How councils can think bigger about climate change

November 25, 2019   By Luca Tiratelli, Policy Researcher, NLGN.

Local Government, Global Crisis: How councils can think bigger about climate change

The environment has been skyrocketing up councils’ agendas in recent years, but local government still faces significant challenges in how to respond. Councils are not only grappling with day-to-day decisions and priorities that effect the environment; they are also facing the bigger question of how to build a convincing local frame for a worldwide picture.

At a recent NLGN event, we heard two major issues come up again and again:

  • How can local government make a meaningful contribution to combatting a global problem like climate change?
  • How can councils construct coherent narratives that link together all of the environmental work they do, from dealing with fly tippling to taking action on emissions?

What’s interesting about both of these issues, is that they are not so much policy challenges as they are intellectual ones. Overcoming them is not really about service design or delivery, but about how we frame issues like climate breakdown.

Councils can do many things, but due to realities of scale and geography, they cannot ‘solve’ climate change. Indeed, even national governments, with their vastly greater resources, only have a limited ability to address a global challenge. If we choose to think about climate change in this way, as a planetary-scale mega-problem, then it is easy to see how a sense of powerlessness might creep into local government, ultimately leading to fatalism and inaction.

It seems, therefore, that for councils to come up with effective strategies to fight climate change, they first need to find a way of thinking about the issue that reflects the capacity to address it. Finding such a framing might also help councils find a coherent narrative to link together the sum of their environmental work. It seems that what is preventing them from doing this at present is the juxtaposition of climate change as a global existential risk, with the relative mundanity of things like littering.

But what might such an intellectual approach look like? A potentially interesting starting point for local government might be a book entitled ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’, published ten years ago by Cambridge academic Mike Hulme. In it, Hulme argues that we should think about climate change less as a crisis, and more as an “environmental, cultural and political phenomenon that is reshaping the way we think about ourselves”.

Taking such a view of climate change would allow councils to be much more wide-ranging in their environmental thinking, and free them from the trap of searching for silver-bullets for a policy monster they can never slay anyway. Instead, they can start their thinking by asking themselves a relatively simple question: “how does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our collective social goals?

Under such a framework, the environment could cease to be a discrete policy concern, and instead could become something that impacts on everything a council does, in a similar way to how we currently think about economics. In a way that engenders a radicalism that goes far beyond what Hulme sets out in his book, this kind of reframing could inspire councils to focus on the stark facts that surround the climate debate in 2019, reflect on what moral imperatives they create, and formulate policy from there.

This is just one potential way of thinking about climate action at the level of local government, and of course, other potential frameworks could be formulated.

However, it seems clear that addressing the challenges that were identified in our Innovation Exchange require engaging intellectually with climate change as an idea, rather than just as a policy problem. It is through doing this, that local government will be able to crystallise its thinking about its role in a global climate emergency, and it is through this that it will be able to create the kind of narratives that engender the energy needed for real change.

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