Can existing policy levers (such as spending, taxation and regulation) be used to deliver more ambitious climate policy and speed up the decarbonisation of the global energy system?
To help policymakers and climate experts explore that question, between 1 and 9 November 2021, the Climate Action Unit ran 9 interactive sessions of online policy simulation tool Policy Pathways.
The participant experience
Entering the simulation via an online platform, participants join the Climate Strategy Advisory Board to a new Prime Minister who has been elected on the promise of delivering immediate climate action.
The first task of the panel is to advise the PM on how to make a large-scale clean energy park a reality. Participants receive information through video clips, expert testimony, and written memos from the Prime Minister’s office. They are then asked to discuss and decide on the efficacy of suggested spending, taxation and regulatory policies to support the delivery of the clean energy park.
A near-reality scenario for the energy system
The simulated clean energy park does not yet exist but projects like it are set to become reality in the next five to ten years. In sun- and wind-rich places like Australia, Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, plans are being drawn up (and partially underway) to build large-scale solar- and wind energy parks, with on-site electrolyser plants to produce ‘green hydrogen’. The hydrogen is transformed into ammonia, a carbon-neutral energy carrier which can be stored and shipped around the world like natural gas.
At 25-50GW of combined solar and wind capacity, these integrated energy parks are 10-100 times larger than the current largest renewable installations. Though they might seem mind-boggling by today’s standards, these kinds of projects must become reality in order to decarbonise the global energy system. They will be crucial in pushing the production of renewable electricity to oil and gas scale, and making the electricity easily transportable (in the form of ammonia as the energy carrier) from places where it will be cheap to produce to places where it would be more expensive.
The need to simulate policy futures
Policy Pathways was developed as a result of 20+ co-production workshops delivered in 2020-2021 with international policymakers and experts in climate risk and energy policy. Their purpose was to test how to effectively deliver expert information on climate risk and energy policy to decision makers.
The workshops uncovered several important insights about how policymakers engage with information about climate risk and policy:
In addition to offering policy practice, the tool also generates data. It logs people’s rating and ranking decisions on the efficacy of specific policy levers. Participants’ discussions - held under Chatham House rule - offer crucial insights into the reasoning behind their decisions. The tool thus generates insights on how policymakers and other experts think about climate and energy policy.
To find out more about Policy Pathways, visit our Policy Pathways webpage.
By some counts, up to 98% of environmental news stories are negative in nature. Implicit in this number is the conventional wisdom among many communicators that increasing people's understanding, awareness, concern or even fear of climate change are necessary precursors for action and behaviour change.
I recently wrote an article in which we review scientific theories of mind and brain that explain why this conventional view is flawed. In real life, the relationship between beliefs and behaviour often goes in the opposite direction: our actions change our beliefs, awareness and concerns through a process of self-justification and self-persuasion. As one action leads to another, this process of self-persuasion can go hand in hand with a deepening engagement and the development of agency—knowing how to act.
One important source of agency is learning from the actions of others. The article propose an approach to climate communication and storytelling that builds people's agency for climate action by providing a wide variety of stories of people taking positive action on climate change.
Applied at scale, this will shift the conceptualization of climate change from 'issue-based' to 'action-based'. It will also expand the current dominant meanings of 'climate action' (i.e. 'consumer action' and 'activism') to incorporate all relevant practices people engage in as members of a community, as professionals and as citizens.
You can read the rest of the article here.
The science of how we become entrenched in our viewsKris De Meyer, King's College London
Finally a new year is here after the most politically divisive 12 months in a very long time. In the UK, Brexit shattered dreams and friendships. In the US, the polarisation was already huge, but a bitter election campaign made the divisions even deeper. Political rhetoric doesn’t persuade evenly. It splits and polarises public opinion.
As a citizen, the growing divisions trouble me. As a neuroscientist, it intrigues me. How is it possible that people come to hold such widely different views of reality? And what can we do (if anything) to break out of the cycle of increasingly hostile feelings towards people who seem to be on “the other side” from us?
