents and assault combined, with 77% of all cases of suicide in the UK every year being male. CALM was born from a simple need to generate greater awareness of the problem.

Once a problem is defined, we have to figure out the best way to solve it – how do we improve the world around us?

Monday night’s Fellows event RSA Engage demonstrated that within the Fellowship there is a wealth of ideas about how we can transition from the beginning to the middle; problem to potential solution. Amongst the seven Fellows who pitched their project at the event, was Richard Blissett FRSA. Richard was recommended for Fellowship by a previous Catalyst winner and in turn decided to apply for funding for his own project. Through RSA Catalyst, his digital tool Edukit is well on the way to helping teachers find the appropriate resources to support disadvantaged students, quickly and easily. For Richard, the how lies in getting the right tools to the right people.

However, for a modest enterprise like Edukit to earn a place in the grander narrative of social change, it must also create a story around itself. Tools will not reach people if it’s not clear why they’re relevant, so creating a strong, individual narrative is critical – it is not enough to be heard, you have to be understood.

New RSA Fellow Emily Farnworth founded her social business Counter Culture on precisely the understanding that powerful stories are the key to changing indiviual behaviour, yet when tackling complex issues such as poverty or climate change, a simple beginning, middle and end doesn’t always cut it.

Emily believes that ‘the only way to solve the world’s biggest problems in a meaningful way is to see all sides of an argument.’ Counter Culture was established to help businesses and charities reach their audiences through a more agile form of storytelling that incorporates multiple and differing perspectives.

This can be achieved in many different ways. Even if you don’t recognise it immediately, brands, charities and individuals are communicating with us all the time without ever needing to put pen to paper. New Fellow David Pope, filmmaker, consultant and member of the British Council’s Creative Economy Pool of Experts, is interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by new technologies because this evolution is creating opportunities for a more diverse range of voices and stories to reach wider audiences.

New mediums can transform the way an issue is presented and the type of people who can tell the story. An example -

In December, Mark Leruste FRSA joined the Fellowship. As well as being an ICF Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), he is a Country Manager for Movember, the infamous worldwide men’s health charity that invites men around the world to grow a moustache for 30 days in November to raise awareness and funds for men’s health. This in itself proves that a serious message can be communicated through the power of a moustache.

The RSA's 2011 Movember efforts

The RSA’s 2011 Movember efforts

A story can still carry weight even if the chronology is disjointed or the medium unconventional.

Movember shows that a life-threatening disease affecting a particular demographic can gather mass support using humour and facial hair. If that isn’t re-writing the story, I don’t know what is.



If you would like to find out more about any of the projects or Fellows mentioned above, or would like to know more about joining the Fellowship  please contact


Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA

Creative solutions to climate change.

January 21, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

When it comes to climate change, creativity is not optional. To retain a resilient and livable planet, we need to do things differently, better, and quickly. In light of our competing commitments to energy security and fuel prices, that means rethinking our ends, our means, and our conception of ourselves.

Despite my reservations about Adam’s attack on the political class and my concern about creativity being hollow, I have enjoyed thinking about what it might mean to link our new agenda on climate change with our emerging worldview.

A broader conceptual discussion about creativity is needed, but for now, with creativity understood as self-directed, pro-active and innovative activity, here are some thoughts on what ‘the power to create’ might mean for attempts to tackle climate change.

Writ large, our current approach to climate change is passive rather than creative. Most of us follow the routines of our lives, point the finger at politicians, do a few tokenistic things like recycle or use our own shopping bags, demand cheap and secure energy without realising that’s a climate position, hope for the best at big international climate summits and wait for another IPCC report or devastating storm before saying: isn’t it terrible that nothing is happening? We can do better, and here are six ideas on how an emphasis on creativity might help:

1) Frame the power to create as a solution to stealth denial

If passivity is a large part of the problem of ‘stealth denial’ creativity may be part of the solution.

(Our report unpacks the claim that about two thirds of the population are in stealth denial on climate change, i.e. they accept the significance of human-caused climate change, but don’t live as though they do.)

Creativity is about more than DIY, but I was struck by the importance of passivity as a contrast with creativity while reading George Monbiot’s piece in today’s Guardian:

“Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter-life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation…Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them… Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.”

Perhaps that’s too rhetorical, but the idea seems sound: large chunks of the population have become so busy focusing on work, family, bill-paying, domestic chores, and entertainment, that we lack the requisite will, time and energy to think about – never mind act upon –  ’bigger-than-self problems’ like climate change.

