Subjectivity and Climate Change

In her 2016 Ph.D. thesis Gillian Westcott examined the part played by subjective attitudes to climate change in determining the policy and actions of local authorities in South West England [1].  The research used interviews with officers and members of seven local authorities in the area, conducted during the years 2010 to 2013. While much has changed since then, the views expressed could well be relevant to today’s community energy workers and others who engage with local authorities on climate change issues.

In addition to its central focus on individual subjectivity, worldview and motivation, the study investigated corporate culture, climate change denial, the influence of central government policy, local political realities, and institutional structure. The thesis is valuable in providing historical and theoretical background to climate change issues at international and national level through its review of the literature, however the emphasis in this article will be on the findings of the interviews at local level.

The seven local authorities were similar in being subject to the same legislation and having the same funding mechanisms, regulatory and policy environment. They differed politically, in their dependence on tourism, and in their vulnerability to climate related threats such as flooding.  Two authorities, Weirbridge and Greenleigh which differed significantly in geography, one being rural and one urban, were selected as case studies.

Central government finance and policy were key determinants in all the local authorities studied, but the policy which is actually implemented in local areas is influenced not only by conflicting responsibilities and regulations issued from above, but by the opinions and worldviews of their staff. Westcott points out that studies of individuals “have arrived fairly consistently at the conclusion that they are not strictly rational, in the sense that decisions are influenced by contingency, emotion, animal spirits, which order alternatives are presented in, and whether the alternatives are gains or losses”. Human response to climate change “may be made up of ‘short cuts’ in thinking and mnemonics, at times emotional, often altruistic and to a large extent socially determined” - behaviour sometimes known as ‘bounded rationality’.

Issues of anxiety and denial are discussed in both general terms and in the context of local government. The subject of climate change can trigger psychological defensive reactions, and denial and avoidance of thinking about it may mask the pain of believing that nothing can be done. Even where the existence of climate change is acknowledged, a state of denial, of ‘knowing and not knowing’ at the same time, may inhibit exploration of avenues for action. People may accept climate science from a rational viewpoint, but hold it at a distance emotionally. National samples reported in 2013 showed various types of denial, illustrated below with percentages of responses:

 I don’t feel uneasy about climate change’ (Emotional Denial, 47.2 %)

My daily actions are not part of the climate change problem’ (Personal Denial 27.6 %) 

There is nothing I can do personally that will have any significant effect on limiting climate change.’ (Practical Denial 65 %)

“Attitudes are influenced by norms about what feelings and attitudes can be displayed in various social settings, and there are repertoires of responses which defend against those emotions whose display is socially undesirable, such as guilt, anxiety, and … shame, a much less tractable type of affect than guilt.”

Using the results of other studies, Westcott suggests that local authorities do act to reduce carbon emissions of their organization and geographic area when:

1The issue is seen as urgent in relation to other issues;

2 Technical information and expertise is adequate to identify alternative actions and policies to achieve greenhouse emissions reduction;

3 Corporate culture is favourable to relevant policy and carbon reduction activities; and commitment is achieved across departmental boundaries;

4 Carbon reduction is seen as being in the interests of the organization (whether because of central government diktat, incentives, or public opinion or some combination of these); and action is seen as effective.

It is interesting to note that the research ethics took into account the emotional harm that interviewees might suffer from “dwelling on subjects which might cause anxiety”. Interviewees included “relevant portfolio holders (including economic as well as environmentally-related jobs), members of planning committees, chairs of relevant scrutiny committees and officers in environmental health, development policy and transport areas.” 

The following responses were given on the question of priorities:

Rural Councillor:  [Instantly] ‘Potholes

Weirbridge councillor: ‘The services we give.. Most people… when it affects them, they revert back to the street cleaning and the dustbins, and what affects them on a very daily basis.’ 

Greenleigh councillor: ‘Keeping up pace with all the legislation coming through, about health and welfare, and localism, and things like regional pay     

Rural Councillor:  To look at the economy and jobs’

In many interviews, the first priority mentioned was finance:

Morris, a councillor:  The trouble in the last couple of years, 18 months certainly, is the budget debate’s just dominated everything.  Not a week goes by without having to make decisions that you wouldn’t normally have made…Our budget is shrinking from fourteen million down to nine and a half.’  

Views on climate change: of twenty-eight respondents with unambiguous views about climate change, none claimed that it was not happening, fifteen saw the issue as urgent, six regarded climate change as anthropogenic but not urgent, four expressed doubts about the findings of climate science, and three thought it was mainly a natural phenomenon. Dorothy, a councillor in an authority which has been very proactive on the carbon agenda, said:

as an academic background I’m a geographer, I studied physical geography at University, including climates and  this sort of thing (chuckles) and the climate’s been changing for millennia, way back in geological time. Yes, it’s changing now quite rapidly, but it’s changed just as rapidly in the past, before man’s influence.  As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on what man’s involvement in that is.

Richard, an estates manager, also referred to doubt about the anthropogenic causes:

You will get totally different opinions on it, you know. I don’t think people are convinced about climate change and its causes and everything else……. I think people believe that something’s happening, but they’re not entirely sure about why, or how, or precisely…and there’s that distrust of scientists, they’ll say they know what …

Another councillor commented that climate change was likely to be caused by ‘the explosions on the sun.  And they’ve been coming because they’re having a lot of these Northern Lights’

Councillor Alan: I think we don’t know enough about climate.  We know there are wide natural variations, between ice ages, and we don’t know what part we’re in.  And we cannot at the moment graph out what would happen on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis, for the last 200,000 years even, let alone for the last 2 million years, which would probably be a better example.  So we don’t know …. It’s very dangerous to blame it on human activity.