To understand how the psychology works, imagine Amy and Betsy, two Democrat supporters. At the start of the presidential primary season, neither of them has a strong preference. They both would like a female president, which draws them towards Hillary Clinton, but they also think that Bernie Sanders would be better at tackling economic inequality. After some initial pondering, Amy decides to support Clinton, while Betsy picks Sanders.
Their initial differences of opinion may have been fairly small, and their preferences weak, but a few months later, they have both become firmly convinced that their candidate is the right one. Their support goes further than words: Amy has started canvassing for Clinton, while Betsy writes articles supporting the Sanders campaign.
How did their positions shift so decidedly? Enter “cognitive dissonance”, a term coined in 1957 by Leon Festinger. It has become shorthand for the inconsistencies we perceive in other people’s views – but rarely in our own.
What people are less aware of is that dissonance drives opinion change. Festinger proposed that the inconsistencies we experience in our beliefs create an emotional discomfort that acts as a force to reduce the inconsistency, by changing our beliefs or adding new ones.
A choice can also create dissonance, especially if it involves a difficult trade off. Not choosing Sanders may generate dissonance for Amy because it clashes with her belief that it is important to tackle inequality, for example.
That choice and commitment to the chosen option leads to opinion change has been demonstrated in many experiments. In one recent study, people rated their chosen holiday destinations higher after than before making the choice. Amazingly, these changes were still in place three years later.
Almost 60 years of research and thousands of experiments have shown that dissonance most strongly operates when events impact our core beliefs, especially the beliefs we have about ourselves as smart, good and competent people.
Pyramid of choice
But how do we become so entrenched? Imagine Amy and Betsy at the top of a pyramid at the start of the campaign, where their preferences are fairly similar. Their initial decision amounts to a step off each side of the pyramid. This sets in motion a cycle of self-justification to reduce the dissonance (“I made the right choice because …”), further actions (defending their decision to family, posting to friends on Facebook, becoming a campaign volunteer), and further self-justification. As they go down their sides of the pyramid, justifying their initial choice, their convictions become stronger and their views grow further apart.
A similar hardening of views happened in Republicans who became either vocal Trump or #NeverTrump supporters, and in previously independent voters when they committed to Clinton or Trump. It also applied to Remain and Leave campaigners in the UK, although the choice they had to make was about an idea rather than a candidate.
As voters of all stripes descend down their sides of the pyramid, they tend to come to like their preferred candidate or view more, and build a stronger dislike of the opposing one. They also seek (and find) more reasons to support their decision. Paradoxically, this means that every time we argue about our position with others, we can become more certain that we are, in fact, right.
The view from the bottom of the pyramid
The further down we go, the more prone we become to confirmation bias and to believing scandal-driven, partisan and even fake news – the dislike we feel for the opposing side makes derogatory stories about them more believable.
In effect, the more certain we become of our own views, the more we feel a need to denigrate those who are on the other side of the pyramid. “I am a good and smart person, and I wouldn’t hold any wrong beliefs or commit any hurtful acts”, our reasoning goes. “If you proclaim the opposite of what I believe, then you must be misguided, ignorant, stupid, crazy, or evil.”
It is no coincidence that people on opposite ends of a polarised debate judge each other in similar terms. Our social brains predispose us to it. Six-month-old infants can already evaluate the behaviour of others, preferring “nice” over “nasty” and “similar” over “dissimilar”.
We also possess powerful, automatic cognitive processes to protect ourselves from being cheated. But our social reasoning is oversensitive and easily misfires. Social media makes matters worse because electronic communication makes it harder to correctly evaluate the perspective and intentions of others. It also makes us more verbally aggressive than we are in person, feeding our perception that those on the other side really are an abusive bunch.
The pyramid analogy is a useful tool to understand how people move from weak to strong convictions on a certain issue or candidate, and how our views can diverge from others who held a similar position in the past.
But having strong convictions is not necessarily a bad thing: after all, they also inspire our best actions.
What would help to reduce the growing antipathy and mistrust is to become more wary of our default stupid-crazy-evil reasoning, the derogatory explanations that we readily believe about people who disagree with us on matters close to our heart. If we keep in mind that – rather than being the “truth” – they can be the knee-jerk reaction of our social brains, we might pull ourselves just high enough up the slopes of the pyramid to find out where our disagreements really come from.