Cutting edge

March 19, 1999

Forums where local people and experts talk about a green future can help change behaviour and improve policy-making

Wednesday was a not untypical research day: global warming in the morning, stakeholder decision analysis at lunchtime and sustainable London in the late afternoon. It is fun being a geographer. As one, I do research that straddles the environment/people divide. I look at the differences that place and space make to the nature of problems.

My goal is to advance environmental sustainability through research projects that also deliver practical outcomes. In the morning I was part of a team representing the Economic and Social Research Council's global environmental change programme, which gave evidence to a government select committee. The committee wanted to learn what people know about climate change, what they need to know, and what can be done to reduce energy consumption.

Environmental problems arrived on the world's agenda in the mid-1980s around the time I and my colleague Carolyn Harrison began to develop a discursive research methodology involving getting small local groups to discuss local and global environmental issues. We are fascinated by the cultural, social and political resources that people draw on to judge whether global warming exists, the risks it might pose and the reasonableness of demands that they accept personal responsibility by changing everyday practices.

Local experiences make abstract risks tangible and, in this sense, weather extremes are making climate change more "real". But demands for lifestyle changes are still widely contested: partly on the grounds of their effectiveness (what possible difference can one person make to global problems?) and partly on the grounds of fairness (if things are this bad, then why are governments and businesses not changing their practices?).

Environmental scientists and policy-makers see the public as a collection of individuals waiting to be given the right kind of information so they can take rational decisions about changing their behaviour. Researchers working on risk communication and public understanding of science challenge this model by giving experts the opportunity to talk with people with a variety of expertise and local knowledge.

The aim is to enrich scientists' and policy-makers' understanding of the social and cultural dimensions of decision-making, to engage more people in policy and to develop methods that encourage dialogue.

Translation science issues were discussed at the lunch-time meeting between my environment and society research unit and colleagues in the Jackson Environment Institute at University College London.

In the evening, it was a meeting between ESRU graduate students and members of the Sustainable London Trust, who want to hold public workshops on a more sustainable London. We are unsure if the goal of presenting the new mayor with a grassroots strategy can be achieved through the kind of open forum planned. How can the meetings be structured to enable everyone to have a say but also elicit the kind of information needed for a coherent strategy? The graduate students are learning how to negotiate, facilitate and write interestingly for a wide audience - transferable skills that are vital for the kind of research we do. In starting my fourth decade as an academic, I end the day thinking that one of my greatest pleasures is working with such bright, enthusiastic and committed young people.

Jacquie Burgess, professor in the environment and society research unit, department of geography, University College London.

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