Councillor Kate: ‘It is going to happen, no matter what. Humans may try to fight it but they’re not going to stop it’. 

The study found it more common for respondents to “express belief that climate change is largely caused by humans, but that its importance has been overestimated.” 

Councillor Jack: Climate change is important, very important, but some of the problems we face, on a national scale – terrorism, immigration, food mountains or not, um, is a bigger problem than climate change. On a local level, in my opinion the biggest problem we have in the South West of England, is rural isolation.

Later he said: ‘The left hand thinks it’s a load of tosh and the right hand thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread, what do you do?’…

Richard, Estates Manager, made three points: 

1) He doubts the findings of climate science: ‘everybody always says things are black and white but they never are.’

2) Anyway the Chinese: ‘There’s no point in the West saving carbon emissions, if China and India are increasing by a bigger amount. What’s the point?  

3) He explains that council members will tend to veto major expenditure bids unless there is a strong business case; there is no point in proposing projects on the basis of their carbon impacts, only on the basis of ‘invest to save.’ 

Some councillors showed urgency in their attitudes to climate change. Gerard, a senior county councillor:

of course there have been natural occurrences that have caused episodes of warming and cooling of the earth’s – of the planet, but this is the first time that it’s been activated by man’s greed and avarice.

John, an Independent councillor, was pessimistic about carbon reduction and the electoral prospects for those who urged action:

I think it’s a human thing.  You cannot burn billions of years of oil laid down and carbon laid down in 400 years and not affect the heat of the planet.  I just can’t see how that can happen’

And:  If I said to my constituents, when I go to vote next time, when it comes to elections, I’m  going to [support] wind turbines all along the villages , it’s your environment being sensitive to your grandchildren in years to come, I know that I wouldn’t get elected again……

On technical knowledge in local authorities:

Janet, officer:  I would say to you, there is a complete lack of knowledge and skills on this agenda. It is. I mean, they are more environmentally aware, are planners, and across local authorities, and it’s kind of the moral, we know we ought to be doing it, but the know how is, you know...

John, officer: ‘If you just know about climate change, and you know nothing about the potential projects that you can do, or the potential impact of those, or the cost of those, you’ll certainly come up with the wrong solution’

Alison, asked to explain different figures produced for greenhouse emissions: ‘Yea, yea, no, well, unfortunately, everybody who might have helped you understand that has probably been made redundant now.’

In relation to planning:

Jim: ‘My colleagues in the planning team are predisposed to a strong amenity focus, because that’s how you’re trained as a town planner. Carbon is just another factor you have to deal with – number 21 if you like. I feel the big challenge is that, while intellectually they see a need for a major change of outlook, in practice they need skilling up.’ 

The importance of appropriate commitment within planning departments was emphasized by senior officer Alison:

Over the years, it’s been one of the frustrations for me personally, is trying to engage planning in this, and for planning to understand how significant their role is.  I think they get very focused on approving planning applications, and not seeing beyond that...

Frank, a councillor and planning committee member, asked whether greenhouse emissions were ever considered in planning decisions, replied:

Cor. (Thoughtful pause) Not really.  No, not really.  It’s more impact on the road structure, the infrastructure, the sewage, the water drain off – all things like that, rather than polluting the atmosphere.’

Councillors described many cases where refusals of planning permission in rural areas had been overturned at appeal ... one district councillor felt he could not oppose a particular development for fear of landing the council with a large bill in appeal expenses.

Westcott points to the segmented nature of councils, as with many organizations, where culture and attitudes vary between departments, referred to by an officer as the ‘silo-ed nature’ of the council. “In many instances climate change policy, having been identified as an environmental problem, is placed within Environmental Health where it sits alongside Air Quality, street cleaning, recycling and other issues relating to the local environment.”

Jeremy, an officer with climate change written into his job description, and working in the Environmental Health directorate said:

I don’t think the sustainability issue is yet engaged in the cultures of a lot of the other directorates, I mean this directorate people understand it, in this directorate , but it has environment stuck on the front of it, so they begin to understand it, um, but the others it’s a little more difficult.’

Short termism in local government was an almost universal complaint.

Nicola, councillor: ‘I think most councillors struggle to see a life beyond their next election date…. and I think at the moment, with the recessions, as with everything else, it’s very hard to sit and look at, think about the environmental issues and the impact we have as an authority when we’re literally struggling to manage day to day and year on year, we’re struggling to consolidate our budgets and to ensure that we’re not going heavily into debt.’

Westcott concluded her thesis with suggestions from respondents on how authorities could more effectively reduce their greenhouse emissions, but it might be more appropriate here to end with some of her remarks on the leadership needed to help local government face the challenge of climate change. Austerity and the loss of local authorities’ financial discretion has left them “introspective, demoralized and risk averse.  Some change in the opposite direction will be needed if they are to take a leading role in shifting their local economy and society in the direction of a low carbon and more energy secure future…Foremost among the conclusions of this study is the need to facilitate more conversation about climate change in the context of practical decisions …  and unravel how climate change interlocks with the values and practices in their lives, with meanings, desires and emotions such as loss, trauma, guilt, anxiety, despair and rage”  Leadership is needed which “recognizes the difficulty of the problem and enables responses but does not make implausible promises” and (quoting Melanie Klein) “Good leadership is about helping followers to face this anxiety, and so put together the parts of themselves they keep separate so as not to know what they fear to know, their own weakness, immaturity and incompetence”.  


The role of subjective factors in local authorities' action on climate change in South West England

G.M. Westcott - 2016


Popular posts from this blog

Climate Change Plans in South West England

Carbon Neutral Planning for Local Government