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How does climate science influence policy makers?

Updated Wednesday, 15th September 2010

John Turnpenny discusses how scientific evidence is created, used and integrated into environmental policy

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The role of evidence in climate policy

John Turnpenny is Senior Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia. Here he discusses his research into how scientific evidence is created and used by governments to inform climate policy.

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Very specifically what I’m doing at the moment is looking at the way that governments have created systems for embedding evidence use within decision making.  And one of the big systems that’s been developed over the last few years is what is known as policy appraisal.  So policies are assessed for what kinds of impacts they might have once they’re implemented.  And usually it’s a range of different impacts, like environmental impacts, economic impacts, social impacts, cost of regulation, for example, and all of these different impacts are supposed to be assessed and then a decision’s made about what policy to pursue.

That’s the theory, but of course policymaking is far more messy and complicated than that.  So these appraisals are generated but often the resulting policy that comes out at the other end isn’t anywhere near what the analysis suggests that it should be.  So my job at the moment is to try and understand how these assessment systems work within, primarily within Europe, particularly the European Commission, and to try and understand where the evidence comes from, whose evidence is used, what kinds of different types of evidence there are and then try to better understand how evidence might be created and used in the future. 

One of the big challenges is a philosophical challenge, which is that there are limits to what we can find out through analysis.  I think you often hear a lot of language spoken as if just around the corner we will have all of the answers to every problem, if only we do a bit more analysis.  And I think that’s a rather difficult aim to live up to because we’re never going to get all of the answers.  We might improve our knowledge, and that’s in fact what scientists do, they gradually improve the knowledge that we have and build on it and build on it and build on it and find out new things all the time, but we’ll never know for sure exactly what might happen in a particular situation, especially when we’re coming down to how human beings might react.  Human beings are very difficult to predict.  Human behaviour is very difficult to predict and you might be able to get some pretty good ideas of what climate change might do for example in the next fifty or one hundred years but to try and understand how people are going to react to that, well it’s a very, very tall order indeed.

Looking ahead: future scenario creation

John explains a project where he worked with a regional authority to create a set of scenarios and targets to mitigate climate change, attempting to communicate and engage the public, researchers and local officials.

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The UK is committed to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  The work I did was with the regional authority within the East of England and also with Norfolk County Council.  And what I did was to, the aim was to make them think about how they might reach those targets.  At the time, this was perhaps six or seven years ago now, there wasn’t really any kind of trickle down if you like from what we might have to do as a country to meet our greenhouse gas reduction emissions and what that would actually mean on the ground.  And so what I did was I created a set of potential ways that we as a region and we as a county in Norfolk might get to those targets, as well as adapting to climate change.

So we have a lot of issues within the East of England about, for example, water supply.  It’s a very dry region, what’s going to happen under climate change?  We have a lot of problems with coastal erosion, is that going to increase under climate change?  So taking those considerations, but also things like planning decisions, so where are the new houses going to be put within the region?  Is that going to increase the amount of transport that we need because they’re spread out all over the place and people need to travel for work.  How’s that going to affect the economic development in different parts of the region?

So the scenarios were a kind of tool if you like to try and get people to think about lots of different things at once and together with some of the representatives from the regional authority and the county we’ve created set scenarios of different ways that we might reach 2050, different possibilities.  These weren’t predictions and scenarios aren’t predictions, they’re possibilities, a way of helping people think about what might happen in the future by going through it step by step and seeing what could happen.

So that was a very good way of getting people to consider something which was a long way outside most, certainly most elected politicians timescales and actually most officials timescales as well, apart from perhaps water engineers who are concerned with very long timescales but, and communicating these things with people who are having to make these decisions.  And not just coming at the end of the project and saying well here I’ve come up with all of this stuff, here you go, use it, because of course they wouldn’t.  But working with them as I went along within the development of the scenarios, getting them to come to meetings where we thought through what the implications of each one might be and actually getting them to buy into the results.  So that kind of joint development really helped with communication. 

I think this model of trying to get users and researchers working together was, I’m not saying that it’s perfect and we’ve certainly got plenty of things that we need to resolve that came up during the project, but it was a kind of a new attempt to do things a little bit differently.  I’m actually pretty optimistic on some days and very pessimistic on others because, and I was mentioning that scenario project, that was six, seven years ago, and a lot of the decision makers and the people who are helping to make decisions had not even considered climate change as an issue.  It’s all different now.

There’s obligations on local authorities to deal with climate change, there’s a legal requirement now for Britain to meet its ambitions for 2050 and things have really moved on in the policy world.  There’s an acceptance that climate change is happening and something needs to be done about it, and there’s a lot of policy machinery that’s been kind of cranked into life and now it’s starting to really move.  But I feel very pessimistic as well because I see that the attitude among the general public is somewhat more sceptical than it was five years ago, and this is ironic because the science of whether climate change is happening or not and whether it’s caused by human activity is actually a lot more settled now than it was certainly ten years ago and five years ago as well. 

So people are reacting to the fact that they’re now having to make changes because of policy and that we’re being asked to do all sorts of things like pay taxes on flights and increased prices of petrol and a whole range of other things that we’re being asked to do.  And I think people find that very difficult and then they start questioning whether the premise of all this is right, and I’m concerned about that.  Because I think that it’s a classic case of science can’t necessarily convince people.  You may communicate that climate change is happening and here’s the evidence, as much as you like, but if people don’t really want to listen to it, it won’t make any difference.

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