Local Actions for Global Problems: Climate change, communities and changing mindsets

November 19, 2020  

Most of us recognise that climate change will soon overshadow every crisis that came before. But our approaches to tackling it are too often marred by denial, evasion and false optimism.

In this long read, Luca Tiratelli unpacks the four mindsets that are holding us back, and presents an alternative, community-led way to tackle humanity’s biggest challenge yet.

The essay is part of the launch of our new research project – Communities vs Climate Change.

The 2020s are a decade that began with Australia on fire. Since then, the world has been thrown into chaos by pandemic disease – something that we will have to get more used to if we fail to prevent the acceleration of global temperatures.

Unsurprisingly then, many of us are feeling the moral imperative to take action on climate change more strongly than ever. However, many countries around the world have governments who clearly do not see this area as a priority. In Britain, Boris Johnson has just published a ‘10 point plan’ for climate action – but despite much fanfare, this plan makes available only £12bn, less than a third of it new money. Such a figure pales in comparison with, say, the £110bn the government has spent on the fuel duty freeze over the last decade.

In such circumstances, it is easy to feel that progress is impossible, and for despair and fatalism to thrive. This essay aims to break that spell. It begins by exploring the dominant schools of climate policy thinking currently out there. In highlighting their limitations, it then makes the case for fresh thinking, and asks whether a more localised approach to climate change might offer a way through the morass, with community power acting as a spark for action. It concludes by offering some suggestions for what such an approach might look like in practice, in the hope that doing so can encourage debate and innovation.

There’s always something that seems more important than climate change in the short-term. This year, quite justifiably, it’s a global pandemic. Prior to that, in Britain, it was Brexit. Casting our minds back further, it was a debate about budget deficits.

The point is not what the issue of the day is – it’s that there is always an issue of the day, and it always reduces people’s capacity to engage with, and think critically about, climate change. The result of this is that when we cast our eyes across the political spectrum, there is little that inspires confidence that we are up to the challenge.

“The science is ‘accepted’, but essentially ignored – as it is too scary and too inconvenient.  It is not denied – but its implications are.”

Broadly speaking, the strands of climate-change policy-thinking currently on offer fit into four categories, each with significant issues. These categories are:

  1. New Denialism Traditional climate-change denial, meaning people not accepting the reality of man-made global warming, is, mercifully, on the decline. However, across a large swathe of the political class, it has simply been replaced by a different kind of denial – the more familiar, psychological kind.

    This kind of thinking is characterised by an acceptance of ‘the science’ in a superficial sense, but a short-termist refusal to engage with its true implications. As people such as Naomi Klein have argued, a liberal politics that focuses on returning to some kind of pre-2010s political ‘normal’. This mindset doesn’t engage with the reality that this ‘normal’  fuelled both climate breakdown and the political instability that has prevented meaningful action for the last decade. It is a form of denialism, refusing to accept the systemic change that is now necessary to avoid disaster.

    Joe Biden’s campaign for the US presidency was a good example of what this looks like in practice. Unlike his rival, Biden was capable of talking about climate change, of committing to re-joining the Paris agreement, and was happy to attack Republicans as scientifically illiterate luddites. At the same time, however, he loudly declared himself as pro-fracking, and reassured interests groups that he will not upset the status quo of American energy production.

    The science is ‘accepted’, but essentially ignored – as it is too scary and too inconvenient.  It is not denied – but its implications are.
  2. Techno-Fantasy – Another strand of unhelpful climate-policy thinking focuses on human ingenuity, and believes, effectively, that whatever the crisis, human technology can rise to meet it. Fundamentally, such an outlook is an article of faith. It is impossible to ‘prove’ what humans may be capable of the future, but techno-optimists believe that they can accurately predict our trajectory based on our past – something which is obviously an inexact science.

    Such thinking is a basic violation of the precautionary principle, as it offers an evidence-free insurance for current, environmentally harmful activities. Unsurprisingly, this approach to climate change is popular in Silicon Valley and among successful technologists – who believe that innovations that can save us from the threat of climate change are within reach.

    Recently, Jeff Bezos outlined a plan to move polluting industries to space, and have earth ‘zoned residential’ so that it might be preserved. Such fantasies of the future contribute nothing meaningful to climate change policy. Bezos’s plan takes us no closer to any real solutions, but it does distract us from the urgency of the challenge, and from thinking about what we can do about it in the here and now.

    Problematically, such thinking now exists beyond the worlds of business and technology. It has developed a certain political following – as is demonstrated by the government’s recent decision to back – to the tune £100 million – of an experimental plan to ‘suck carbon dioxide out of the air’.
  3. Protectionist Nihilism – Perhaps the most frightening of the current trends in climate change thinking comes from populist regimes. Such governments rarely spell out their approach explicitly, however, if we look at the policies they tend to support, it is possible to trace a certain kind of twisted logic.  

