Rationalist and Public Action Theories of Knowledge in Climate Change Debates



Fig. 9.1
Tree-planting in the United Kingdom. A significant number of people plant trees on plots of land that they own or share. Trees have a role in capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. They also arrest water run-off, which is important after heavy rain, and help prevent soil erosion. In the UK, tree planting is supported by a charity, The Woodland Trust (​www.​woodlandtrust.​org.​uk/​)





9.4 The Role of the Media


The role of the media in how they represent climate change is crucial in policy decision-making because they are instrumental in ‘translating’ everyday stories or the latest scientific analysis on climate change events and findings. All media reports are value-ridden with a purpose of selling newspapers, increasing viewing figures or reflecting government or other interests such as those of large firms. Thus whilst ethically the media (written, visual and sound) should be reporting ‘facts’, and theoretically these should come across similarly to all members of the public, editorial intervention and values of the organisation mould the facts accordingly. This may not happen intentionally but, after all, it is in media interest to chase stories that attract the public in larger numbers. However, as the lay public relies more on the media than on sourcing scientific reports, the role they play in relaying climate change information is critical.

As the blog ‘Talking Climate’ (2015) points out, reporting on climate change is, as expected, further coloured by the political position of the organisation (Painter 2011). The blog goes on to suggest that the left-leaning UK newspaper The Guardian, for example, considered to be at the centre of climate change and environmental reporting and opinion, rarely supports climate sceptics. In contrast, the right-leaning US Wall Street Journal will give far more space to sceptical voices and editorials. The blog further suggests that, whilst it is difficult to establish direct cause and effect, media ideological leanings will no doubt influence public perceptions, leading to a media-generated controversy over climate change and scepticism (Poortinga et al. 2011). In addition to the influence of ideological leaning, there are other factors that may influence public reaction and scepticism, for example, media ‘exaggeration’ of climate change (Whitmarsh 2011). Also, the media’s ability to present a ‘balanced’ set of views is in question. As analysed in several places, the aggressive style of journalism does not always go hand-in-hand with the uncertainty of climate change resulting in competing views being equally supported in a ‘balance-as-bias’ (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Boykoff 2007; Ward 2008). Evidence for ‘balance-as-bias’ comes, for example in a 2011 report commissioned by the governing body of the British Broadcasting Corporation (the internationally renowned BBC) to analyse its reporting of three scientific topics—including climate change (Jones 2011). The report’s findings suggest that in seeking a ‘balanced’ coverage of climate change, the BBC inadvertently ended up with giving excessive time to sceptics through a ‘balance-as-bias’.

The ‘Talking Climate’ blog also cites a report from the Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (Painter 2011) which specifies reporting of climate change scepticism in six different countries (UK, US, Brazil, China, India and France). Remarkably, an analysis of selective newspaper content for each of these countries showed that coverage given to sceptical voices was an ‘Anglophone’ phenomenon, within the English-speaking UK and US rather than in Brazil, China, India and France. The report suggested that a possible reason for this disparity could be found in organised lobbying interests in the US and the UK, active in seeking to influence the media. Another possible reason (as shown in Chap. 7) could also be the existing high level of general public mistrust in these countries of scientists and other professionals Hulme (2013: 252–264).

The role of the media in the public understanding for climate change, and therefore ultimately for policy and action, is critical, but not always fair or balanced.


9.5 The Rationalist Model of Policy Making


To manage the complexity and contestation in policy making that we have seen so far in this chapter, various models of the process have been developed and used, stretching back decades. A dominant one is the rationalist model with its roots in science and the idea that scientific knowledge is more advanced and more systematic than that of the public. Classic literature on rationalist models may be traced back to Lasswell and Kaplan’s (1950) influential works where they argue that the objective ‘truth’ and validity of scientific knowledge will be able to mitigate conflicting ideologies through its value-free metaphysical position and thus be able to arrive at the ‘right’ decisions which will benefit all.

As Kuruvilla and Dorstewitz (2009: 2) suggest, ‘People across society would prefer that public policy-making is ‘rational’. Sound reasoning should make for well-informed decisions and successful strategies. However, different perspectives proffer conflicting opinions on what constitutes rationality. A traditional view in public administration is that rationality is a scientific, or technical, mode of reasoning that is employed to achieve political ends or goals—without questioning the morality, or worth, of these ends.’ Whilst, therefore, there is not an agreed consensus on what constitutes ‘rationality’, the association with science, technical expertise and ‘value-free facts’ form the basis of a rationalist model and the variations (such as bounded and incremental rationalist models) that have developed for policy studies, but will not be taken up here. It is perhaps sufficient to know that these variations revolve around what is known as the linear rationalist model, rejecting or accepting some of its attributes.

Thus, Kuruvilla and Dorstewitz (ibid) continue, ‘In policy theory, linear rationality is reflected in the seemingly ubiquitous ‘stages’ model. The stages model depicts policy-making as moving through distinct steps of policy agenda setting, formulation, decision-making, implementation and evaluation [see also Chap. 11]. In policy practice, linear rational thinking is evident when public preferences and political positions are invoked as inviolate guides for future policy projects’.

Rationalist policy models remain a common favoured method by governments, and in this, the linear, rationalist model is dominant. This is in spite of the inherent problems and much criticism regarding its value base, ability to represent diversity and so on, to which we now turn. As early as 1959, in response to rationalist theorists, Lindblom (1959) for instance argued that policy making was the ‘science of muddling through’. He suggested that the rationalist approach was simply based on masses of information and a comparison of past experiences of smaller policy initiatives to frame them into larger actions for the future.

