Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mutual trust in dialogue with the public – an essential element for success

In this VEC guest blog, the climate policy consultant and researcher Matthias Honegger, gives us an impression from his work on the governance issues of climate responses, including greenhouse gas removal. In particular, the post sheds some light on upcoming work in partnership with the Risk Dialogue Foundation exploring ways to engage the public on these emerging approaches…


Photo credit: gmeaders_ch / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


What if there was a perfect system to remove and store greenhouse gases from the atmosphere
– but no one wanted it?


I am not saying that there currently is such a fully proven system, but for the sake of understanding the issue of risk communication and climate responses, let‘s imagine a situation where researchers and engineers had developed an affordable greenhouse gas removal technology – which had the potential to capture and store great amounts of carbon. Any approach to capture carbon would have to make use of certain devices or practices, which might be visible or otherwise perceptible to local populations.

In this post I would like to have a look at something many of you might have thought about, but which is never really put in clear words: the interconnected issue of communication, risk perception and the success or failure of technologies in society. Communication and risk – be it risk of financial, technical, political nature – are actually connected and understanding the connections can help make informed choices. In cases where these links are poorly understood the result is the repeated failure of projects and policies.

There are generally speaking two paths in which we judge risk: the individual and the social. The individual path is based on a person‘s joint gut-feeling of benefits and risk arising from a technology option – options that have high perceived benefits are automatically judged less risky. Given that global measures against climate change naturally have dispersed effects, and only incremental benefits to the individual, this path is relatively less important in judging responses to climate change. Researchers at Yale University have repeatedly observed that people base their judgments on pre-existing views of social justice rather than on their cognitive ability to understand scientific evidence[1]. Thus the understanding of benefits and risks of future greenhouse gas removal approaches will not result from reading peer-reviewed literature, but from a „belief-check“ that examines the technology’s compatibility with the fundamental world-views of the respective person.

This belief-check results in a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for each technology based on social cues. These social cues are determined by communication and trust: Every time when a person or group – for instance the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – communicates on a particular technology option any person forming an opinion on that technology will have a preconceived level of trust in the information source and will judge whether the communication is consistent with that trust-relation. If supposedly independent experts for instance are perceived as advertising a particular solution, this could feel inconsistent and strong skepticism in the technology itself could result.

Some say this is what happened in case of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS): CCS only became an eligible option for reducing emissions in carbon markets after ten years of discussion – and only after even combined cycle coal power plants where allowed. The latter would of course be judged by many as less sustainable given the continued investment in coal power. A prominent reason for this could be – besides the high costs – risk communication failure.

“lacking mutual trust results in thumbs-down – a deal-breaker for new technologies”


So how can one avoid mistakes of the past and build on success stories where new technologies where treated in a fair and well-informed manner? Baruch Fischoff has made a bucket-list for good risk communication worth sharing:

  • All we have to do is get the numbers right.
  • All we have to do is tell them the numbers.
  • All we have to do is explain what we mean by the numbers.
  • All we have to do is show them that they‘ve accepted similar risks in the past.
  • All we have to do is to show them that it‘s a good deal for them.
  • All we have to do is treat them nice.
  • All we have to do is make them partners.
  • All of the above.

Baruch Fischoff, 2004[2]

Now, I am not sure how the eminent risk communication researcher meant it, but I would say that „make them partners“ should be taken literally: Any decision to use a technology in a particular way is political – in particular, when it affects the public and possibly future generations. Political decisions are under almost any understanding of democracy to be taken by the public – ideally well informed by experts. What the public makes of that information though is up to the voter and active citizen mobilizing opinions for or against an issue – but it is worth repeating that the choice of thumbs-up or down will largely be the result of the kind of communication described above.

Photo credit: Tim J Keegan / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Good governance of climate responses will be the ultimate objective requiring much more besides adequate risk communication. But researchers in this field are still working on the first point: getting the numbers right.

The science is still at the very entry point of risk communication on climate engineering and the IPCC fifth assessment report represents an early attempt to explain, „what the numbers mean“. It states that carbon dioxide removal technologies such as those supported by the Virgin Earth Challenge may become a very important complement to emissions reductions, but that they have inherent – though currently hard to quantify – biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale.

The subsequent step – to „show them that they‘ve accepted similar risks in the past“ – is an interesting issue. In case of climate engineering the „risks accepted in the past“ encompass the long-term risks of climate change itself, which sometimes seem to be quietly acknowledged and accepted as an almost inevitable fact. Given that climate engineering technologies aim to reduce precisely these risks, a proper comparison of different risk levels in the future is paramount in this discussion. In my thesis I have argued that three future risk scenarios should be compared against each other to get a better grasp:

  • Risk of status-quo climate policy resulting in 4-6°C of warming and the related consequences for people and ecosystems
  • Risk from a high-emissions situation with badly prepared deployment of solar radiation management
  • Risks accompanying a stable regime of substantial mitigation efforts including substantive efforts of carbon dioxide removal and the governance capability for controlled solar radiation management

Two out of the three scenarios are low-effort slippery slopes, which result from insufficient or misdirected action, the risks of which cannot be determined by technical assessments only. Only the third option – based on rapid and massive emissions reductions and carbon removal efforts – allows to safely limit suffering.

The use of novel technologies or practices can – as observed repeatedly – be limited not just by physical constraints, but also by limited acceptance. Fruitful decision-making will therefore require an integrated understanding of the processes underlying the perception of risks and benefits as described. My plea to all of you interested in the development of technological solution options, however in favor or opposed you may be, is to include these considerations from the very beginning of your efforts and maybe we can work together to find this narrow path – in mutual learning with and from the public.

By Matthias Honegger.

Want to guest blog for us? Get in touch here.


[1] Kahan, D. M., E. Peters, et al. (2012). “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.” Nature Climate Change 2(10): 732-735. [Link]

[2] Fischoff, B., W. Leiss, et al. (2004). “A diagnostic for risk communication failures.” In Mad cows and mother’s milk: The Perils of poor risk communication, McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.