//How can we live sustainably? Insights from a decade of Sciencewise public dialogues

How can we live sustainably? Insights from a decade of Sciencewise public dialogues

Today continues our series of blogs looking at public views on the four themes that guide our work. A quick reminder of these themes:

  • Climate and Environment: How can we live sustainably?
  • Data, AI and Robotics: How should we shape our digital world?
  • Health, Ageing and Wellbeing: How should we live healthy lives?
  • Life Sciences and Biotechnology: How should we shape the future of life?

Earlier this week, we wrote about the public values and views that are common across all dialogues, regardless of the specific theme. Here, our focus is on dialogues that look at climate and the environment and provide guidance, through various lenses, on the question of how we live sustainably.

We have done 24 dialogues on the theme of climate and the environment, all on different subjects (shown below).

Four themes are common to all our climate and environment dialogues. 

  1. Natural solutions are an important part of tackling climate change 

The public know that climate change is a consequence of human activity and tend to prioritise solutions which they see as more ‘natural’. They’re more enthusiastic about long-term sustainable options which address a problem at its root, rather than simply managing its consequences. So, they prefer using natural resources, such as wind, solar or wave power as a way of reducing emissions, rather than using carbon capture and storage to remove emissions already generated. 

Why this preference? In part, it may be because ‘naturalness’ brings a sense of the familiar and understandable, whilst hi tech solutions can be seen as insufficiently researched and riskier. However, it also links with a theme that threads across all dialogues (and was commented on in last week’s blog). Participants don’t like technological solutions being used to address a problem which they see as an unintended consequence of a previous technological ‘advance’.

  1. Use climate technologies to achieve what nature can’t 

This said, dialogue participants are not anti-tech and know that natural solutions alone won’t address the climate emergency. The scale of the challenge of reaching net zero means they can be willing to accept the risks of technology driven solutions when natural solutions alone are not sufficient. 

But tech solutions come with caveats. For example, people may accept nuclear power, but only on condition that it is phased out once renewable sources are generating sufficient energy to meet our needs. This highlights a further nuance in publics’ views, which is their attention to the risks they see in technology driven approaches to climate change. Rather than putting all our eggs in a single tech basket, they emphasise the importance of a diversity of approaches: where tech solutions are needed, spread their risk by using multiple different technologies. 

  1. Climate technologies must generate good jobs for local communities 

Safety, efficacy and the costs of climate technologies are always important in discussions. And so too are employment opportunities. Some climate tech needs to be sited away from densely populated areas, and people see this as offering employment opportunities to rural communities, especially those hit hard by the phasing out of fossil fuels. This draws attention to a theme common in all dialogues, which is equality. People think the climate emergency will exacerbate inequalities, and see the potential for actions addressing climate change to further these growing disparities between haves and have-nots. Making sure that good jobs in climate tech go to places with fewer employment opportunities in other sectors is a common demand. 

  1. Consumers need to be supported by government to help reach net zero

By and large, people want to see action on the climate crisis and many say they will make changes in their own lives. However, they often say they’d like more government support to help them play their part. Support might be things like information on the environmental impact of food products, so they can make informed, climate-friendly choices about what to eat for dinner. Making bigger changes – for example, to how they heat their homes – is more difficult. Whilst people are often open to such changes, they don’t know what route to take, what tech to choose –  and the upfront costs are often too high. People are wary of going into personal debt to decarbonise their homes and generally don’t think that consumers should shoulder this cost on their own. They want certainty as well, so that they don’t invest in a new technology which subsequently proves to be a bad investment because policy has changed or technologies developed. 

Tackling the climate crisis in a way that is rooted in the public’s perspectives would mean addressing the problem at source (e.g. renewables), a sensible use of technologies, spreading risk across different approaches, ensuring steps taken benefit communities and don’t worsen existing inequities, and supporting individuals with government intervention – not leaving it to individual responsibility or market forces.

Read our full report that draws together findings from multiple Sciencewise dialogues conducted over the last decade in relation to the climate and the environment here.

Take a look at our Projects and Impacts page if you’d like to find out more about some of our previous dialogues. And to hear more about the impact that public participation can have on participants, see here.