OPINION: Communities close the knowledge gap

Thursday 09 June 2022

Smoke stacks
Writing for The Scotsman, Dr Jacob Nielsen, Dr Kostas Stavrianakis, and Professor Zoe Morrison address climate change and its complex, wide-reaching impact on all aspects of society.

Many people are concerned about industrial carbon dioxide emissions and their link to increasing climate change but feel powerless about this issue that is often distant from their everyday lives. 

This is not surprising as most discussions about how to address climate change can seem dominated by groups of scientists, politicians, business lobbyists, and environmental activists who all have specialised in-depth knowledge about the topic of what is increasingly being referred to as "greentech” or “cleantech”. 

People might wonder how it would ever be possible for someone with little technical knowledge to contribute to tackling the immense social, political and economic challenges that climate change presents. Given the sheer complexity of these decarbonisation technologies, is it not better to leave it to the experts to come up with the necessary solutions? After all, are they not the ones that know best? 

We are a group of interdisciplinary social scientists who are currently seeking to explore how communities can contribute to the move towards decarbonisation. Although conventional wisdom suggests leaving complex issues to the experts, research has shown that such a narrow focus on the technical aspects of reducing carbon dioxide emissions often creates unexpected adverse social, economic, political, and environmental impacts. 

These problems emerge precisely because the challenge of addressing climate change is so complex and has wide-reaching impacts on all aspects of society and communities. This means that even climate scientists, politicians, and activist organisations with their combined expertise cannot fully understand all of the potential benefits and risks of greentech initiatives for the communities who are most impacted by them. 

To help address this knowledge gap, there are increasing calls for communities to become more involved in the implementation of new greentech processes from the beginning. Although lay communities might not have expert knowledge about climate change, they have a unique insight into the problems industrial scale pollution can cause and what impacts decarbonisation projects can have on their everyday life. This community-based knowledge is important to enhance our understanding of how best to create reduced carbon and carbon-neutral societies and to ensure that the risks and benefits of such projects are discussed and distributed in a just and fair way. 

The importance of community participation and local knowledge is increasingly being recognised by international institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), but how to involve and learn from communities in greentech initiatives is still vastly unexplored. We are interested in the potential for working closely with communities to jointly identify ways to reduce our carbon emissions such as carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) and other technological solutions.

We know that previous work to engage with communities on CCUS projects has largely been aimed at persuasion rather than consultation. Greentech projects are often done to, rather than with, communities. In some cases, what is claimed as community acceptance, could more accurately be described as a lack of opposition. We want to go beyond this and explore a more inclusive approach and collaboratively solve one of the most complex issues being tackled by the scientific community. 

Without the complete participation of communities, we won’t be able to fully address the threats posed by climate change. Our work is one of many projects undertaken by RGU which builds on our extensive experience in the energy sector. We at RGU are committed to supporting the Scottish Government’s ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and will continue to be a key voice in the climate change and net zero conversation. 

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