Given that climate change is not exclusively ‘an environmental issue’ one role for creativity is to highlight the scope for people to act in ways that they might not have previously imagined to be relevant. This includes wasting less food, flying less, eating less beef, and a myriad of other micro behaviour changes. However, the point of our recent report is that we clearly need to connect such acts to a credible narrative about the big picture of continued fossil fuel production and steadily rising global emissions.

In that respect, you should find our who your MP is (most don’t know) and tell them that climate change matters to you, but you might have more impact by finding a few hours of gumption to change your energy supplier and then use social media and email your friends and colleagues to explain why.

As far as possible (not always very far if you are in poverty, a full-time carer, unskilled etc) we need to seek to solve the problems of our lives rather than waiting for them to be solved for us.

What might that mean more tangibly? Others might disagree, but to me it points squarely to Shorter working weeks which means a revaluation of the core economy. Without that shift, most people simple don’t have the time and support required to be more creative.

2) Get creative about our ends as well as our means.

If we are stuck with indefinite economic growth that is parasitic on undervalued and scarce natural capital as our chief measure of societal success, then the power to create is unworthy of the name. The ‘power’ in ‘power to create’ should be about contesting the rules of the game as well as playing it better.

The ‘power’ in ‘power to create’ should be about contesting the rules of the game as well as playing it better.

In this respect, is it not just sane to think we need a conception of economic maturity that connects to an idea of human rights and respects planetary boundaries? Can’t we have a political discourse where people speak about economic decisions as if they are also social and ecological decisions, which they are? Getting seriously creative about how we conceptualise ‘change’ means breaking down the distinctions that falsely keep these dimensions of our world apart.

3) Place our hope in cities as well as States

Some say governments are now too small for the big problems (e.g. climate change) and too big for the small problems (e.g. anti-social behaviour), and the time of cities has come.

An uncreative approach to climate change is to wait for international agreements between states. Given the divergent economic needs, different energy reserves, vulnerability to climactic changes and range of national political systems, we are never likely to get a global agreement (that satisfies, say, USA, China, India, small island states, Norway, Russia) that goes beyond a firmer resolve to reduce emissions in principle(which is not to say we shouldn’t try).

In the meantime we can act at levels where the impact is more tangible – cities. As Benjamin Barber put it in the RSA Journal:

“It turns out that about 80 percent of all energy is used in cities and 80 percent of global carbon emissions come from cities with more than 50,000 people. Therefore, if cities take strong measures – as well as Amsterdam, Los Angeles cleaned up its port and reduced carbon emissions by 30 percent to 40 percent – they will have a profound effect. Even if the US and China do nothing, cities can have a big role to play in fixing the problem. It’s not just a theoretical thing.”

The connection between cities and creativity is well established, and our hope for creative action on climate change may lie at this level of the Polis.

4) Trust creative artists to help communicate climate solutions

As this recent piece indicates (HT Jonathan Schifferes), climate communication has not so far been very successful, and there is a place for artists not just to change the message but also the medium: “People respond to authentic artistic expression, not scripted messaging. Artists need free rein. Businesses should take the plunge and give it to them.”

This might sound a little worthy, but as indicated in ‘Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard’, we are in danger of being over-literal and half-blind in our attention to the world, and we need artists of various kinds to help us retain a sense of balance and perspective: This cartoon helps put this point in perspective:

Embedded image permalink

Perhaps ‘power to create’ is precisely what we need for the third industrial revolution.

5) Trust in a radical decentralisation of energy provision. 

This point is covered in more detail as one of our eight suggestions for how to overcome climate stealth denial in the report (see pages 56-58):

Not only do we need a transition to renewables, but we need to design the energy
infrastructure in a much less centralised, vulnerable and remote way, as suggested by Rebecca Willis and Nick Eyre of Green Alliance:

‘Only 50 years ago, most households were directly aware of the amount of energy they used from the weight of coal carried into the house. Today it flows in unseen through pipes and wires, and embedded in the multitude of products purchased, most of which are manufactured out of sight from consumers. The pervasive attitude that new energy infrastructure should not be seen may well be one of the reasons behind opposition to
renewable energy installations. But a sustainable energy system will not be an invisible system. Reconnection of people with the energy system is a precondition for the low carbon transition.’

The power to create could be about that reconnection, with more homes being power plants, and more communities collectively managing their localised and renewable energy. Perhaps ‘the power to create’ is precisely what we need for the third industrial revolution.