    During Donald Trump’s presidency, the strategy of the Republican party was to refuse to acknowledge climate change as the problem, whilst at the same time employing protectionist rhetoric on trade and foreign policy and talking up the possibility of building a literal wall around their country. From these positions, a certain vision for the future comes into view. It’s a world in which countries that think they can withstand the most catastrophic effects of environmental breakdown simply wall themselves off, pull up the drawbridge and hunker down – leaving the rest of the world to pick up the pieces.

    Trump may now be leaving office, but it seems likely that this playbook will remain. Actually solving the problem of climate change is off the table with this approach. The plan is to let catastrophe play out, and let the strongest survive in an ‘every-man-for-themselves’ Darwinist free for all.
  4. The Green Comfort Zone – It is of course important to state that there are sections of our political spectrum that do ‘get’ climate change – meaning that they understand both the science and its implications. ‘The Green New Deal’ as it exists on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, is a serious plan that could deliver some meaningful action.

    However, we need to seriously reflect on how and why this idea has been defeated – in the Democratic primaries twice, and in British general elections twice. Of course those defeats are not explicable to any great extent by the policy of ‘The Green New Deal‘ itself – but that is in itself part of the problem. To get a mandate for the kind of change needed to seriously tackle climate change, these kind of policies need to front and centre of political movements, rallying support and mobilising communities. It won’t be good enough to sneak some policies through on a platform that is mainly focussed on other things.

    There are also issues with more traditional ‘green’ politics – framed, as it so often is, around individual frugality, rather than systemic change. Any politics that says, or even merely implies, that people are going to have make do with less, at a when so many are struggling simply to get by, is clearly destined for failure. We must also remember that the very notion of an individualised ‘carbon footprint’ – of a personalised framing for climate change – was something first popularised in an advertising campaign for BP. This kind of thinking deliberately misdirects our attention away from what really matters – which is, to a great extent, the behaviour of companies like BP.

    Traditional green movements also need to reflect on whether catastrophist messaging is likely to succeed in a world that appears to be falling down anyway. As a movement, environmentalists need to move away from messages  that have been struggling to cut through for decades, abandon the fantasy that ‘events’ will one day transpire to offer them a way through, and instead refresh their thinking.

So, considering the urgency of the problem, and the paucity of the current political options, how can we change our thinking to engender better policy making?

An interesting starting point 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 things allows us to move beyond thinking about climate change as a planetary-scale mega problem, and instead invites us to structure our approach around a relatively simple question: “how does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our collective social goals?”. In so doing, Hulme can help free us from the trap of searching for silver-bullet solutions at scales where such a thing is impossible anyway.

“Ostrom can give us the impetus to move beyond looking for climate solutions at scales where the logic of collective of action makes any action unlikely.”

This is important because it is precisely this mode of thinking about climate change – as an ever-expanding existential crisis – that seems to drive some of the biggest problems with the current schools of policy response described above. Indeed, psychologically, one can draw a link between this way of thinking and both ‘Reimagined Denial’ and ‘Techno-fantasy’ approaches to climate change. In the case of the former, terror at the ‘size’ of the problem causes people to bury their heads in the sand about its implications, and in the latter, the same fear causes people to grasp desperately for solutions that don’t yet, and may never,  exist.

Adopting Hulme’s framework instead allows us to cease to see the environment as a discrete area of policy concern, and instead asks us to think about it as something that impacts everything that we do, in a similar way to how we currently conceive of economics. In a way that engenders a radicalism that actually goes far further than anything that Hulme sets out in his book, this can help us to focus on the stark facts that surround climate change in the 2020s, reflect on the imperatives that they create, and formulate policy for both prevention and adaptation from there.

Another thinker who might be able to help us formulate new approaches is Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom is most famous in the world of environmentalism for her challenge to the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – which has been used to justify all manner of harmful policies on the basis that humans are inherently selfish and uncooperative. Indeed, today, to a large extent, these attitudes shape ‘Protectionist Nihilist’ approaches to climate.

However, beyond simply her work in this area, more general insights from her wider body of work – as drawn out in this recent New Local report –offer interesting building blocks for new ways of conceptualising environmental policy.

These insights are:

  • Communities can manage their own resources
  • Democracy is most meaningful at a local level
  • In complex systems there are no one-size-fits-all solutions

These insights invite us to do a few things that may help us refresh our approach to climate change and engender more immediate action. For one thing, in asking us to abandon searches for perfect solutions and instead embrace polycentricity, Ostrom explicitly encourages us to move beyond time-wasting searches for panaceas, urging us instead to embrace the ‘imperfect’ – something which Hulme has also called for.

