Pessimism, profit and uncertainty – how we view overcoming climate challenges 


Following COP28, Duncan Grimes reflected on NatCen’s experiences deliberating with the public on climate related issues, and identified three challenges to consider: pessimism, profit and uncertainty. 

Citizens assemblies and public dialogues are two ways of bringing the public together to hear from experts, deliberate with each other and then make recommendations public policy. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen’s) Centre for Deliberation recently ran the Nature and Us Citizen’s Assembly on the future of the natural environment in Wales and a public dialogue on the role of Biomass in achieving net zero that was commissioned by the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Sciencewise. 

In this blog, we share how these challenges shaped the agreed vision and principles, as well as offering thoughts on how a balance of storytelling and evidence can help re-imagine how we deliberate on climate. Deliberative practitioners need to engage with these attitudes and find a place to explore them, otherwise there is a risk they come to dominate and obscure the discussion. 

Detail from visual note taking record of key elements of the vision for the Nature and Us assembly. Illustration by Laura Sorvala

Climate pessimism 

Although deliberation is often an empowering experience for participants discussions on climate policy take place in a wider media culture of ‘Climate doom’ – where much coverage of climate change focuses on the potential disastrous impacts if climate change goes unchecked. The Frameworks Institute highlight the challenge this presents to engaging the public on climate change by emphasising the importance of showing change is possible and normalising action in their analysis of Climate Change communication.
In the Nature and Us assembly we encountered this pessimism but also moved towards a possible solution as the deliberation progressed. During the assembly, when participants considered what actions they could take to protect nature, they often defaulted to things the government (UK, Welsh, and local) could do rather than actions they could take. 

Consequently, the final agreed vision statements reflected a relationship where the government leads through legislation, funding, and communications. Then, if the government has led effectively, the public has a responsibility to act. This relationship includes different ways of involving the public (like assemblies) so that they feel more connected to the way the government leads. 

Profit and vested interest
 NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey shows a decreasing number of us trust the government "to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party", and this was evident in our deliberations. 
In our public dialogue on the role of biomass and the Nature and Us assembly participants expressed concerns that that the vested interests of private industry and political parties rather than evidence, would take precedence on decisions related to nature and net zero. 

This led to participants agreeing on principles and vision statements that emphasised clarity and transparency around how nature and net zero policy is developed, as well as assurances that it is evidence-based and not politicised.
 Deliberation introduces the public to the uncertainty of policymaking and through shared evidence aims to help participants navigate that uncertainty. 

When deliberating the role of biomass in achieving net zero this uncertainty related to national policy decisions. Participants heard conflicting views on the impact of biomass from scientists, policymakers and Environmental NGOs. This led them to agree a principle of ensuring the biomass evidence base reflects scientific consensus before committing to action. 

When deliberating the future of the natural environment participants expressed uncertainty at a more personal level – they were unsure how the actions they could take may impact their local environment. Consequently the agreed vision highlighted the importance of information to help people make informed environmentally friendly decisions. 

The balance of evidence and stories

In our experience engaging with pessimism, profit and uncertainty requires a balance of evidence and storytelling. 

In the biomass dialogue, people heard evidence from a range of specialists, which included representatives from the commissioning department BEIS (now DENEZ). This didn’t remove issues of pessimism, trust and uncertainty, but instead provided space for them to be heard and reflected in the final principles.  

For the Nature and Us assembly we used story telling techniques to ground the discussion in people’s relationship with nature. In online sessions participants discussed objects that represented their relationship with nature, whilst face to face they joined story-telling circles to help them connect with their local environment. This supported participants to appreciate the difference in one another’s experiences and priorities. In between these exercises participants heard a range of evidence from different speakers. 

To deliberate it is important for people to have shared evidence, but just as important is the space for people to reimagine what this could mean for their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. 

AUTHOR BIO: Duncan Grimes – Research Director, Centre for Deliberation. Duncan is interested in how the public makes sense of complex issues, and how research can help them become more involved in solutions. His work in the Centre for Deliberation starts with where the public are at – their key frames and narratives on a given social issue – and then uses participatory techniques to design a process that enables people to give an informed view and influence policy. Some of the Centre's work is about bringing national issues to the public – online workshops and peer research tasks to ask, ‘How can society support us to live healthier longer lives?’. Other projects build out from community level – training Bedfordshire residents as peer researchers to understand the reasons behind disproportionate impact of COVID-19.

Acknowledgements: This article was originally posted by the National Centre for Social Research in January 2024