6) Divest in centralised dirty energy and reinvest in decentralised renewable energy, thereby supporting the forms of innovation we need (see page 53-54). 

If the power to create means challenging vested interests, the best way to do that is to move your money accordingly. The test of the RSA’s resolve to challenge vested interest will be questions like this one.

These six ideas are a way of showing how ‘the power to create’ might help to flesh out what the call the action on climate change might mean. In essence the point is this: it’s not hope that leads to action, but action that leads to hope.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and author of the recent report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels. He Tweets @Jonathan_Rowson


Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death?

December 5, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

References to ‘green crap’ miss the point. The key political fault line on climate change is not green versus non green, but how you order the priorities of the energy ‘trilemma’. The case for climate change action needs to be made at this level to gain political traction.

Michael Fallon is the minister whose thinking most closely mirrors Number 10′s stance on energy policy so if you want to know what number 10 thinks beyond disputed references to ‘green crap’, his words should be carefully observed.

The Energy Minister recently told The Spectator Conference on energy that the most important issues were ‘security of supply, affordability, and playing our part in combating climate change. And that for me is the order.’

This seemingly innocuous statement is hugely significant because it publicly acknowledges the key trade-offs at the heart of energy policy, and candidly takes a clear position on it. Fallon, like Cameron and Osborne are not denying the need for a rapid reduction in carbon emissions, they are saying you can’t get those reductions without compromising two other important priorities.

the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty

In this case, the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty. Such ‘trilemmas’ are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, but they are not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow.

There is wide political agreement that we have to try to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change, which means significantly reducing and gradually eliminating fossil fuels from our energy supply, and improving energy efficiency at scale.

However, we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply, which is harder with renewable forms of energy that are generally less reliable than the baseload power offered by fossil fuels (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’) and complex if you are simultaneously interfering with the energy market to lower prices. This was the argument (strongly contested) recently used by British parliamentarians to justify extending the life of the country’s dirtiest power stations. - that it was necessary to ‘keep the lights on’.

And we also need to keep fuel prices affordable, especially for those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because they can’t pay for their heating. Keeping costs low is not easy with a transition to renewables, which is costly in itself, and because renewable energy is currently more expensive. On current form, energy companies will inevitably pass on such costs to consumers.

It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of the three imperatives – energy security, fuel poverty and climate change – but we can question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and challenge some of the assumptions underpinning them. Indeed, how you do so represents the new political fault line on the energy debate.

As I argue in a forthcoming RSA report on climate change, I believe the moral priority of climate change takes precedence, and would challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. If pressed, I would probably say the order has to be climate change, energy security and fuel poverty, but making this case well requires keeping competing perspectives on ‘morality’ firmly in mind.

If your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country, you have to think about that moment every day when people return from work, when there is a huge spike in demand caused by heating and lights going on, people having hot showers, watching TV and preparing meals. Can you stomach the idea of power failure for millions in that context?

And if, like millions, you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy as an electoral issue, would you not be more inclined to question the importance of our climate commitments, regardless of scientific opinion?

The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. 

The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. Those like Fallon apparently accept that we should ‘do our bit’, but argue that we cannot unilaterally decide what ‘our bit’ should be – for that we look at the actions of comparable countries. This position is hardly heroic or inspiring, and makes my heart sink, but let’s accept that it is at least understandable.

Which doesn’t prevent us from saying it is wrong on a number of levels.

Those attacking the priority of energy security could ask why we can’t significantly reduce our energy demand through lifestyle changes. Or they might ask whether it’s ok if the power goes off every so often. Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in affluent parts of India do? If that sounds like political suicide, more powerful is to challenge the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability, as Marc Jacobsen and others are doing with increasing conviction, or(more controversially) that we need more nuclear power.

Those attacking the priority of fuel poverty might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, as David Cameron recently did, which chimes with social practice theory arguments about ‘energy need’ being socially constructed, but feels much too facile. The key challenge, surely, is to the billions of pounds offered in fossil fuel subsidies, without which renewable energy would not struggle to be seen as affordable. An even more fundamental question is whether profiting out of energy provision – now an essential human need – makes sense at all? Could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy, as 69% of the population seem to want?

You will notice, in each case, that few of the arguments or suggestions sound straightforward or completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically difficult if not implausible. That’s why we have a genuine energy trilemma. Something has to give.

 Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the author of a forthcoming report on Climate Change ‘stealth denial’ in the British population. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson

Time to ‘Act’ on Climate Change. Yes, but how?

September 30, 2013 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

“The People need to rise before the seas do”Alice Bell

I felt a little bemused by the reactions to the IPCC report on Friday for three main reasons.

First, for those thinking about climate change for the last few years there was little new in the report. The most generous way to interpret the international public shift in understanding from ‘very likely’(90%) to ‘extremely likely’(95%) is that before Friday we merely knew that climate change is a real and present danger and caused by humans, now we know that we know.

Second, so many sceptics focused on the so-called fifteen year ‘pause’ in planetary warming of surface temperatures despite an ongoing increase in carbon dioxide. On the one hand this is fair and fundamental: if you say more X leads to more of Y, and there has been more of X, but no more of Y, people are entitled to question the relationship. On the other hand, there are really robust answers that the sceptics tend not to mention. First climate scientists don’t think it matters in terms of overall trends because the time window is too short(more X leads to more Y in the long term with periodic exceptions). Second, we have had a similar pause before, mid century, followed by a subsequent rapid increase in temperatures which is likely to happen again, and third, and for me most compellingly, those 15 years began with an outlier: 1998 was an exceptionally hot year because of a particular climactic event, an El Nino. If you take 1998 out of the picture, there is no pause.

Third, almost everybody seemed to be saying ‘we need to act‘, ‘time for action‘ and so forth, but few commentators said exactly how we should act. Alice Bell is right in her evocative line above- if the people don’t mobilise, governments won’t ‘act’ with sufficient speed and scale, markets won’t respond in their investment decisions, and the patterns of energy supply will continue.

I’m currently writing up a report on climate change that is about that ‘how’. Writing almost always takes longer than planned and is subject to Hofstadter’s law but in this case the delay has a more substantive basis. Shortly after writing the post “what kind of behaviour change does climate change call for” I realised that the difference between behaviour change for reducing domestic energy demand (how do you get people to insulate their lofts, turn down their thermostats, wash at lower temperatures, buy less imported goods from China etc) and behaviour change that might actually address the global challenge are not just slightly different, but based on completely different readings of the climate problem. Climate change is partly about behaviour and partly about technology, but I have come to believe that it’s mostly about money and power.

Simply stated, changing the domestic demand for energy, or ensuring that energy is used more efficiently in homes, offices and transport may have intrinsic benefits in terms of saving money, and not wasting precious resources. However, such changes do not contribute to addressing climate change unless they have a knock-on impact on global energy supply, and that is often a huge lacuna in particular policies, including the green deal.

Globally rising emissions(reductions in the developed world are entirely cancelled out by increases in the developing world) are caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which are the lifeblood of the global economy. Short of a global reduction in energy demand, as long as fossil fuels are significantly cheaper relative to other forms of energy, a global energy market will continue to use them, and we won’t be any closer to preventing significant planetary warming. And of course, fossil fuels are currently significantly cheaper than they might be because they are not taxed in a way that is commensurate with their social harm, indeed they are effectively subsidised; while the investment in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage are not incentivised by government in the way they need to be.

There is a role for decreasing energy demand and consumption more generally, but once you see climate change as being first and foremost a supply-side problem(the main goal is to keep fossil fuels in the ground) what you do about energy demand has to be much more focused, such that the impact on supply is more immediate and tangible. In the forthcoming report this idea is fleshed out with a detailed examination of how we might address rebound effects and patterns of climate denial in the British population.

The challenge then shifts from localised goals of reducing consumption or improving energy efficiency to something more ambitious: How can we use behavioural insight to get people to change, in ways that get governments to change, in ways that get markets to change. The crux of what it means to ‘act’ therefore involves recognising that markets follow government signals to make energy investment decisions, and governments follow democratic signals to make political decisions. The people need to rise before the seas do.

But how? I am tempted to say watch this space, but two of the main policy answers I am beginning to believe in are a rapid divestment in pension funds that invest in fossil fuels and an alternative to the EU Cap and Trade scheme known as ‘fee and dividend’ that ‘taxes’ carbon at source, but gives the money as a flat fee to the population, rather than to Government, while still incentivising reductions in energy demand.

Identifying policies to get behind is important to make sense of what it means to ‘act’. To gain traction the incipient climate movement we need to swiftly galvanise will require a positive story to believe in, so that when we are called upon to act, the action is not just against something intangible, destructive and dominant, but for something tangible, progressive and credible.