Furthermore, in her insights about the capacity of communities and the superior function of democracy at the local level, Ostrom can give us the impetus to move beyond looking for climate solutions at scales where the logic of collective of action makes any action unlikely. In the words of our report on the subject, Ostrom instructs us to ‘think big, act small’. She offers us a language to begin to conceive of what local, community powered action on climate change might look like.

Such a scale of thinking and working has some inherent advantages. For one thing, it allows us to get to work right away, making a difference where we can while we wait for national and international solutions on the scale of The Green New Deal to gain traction – blazing a trail as we go which can be followed by others later. Through its focus on the local, it also opens doors for us to think about adaptative and preventative policy responses to climate change in tandem.

Between these two thinkers then, we can tentatively piece together the key pillars of a new approach to climate policy – one that is local and built around a plethora of small-scale solutions. By its nature, such an approach will see local government will play a decisive and bigger role in creating change. So what does it mean for how them and their communities?

In this new way of thinking, local government will become a key locus of action on climate change in the short term – representing at least as important an actor as national government. But this does not mean that they will be acting alone. Instead they will act as facilitators and convenors of community power – unlocking the potential that exists within their residents to lead and innovate local climate action.

“We need to recognise that this crisis is unlikely to be solved in a closed-door meeting at a conference for international leaders.”

In order to do this, they will need to support and accelerate community power in all its forms. In our forthcoming report on the evidence for community power, we identify three types of community power initiatives, which offer a framework for thinking about this. Taking forward a truly polycentric, community-powered agenda on climate change will require embracing all of the following three approaches:

  1. Community decision making – Community decision making means embracing deliberative processes which allow people to set their own climate priorities and identify what kinds of action will work in their communities. This helps build democratic legitimacy for the kind of radicalism that is needed to truly address the issues, and allows us to harness the local knowledge that is so essential to ensuring that initiatives actually work.

    To the credit of the sector, this is an area in which progress is already being made, and members can read more about the kind of innovation that is occurring around deliberation in this recently published Innovation In Depth, which spotlights initiatives undertaken in Camden and Leicester.  In these examples, citizens assemblies and other deliberative activities were used to engage residents in the issues that surround climate change at a local level, galvanise action, and allow major input into council plans on the part of local people.
  2. Community collaboration – Community collaboration involves moving away from hierarchical working practices to more equitable ones – and includes approaches such as co-production. This kind of work is not hugely developed in climate change policy. Indeed, top-down diktats have always been at the heart of imagined solutions. Not so long ago, for example, prominent environmentalists such as James Lovelock were proclaiming that the challenge of climate change would require the suspending of democracy and a move to a ‘war footing’ on the part of governments. 

    While such an approach may be needed for dealing with the largest emitters in our society – the 20 corporations who contribute a third of all carbon emissions for example – it is clearly an inappropriate approach to take towards ordinary people. Instead, we need to work out how to build local climate policies that are more consensual, as these kinds of approaches are more likely to actually change behaviour. Things like community energy projects, for example the community owned wind turbines that are being built in Lawrence Weston, offer a road map of what this kind of work could look like in practice, but more work will be needed to flesh out this agenda.
  3. Community capacity building – Community capacity building means giving communities, or helping them develop, the skills and resources they need to take action on issues that are relevant to them. It is through doing this, through equipping people to tackle problems on their own, that we can truly allow for a polycentric approach to climate policy to develop, with different initiatives thriving in different areas, generating learning and innovation that can then be applied elsewhere and scaled as necessary.

    In practice, this means councils giving people the tools they need develop their projects (be that space, funding, resources), and the education needed to inspire them. A good example of a council scheme aimed at helping resource people to pursue their own agendas is Barking and Dagenham’s ‘Everyone Every Day’ initiative  – and a good example of a council creating space for climate education is Camden’s ‘pop-up-climate-think-and-do’.

Hopefully, everyone reading this essay feels the moral need to take transformational action to deal with climate change.

What is needed now, is for us to take ownership of that imperative. We need to recognise that this crisis is unlikely to be solved in a closed-door meeting at a conference for international leaders. We also need to recognise that most of the thinking that is currently taking place at the national level is, for various reasons, inadequate.

This is not comforting. But it can, potentially, be liberating. Once we understand that the most meaningful scale in which to act in the short term is a local one, we can start the important work of building a new environmental movement, built around pillars of community, deliberation and collaboration. This way, we can overcome the short-term instinct to deny, underestimate or wish away the greatest threat we’ll ever face.

This essay has tried to sketch out how this might be done in practice, and offers some thoughts on what kind of intellectual underpinnings could fortify such an approach. We recognise, however, that much more work will need to be done to fill out this vision – and we look forward to contributions from others and to a wider debate.

This long-read launches a programme of research for New Local, exploring how our ideas around community power relate to climate change and the environment. If you are interested in our work in this area, please contact Luca Tiratelli.

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