Implementing net zero through a pluralistic evidence base

6 December 2022


Implementing net zero through a pluralistic evidence base

Reported by Sam Stephenson, PhD in climate policy and politics at University of Cambridge.

Narratives can play an important role in policy making, both as forms of evidence and methods of contextualising other forms of data. Discussions about ‘the discourse’ both online and in the media highlights its somewhat ethereal power over policy making. While nebulous and hard to define, constant meta-discussions about the discourse are constant among political commentators and play a role in determining how policy is viewed, and what is understood to be ‘acceptable’. We can see this in the narrative around ‘net zero’ that has emerged in recent years.

In October, Professor Sarah Dillon (Faculty of English, University of Cambridge) and Rachel Fisher (Deputy Director for Land Use Policy at Defra) joined a cross-disciplinary group of academics as part of a Cambridge Zero Policy Forum roundtable discussion on narratives and their links with climate change policy.

Participants discussed how a more pluralistic evidence base might be valuable in policy making and the role that stories and narratives can play in generating this. It was suggested that many see climate change as a matter for the physical sciences, which limits the types of evidence and input which are considered. Drawing on Professor Dillon’s recent book Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning (co-authored with Claire Craig), participants explored how the four cognitive functions (set out below) of narratives can provide evidence for, and have an impact on, climate change politics and policy.

1. Narratives as offering different points of view and framings:

Introducing different narratives provides people with different ways of looking at and understanding the world. They also make the reader check their own framing and think more critically about their own view of the world and by extension cause them to make different decisions. By taking into account other framings, or at least being aware of them, it can also stop a person/group from getting locked into a singular framing (such as climate change as solely a matter for the hard sciences) that may be detrimental to the development of new policies.

2. Narratives as the creator of collective identities:

Just as narratives offer new ways of understanding the world, they also allow the exploration of how different collective identities engage with one another. The interaction between different communities and identities, and in novel situations beyond what the reader may experience, may allow a policy practitioner to gain a greater understanding of a collective to which they do not belong and therefore change the formation of policy they work on. Moreover, the existence of narratives as entities themselves may allow for the creation of further identities, as groups share or engage with a common story for instance, which can act as a new viewpoint and understanding on which to draw from.

3. Narratives functioning as models:

Current economic and climate models play a hegemonic role in understanding the climate crisis. However, understanding narratives as both mimetic and anticipatory models (i.e., as models for the now and the future) can help to pluralise the type of models that are considered. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel Aurora models a self-contained ecosystem set on a spaceship heading for a new inhabitable planet. This form of modelling — understanding what a sustainable closed system could be —has the potential to be a great model for the form of sustainable living required on Earth. By considering the rich thought process imagined in the creation of new worlds and different types of systems, in narratives, we can create a more expansive set of models for understanding our world.

Models provide a simplified extraction of a complex system that attempt to produce some knowledge about the ‘true’ system, in the same way that stories do. In addition to this, stories provide extra value to computation models through their ability to present and communicate their results (a challenge faced by current modelling practices, and the people that work with them). Stories and narratives, therefore, have an important role to play as complementary or alternative narrative models, or as methods of communication of the results of computational and other scientific models.

4. Narratives allowing for anticipation of the future:

Scientific evidence about the future is already highly contested, which provides the opportunity to bring in new forms of evidence to guide our anticipation of the future. More of the models we use to understand the (current and future) world need to incorporate climate change into their work (whether narrative or scientific models). In recent years we have seen an uptick in discussions about climate change within public media. This includes the news but has also received key storylines in popular media such as EastEnders and The Archers. Creating a pluralistic evidence base around how we anticipate the climate crisis to develop allows for a more expensive assessment of climate action.

Dillon and Craig have found a general receptiveness to the notion of storylistening both in this group and with policy makers more broadly. Key to storylistening is providing a framework to use narrative evidence rigorously, so it can form part of a strong pluralistic evidence base, not so that taking stories seriously leads to a post-truth free for all. Participants also discussed how to implement storylistening. The principal answer to this, like all evidence gathering, is the utilisation of experts. Moreover, as climate concerns begin to appear in fiction beyond just the genre of science fiction, it is evident we will need more experts and expertise to help us understand what influence this is having on the rest of society. From drama, to sitcoms, to satire, fictional portrayals of climate change are becoming more common. Storylistening provides an essential set of tools for beginning to think about how we leverage these new narratives to create a more pluralistic evidence base for combatting the climate crisis.

Image credit: Nong V on Unsplash