Join a history of enlightened thinking

August 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

What do you say to people when you talk about the RSA? Do you mention a great lecture you’ve seen, a Fellow you’ve met or perhaps share an animate online? It’s easy when you’ve got an example but sometimes when you’re on the spot, it can be difficult to in articulate all the many aspects of the RSA’s work. It’s a multi-layered, multifaceted organisation that is governed from a huge house which can feel like a bit of a labyrinth -  so where do you begin?

RSA pamphlet: ' Welcome to the RSA the home of enlightened thinking since 1774'Here in Fellowship we’re pretty clued up on the benefits of joining the RSA’s 27,000 strong network; we can tell you about the Four Ways to Engage, all the House facilities and how our Regional Programme Managers can help you find like-minded people in your area. But, we also know that when you join an organisation it is important for your commitment to have meaning that goes beyond having a place to meet and free Wi-Fi. You need to have a clear idea about what those four letters – FRSA, represent. There are thousands of organisations out there to join and thousands of worthwhile charitable causes.

What makes us different?

elightened thinkingWhen you join the RSA you join a rich history of enlightened thinking. As the Changemakers handbook demonstrates, the RSA is here to facilitate people thinking differently about social challenges. Back in 1754 when the RSA was founded, the people of Britain were facing the dawn of the industrial revolution; a period that saw great technological advancements and equally, many unforeseen problems.

What is remarkable about the RSA and its Fellows is thaelightened thinkingt they began to find solutions to global problems long before buzz words like social justice and sustainability were on the national political agenda. In 1758, an RSA Fellow suggested providing an award to whomever could devise the best plan for the establishment of a charity house to shelter women whose poverty put them at risk of prostitution. Just under 20 years later, we offered an award for inventions that could reduce smoke emissions.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of having a social space to share ideas.

In 1852, the RSA organised the trial of the first public Water Closets but unfortunately, few people were inclined to use them and the campaign was deemed a failure.  The idea was temporarily laid to rest but then dug up many years later and, where would we be today without public lavatories?

Sometimes, planting an idea is enough.

This is how I prefer to explain the RSA’s significance to people who are interested in getting involved. By joining our network you are continuing the history of Fellowship: a group of people who are not only willing to think more broadly than the majority, but who have proven many times over that they have the tenacity to pursue their ideas and turn them into practical solutions for the public good.

Find out more about Fellowship

If you already a Fellow but know someone who would be a great addition to the Fellowship, why not nominate them?


 Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA

Why is climate change so hard to define?

August 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

“Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic.”

- Ambrose Beirce, The Devil’s Dictionary

The desire to define key terms is understandable, but it is often only pseudo-intelligent, because as Ambrose Beirce suggests, the effect of pinning a word down is often to drain the life out of it.

Still, while designing a national survey on attitudes to climate change recently, I sought out a cogent definition of the term/phenomenon/fact/idea that could be used as a quick and comprehensible reference point for debate and discussion. I googled until it hurt, asked around various people working in the field, sent out a few speculative tweets, and zip, nothing suitable came back.

The definitions were either too short (e.g. The planet is getting hotter, we’re causing it, it’s bad, we should do something about it) or too long, complex or jargon heavy (see Wikipedia’s first paragraph here for instance).

The issue is not just that one person’s climate change is another’s global warming, or whether ‘anthropogenic’ is a necessary adjective. The purpose of the short definition is not to close down alternative ideas and interpretations, but rather a pragmatic way to avoid talking at cross purposes.

To do full justice to the science, politics, economics and technology surrounding climate change, we would need many more words and caveats, but for the purpose of the survey (and more generally…) we needed something that described and explained the phenomena, indicated the scientific consensus and highlighted the human relevance. Finding a form of words for this task was surprisingly challenging.

Eventually (with help from Emma Lindley and Ian Christie) I managed to squeeze it in to 135 words, and came up with the following:

The earth’s climate is complex and has always changed over long periods, but there is now a scientific consensus that the climate system is being disrupted rapidly, as a result of human actions.

According to a significant majority of scientific experts in the field of climatology, disruptive climate change is being caused principally by those human activities that currently depend upon energy derived from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil.

These activities have resulted in a growing concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which over time is likely to make weather patterns increasingly irregular and unpredictable.

The human impact of this change will vary from place to place but might include an increased prevalence of storms, droughts and flooding, and could undermine the security of water, food and energy supplies.

How does that sound?

