Tag Archive | climate change

Gazing through the looking glass: the black box of policy

Policy development is usually a mix of several different factors coming together; it is often contextual and temporal. The condition in which policy is created is often a process that is not well understood. Marmot (2004) highlights the bilateral interactions between policy makers and researchers – he goes on to editorialize the question: “Evidence based policy or policy based evidence?”. His example of policy surrounding alcohol control in the UK exasperates the notion that policy usually requires both evidence and desire of policy makers to take action. His suggestion is that there are “two issues: what the science shows and its policy implications” (Marmot, 907). Inherent in this suggestion is that scientists no matter how apolitical they may want to stay they too are actors in the development of policy.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a working group about climate change, and as many of us can attest to the implication of climate change are ever-present. Climate Change is beginning to impact our environment, resulting in changes that we cannot predict. Our health, our work, our social life and mental well-being are all at risk when considering the impacts of Climate Change. The scientific evidence is alarmingly suggesting that we are at a state of emergency (IPCC, 2013; ITF, 2010), so why is no one concerned? Why do the scientists insist on publishing more damming reports but the action (government intervention in the form of policy) required to discuss this devastation remain fragmented and weak. I am not suggesting that there is not some feel good stories – refer to the major shifts to public transport and reduction in fossil fuel in Curitiba, Columbia (UNEP/ILO/IOE/ITUC, 2008) or the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy group working on a publicly owned transition to a low-carbon economy (Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, 2013). Some heavily committed people around the world are screaming at the rest of us, and we can’t seem to muster up the courage to join them. At this point we can look to government for leadership but the need for personal action is also required and to that end to mobilize the kind of change that is being suggested we must all act, at all levels. This is an example where the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly calling for action but the action required is not being taken up by policy makers.


Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100188288/the-us-election-has-put-climate-change-back-on-the-political-agenda/

This lack of action can be seen as somewhat frustrating for many of us, but as Straus & Jones (2004) point out “we now have too many sources of evidence compiled with a variable mix of scientific rigor and opinion, resulting in confusing messages” (987). For every academic publication, there are others that will contradict or interpret the research differently. Getting back to the original focus surrounding policy, I think that it begs the question, how is policy created and how do we make sure that it is created in a way that will maximize the most positive influence for all of us. Future research need to focus on how research can translate into best practice. From a practical response, I also believe that it is time that scientist stop pretending that they are apolitical – and that they start taking more responsibility through action for their findings.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2013). Group 1: Report 5. Retrieved from http://www.cllimatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGIAR5_WGI-12Doc2b_FinalDraft_All.pdf

International Transport Workers Federation (2010). Discussion Document: Transport workers and climate change: Towards sustainable, low-carbon mobility.

Marmot, M. (2004). Evidence based policy or policy based evidence?: Willingness to take action influences the view of the evidence – look at alcohol. British Medical Journal, 328, 7445, 906-907.

Straus, S., & Jones, G. (2004). What has evidence based medicine done for us? It has given us a good start, but much remains to be done. British Medical Journal, 329, 7473, 987-988.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. (2013). About the initiative. Retrieved from: http://www.energydemocracyinitiative.org

UNEP/ILO/IOE/ITUC. (2008). Green jobs: Towards decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world.

Why doesn’t anyone get it? Digging deeper with mental models

Why doesn’t anyone get it? The age-old question scientists have been forgetting to ask for centuries. A mental models approach attempts to get to the bottom of this through describing and assessing beliefs of particular groups about an issue. This is particularly interesting in the context of climate change a field of research that seems to continually struggle to sell itself to the masses despite scientific evidence which begs the question, what are we doing wrong? To help answer this question, a mental model is a representation of how people understand how something works- an aspect that we have read is often taken for granted in streamlined attempts at stakeholder engagement. The idea behind a mental models approach being that if you take a moment to assess the understanding that individuals or groups have in the first place you will be better equipped to intercept false understandings of a problem at their source, such as climate change (CRED, 2009).



The classic example of an inaccurate mental model in the field of climate change is the false perception many hold that the hole in the ozone is connected to climate change, said hole allowing more solar radiation to enter or escape thus warming or cooling the planet. This leads to the perception that banning aerosol cans solves climate change for example. Once such a model is identified however, advocates for global action on climate change can address it directly to correct this flawed logic (CRED, 2009). Other examples I stumbled upon include using a mental models approach to assess the communication of occupational health risks in machine shops which helped to understand disconnects between how workers receive information vs. how they would like to receive information and frustration from experts at the inability to convey risk successfully (not unlike the frustration of scientists at convincing naysayers that climate change needs to be addressed)(Nicol and Hurrell, 2008) . Another resource management study used a consensus analysis method in partnership with a mental models approach to better understand the level of consensus in 2 stakeholder groups around key players, causes, consequences, and priorities related to water use and management (Stone-Jovicich, 2011).  Approaching a problem without making the assumption that the other groups involved have the same understanding of the problem is so often skimmed over and I think academics and scientists are highly prone to frustrations upon realizing that their understanding of the world is far different from the average Joe’s (my grad student self included!).

Approaching situations such as stakeholder engagement with the assumption that you can’t assume anything is a habit that can only strengthen the success of participatory processes, though it is a challenging shift to make in practice. I myself can think of plenty of examples from my everyday life when assessing the mental model of my audience before acting or speaking would have come in handy, especially in cross-cultural contexts. Continuing to assume that everyone around me is a critically thinking equity-minded public health conscious individual doesn’t get me much besides frustration so why not shift my approach? Old habits die hard but I’d like to think that recognizing them is half (a third? part of?) the battle.


Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED). (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. Available at: http://guide.cred.columbia.edu/index.html

Nicol, A.M. and Hurrell A.C.  (2008). Exploring Knowledge Translation in Occupational Health using the Mental Models approach: A case study of machine shops. Available at: https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/30876/SRA-ESREL_paper_FINAL_2008-06-03.pdf?sequence=1

Stone-Jovicich, S.S. et al. (2011). Using Consensus Analysis to Assess Mental Models about Water Use and Management in the Crocodile River Catchment, South Africa. Ecology and Society, 16 (1): 45. Available at: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss1/art45/