The role of the people
2022-01-25

Recently I read that, of the top 10 fastest growing sectors in the UK, 8 employ more graduates of arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) subjects than any other. The reason being that ‘successfully addressing the[se] challenges of the future will need not just technological solutions but the understanding of human behaviour and how to achieve social and cultural change which AHSS can provide’[1]. I knew about the argument for community voice in decision making and innovation, however, it wasn’t until I attended COP26 that I was able to appreciate the imperative nature of finding solutions that work for the people. In almost every session I attended the same conclusion was drawn; right now, we need a double revolution, one of reducing emissions and one of participation.

In a session entitled Building an international community for local smart grids, it was stated that we can make our cities sustainable by employing technology (notably AI) to centrally manage energy output. Using intelligent controls, we can understand where energy is being consumed and reduce consumption through analysing peak times. There was talk, too, of managing technology so as to ‘strike a fair deal on data’. I won’t try to explain this comment because, as an arts graduate myself, I lack confidence in my competency with data and technology (and don’t even get me started on AI – I have no clue). I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way, and was relieved when one speaker from SSE added a further three Cs to the Prime Minister’s coals, cars, and cash mandate: customers, communities, and collaboration. Ah, there’s a topic I can get on board with.

This message was present in many sessions I attended, with the conclusion being that having the technical and engineering solutions is only one aspect of the process. Understanding what people need and any barriers they face is the first step in developing a solution that works for those whose lives it will affect. We need to sit down with people, in their homes, in their community councils, in their schools, in their places of work and talk to them about their concerns or their needs in relation to the energy transition. I was very interested to hear from a representative from the Heschel Center for Sustainability who talked about the Israel Climate Coalition which was instigated in 2020 in light of COP26 being postponed. Over the course of the year the coalition ran 14 regional climate conferences to address local environmental and social topics in the context of the climate crisis. They had 6000 people participate across the country.

The British Academy argues that uncertainty and fear surrounding future challenges such as climate change can fuel anti-establishment sentiment when combined with existing inequalities[2]. It is imperative, then, that the government works with the people to tackle climate change. We must seek to understand what is happening, using skills in critical analysis, reflection, communication and problem solving. These skills, along with ethical understanding and social intelligence are central to the study of AHSS[3].

There is another argument to incorporating the voice of the people in climate decision making. On my first day at COP, I attended a session about the effects of climate change on Indigenous food systems run by the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change. The overarching message from this session was that Indigenous people have a deep awareness for, and understanding of, how climate change is affecting biodiversity. One speaker talked about the frustration of having scientists think only of their knowledge as procedural when it is, in fact, substantive. Indigenous knowledge (IK) is defined as:

‘…a systematic way of thinking applied to phenomena across biological, physical, cultural, and spiritual systems…IK goes beyond observations and ecological knowledge, offering a unique “way of knowing.” This knowledge can identify research needs and be applied to them, which will ultimately inform decisionmakers.’[4]

From this definition we can see that combating climate change is not simply a job for the technologically competent among us. Although a quite specific example, the argument for including the voice of the people can be made across all corners of the world. It’s not just about what is wanted or expected from climate talks, it’s also a question of collating local knowledge to best support new initiatives, ensuring time is not wasted in designing a solution that doesn’t suit the circumstance.

Building solutions that work for the people is one step on the road to minimising our carbon output, but we must also arm our society with the knowledge of new systems so as to encourage participation in climate initiatives. In one session I attended called The power of public engagement for harnessing climate action, the point was made about education, and how it is key to combating climate change. Every speaker at the sessions I attended was in favour of empowering people and communities to come up with creative solutions, but again we need the skills of AHSS graduates to ensure effective and concise communication. There is concern about sounding patronising when trying to explain new systems, and there is also the question of ensuring understanding of research to avoid a culture of fear and distrust. I don’t have every detail worked out, but I do know that engineering and technology alone are not going to get us out of the climate crisis. The primary focus of many sessions I attended was how infrastructure meets communities, and the overarching message was that customers need to be at the centre of the dialogue to ensure new initiatives are accessible for all. As one speaker summarised, if we get it wrong on participation, we get it wrong on climate change.

 

 

[1] The British Academy (2020) Qualified for the Future: Quantifying demand for arts, humanities and social science skills, online publication https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/1888/Qualified-for-the-Future-Quantifying-demand-for-arts-humanities-social-science-skills.pdf

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Ethical and Equitable Engagement Synthesis Report: A collection of Inuit rules, guidelines, protocols, and values for the engagement of Inuit Communities and Indigenous Knowledge from Across Inuit Nunaat. Inuit Circumpolar Council 2021. Available at https://secureservercdn.net/45.40.145.201/hh3.0e7.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/ICC-EEE-Synthesis-report-WEB.pdf 

Published by Research, University of Aberdeen

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