There is a meta-question on what basis one should judge the quality of a definition, and clearly it’s not just about a show of hands, but for what it’s worth the representative national survey indicated that 59% of the UK population found this definition fairly convincing or very convincing.

So two questions arise:

1. What kind of score would we expect the ‘optimal’ definition to achieve? (keeping in mind the purpose of accessibility/agreement)

2. How might this particular definition be improved without adding significantly to the word count?


Why climate change is like a headache in the pelvis.

July 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

“The main curriculum of your life. No sooner had I read that phrase than I kept repeating it, mulling it over. I saw at once that, far more than the time itself, the hour count, what was at stake here was a major principle. Instead of taking my work with me to hospital waiting rooms, dealing with my troubles as if I was getting the car fixed, my eye on my watch and my hand on my wallet, I would have to accept a radical shift of priorities. The pain must be allowed to come on board and take equal status beside my writing, beside my family, as part of the core curriculum.” - Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p160

Climate change is about much more than words, but words matter. In this respect, leaving aside the important victory to keep climate change on the national curriculum, there is a much deeper sense in which climate change needs to become part of ‘the main curriculum’ of everybody’s lives.

This declaration is ultimately just a form of words, but these particular words may help to reframe the necessary gestalt shift, so that we start to go way beyond ‘raising awareness’ or ‘engagement’ on the issue, which hasn’t really helped sufficiently to shift inertia. Here is where this idea of ‘main curriculum’ comes from, and why it might matter:

 ”‘We strongly advise sufferers,’ wise went on, ‘to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.’ The main curriculum!” 

Almost three years ago I read Tim Parks’s wonderful non-fiction book: Teach us to Sit Still, in preparation for him speaking at an RSA event on mindfulness. The book is a darkly humorous and profound examination of a particularly embarrassing medical condition, and an improbable journey back to health, eventually through meditation. The turning point in his recovery is when he stops trying to wish the problem away as an extraneous irritant (‘an inconvenient truth’) and really faces up to it as an enduring challenge that needed his steadfast time and attention. What was striking for me is that a particular form of words helped to make this shift.

In the following section Parks is at one of the many clinics he attended, looking for something to take the persistent pain away, and he recounts listening to a Dr Wise, author of A Headache in the Pelvis as follows:


Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p 159:

“‘Many of our patients are simply too busy to dedicate themselves to our treatment’, Wise and Anderson observed. ‘These people, men and women, were not yet suffering enough. They still saw their pains as an irritating waste of time, a distraction to put behind them as quickly as possible. Hence they were drawn to accounts of their illness that saw a rapid solutions in drugs, or in surgical operation. No personal energies need be expended. It could be paid for. Hopefully by the State.’

This described my thinking, at least until very recently, with ominous accuracy.

“We strongly advise sufferers,” wise went on, “to accept these pains as part of the main curriculum of their lives.”

The main curriculum!

Would I have to stop referring to my pains as stupid?

Wise’s position, a little pious-sounding to my ear, was that this chronic and worsening condition was trying to tell me something about myself, about the way I had been living, and I was supposed to listen. I would have to give my pains the time of day.”


This perspective is powerful because one of the main aspects of the climate change challenge is how to bring more attention to the urgency of the issue, and what prevents that is precisely the kind of “hoping it will go away” attitude that many take to irritating health issues that are not yet causing enough suffering to be heeded.

The climate challenge calls for unprecedented political, social, economic and technological innovation and we probably need to consume less, but the speed and effectiveness of such solutions ultimately depend upon what the population thinks and cares about on a regular basis. That point is not self-evidently true, but one tangible way to think about it is that investment decisions and political will on climate change are currently shaped by vested interests that civil society needs to be mobilised to challenge.

A big part of this challenge is to find ways to make climate change ‘run through’ people’s lives. (The literal meaning of curriculum is to run the course, as in curriculum vitae- the course of my life). We need to link concerns about climate change more closely to the experiences and values that ‘run through’ people’s lives, including their work, their families, their health and their homes. How do we do that? It’s not easy, but The Social Brain Centre has precise figures on the nature of the challenge and plans to pilot solutions that we’ll share in a forthcoming report).

Given the scale and urgency of the climate change challenge we need new forms of language as much as we need new technologies and new policies. With this in mind, I humbly submit that we need to start thinking of how we can make climate change part of ‘the main curriculum’ of our lives.

Dr Jonathan Rowson can be followed on Twitter at @jonathan_rowson

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