A critical problem of rationalist policy making is, of course, the uncertainty of the scientific knowledge on which it relies. In Why we disagree about climate change Hulme (2009: 83) argues that:

Uncertainty pervades scientific predictions about the future performance of global and regional climates. And uncertainties multiply when considering all the consequences that might follow from such changes in climate. Some of the uncertainties originate from the incomplete understanding of how the physical climate system works – the effects of the atmospheric aerosols on clouds, for example, or the role of the deep ocean in altering surface heat exchanges. …other sources of uncertainty emerge from the innate unpredictability of large, complex and chaotic systems such as the global atmosphere and ocean. At best we are able to estimate some probability….A third category of uncertainty originates as a consequence of human beings being a part of the future predicted. Individual and collective choices …into the future are not predictable in any scientific sense…

Altogether, this makes it problematic for those involved in decision-making to think strategically and confidently about how to assess future risks on climate change based on current knowledge. Hulme (ibid) continues that,

Although scientific predictions about arcane or merely philosophical questions can afford to be nonchalant about uncertainty, the high stakes, and urgent decisions’ character of climate change means that policy makers do not have the luxury of nonchalance. They are faced with the problems of making sensible decisions today in the face of uncertain risks of tomorrow…Yet the curious thing about the relationship between climate change science, knowledge and decision making is that it should be ‘uncertainty’ rather than ‘certainty’ that is the condition that is perceived to be anomalous.

Nevertheless, there is urgent pressure to act within the boundaries of what we do know and Hulme suggests, ‘even when there is not unanimity among all scientific experts’, consensus approaches based on ‘expert elicitation and/or large consensus-driven scientific assessments are probably the “least worst” way of progressing’ (Ibid: 91). Such a consensus, therefore, does not mean that decisions made on the basis of this are the ‘truth’ or that the risk assessment thus made is assuring. This tension between half-correct predictions and the half-correct action generated through them does not do the public a favour as this leads to false expectations and doubting of science.

Unfortunately, decisions based on linear rationalist (and associated models) in their reliance on scientific and technical expertise obscure normative concerns of the many stakeholders. There has, for instance, been much focus on techno-fixing and the broad term ‘geoengineering’ which encompasses several sunlight reflection methods and attempts to reverse the process of fossil fuel combustion (Hulme 2014: 7–8). There have been special efforts to absorb developing countries into a ‘climate smart’ development especially in sectors such as energy, transport, land use (agriculture, forestry, fisheries), industry, waste, water resources, health (Srinivasan et al. 2012: 223–224). As Hulme (2014: 130), argues, however, ‘The dangers of climate change are not somehow ‘out there’, like a danger of alien invasion—external to the way we live and organise ourselves. The dangers of climate change are ‘in here’ a function of human technologies, social relationships, economic and political systems’. If the ‘in here’ context is neglected and there is little focus on citizen knowledge, lived experience, underlying vulnerabilities and explicit inclusion of normative concerns, then rationalist top-heavy linear policy alone cannot generate community engagement.


9.6 The Social Process of a Non-linear Public Action Approach and Lived Experience


The politics of climate change which is played out in a public arena including, of course, the internet is extremely contentious. Concern over action is vocalised by individuals across the world, NGOs and other concerned agencies, as well as several public figures including those from private firms, industry, and Government Ministers who often engage with populist politics for self-benefit.

As we have seen above, the inadequacy of linear rationalist models to portray the actual dynamics of climate change policy-making is illustrated by the difficulties associated with the uncertainty of scientific evidence (including that from economics on costs and benefits), the inability of international protocols to enforce action and the neglect of normative concerns. The internet has, of course, opened global spaces for arguments from opposing ‘camps’. Criticism of climate change policy comes in many forms but generally falls within two main ‘camps’. There are those who question the role of experts (such as those linked to the IPCC), that they are mainly from the richer countries and thus disassociated from local political, economic and cultural contexts of poorer countries. This is especially so as the dominant (natural) sciences are seen as neutral and do not always adopt a multi-disciplinary strand which may be able to offer a differing analysis. Secondly, there are those who do not believe in global warming at all, or those who focus on natural causes alone, denying the contribution of anthropogenic activity, and yet others who argue that projections of emissions and the damage these can cause are overestimated and will eventually decline even with minimal effort.

The ‘public action’ approach is the alternative to linear rationalist policy-making models (Drèze and Sen 1989; Wuyts et al. 1992). Its premise is that policy-making is a social process where at every stage knowledge and action are contested and negotiated through the influences of many interested stakeholders. These range from NGOs, citizen groups, the private sector, professional and worker associations and the media in addition to the state. In climate change policy-making, the stakeholders also surely include the scientific community. Policy is then a social process rather than led by an expert- and state-led prescription.

The examples we gave at the start of this chapter are of the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion and the protracted machinations over the Kyoto Protocol which aim ultimately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions illustrate the public action process. In these examples, public action is on an international scale where there are many states and other kinds of stakeholder that are trying to influence the (always provisional) outcomes. Note also that the policies that result are in themselves provisional, being continually remade.

In analysing these examples of international processes it is easy to note that the policy that eventually emerges on climate change is through public action that involves power play between the usual suspects—powerful and less-powerful states, alliances between states, international NGOs and the elephant in the room, the global energy industries. States do not, however, act in isolation from their domestic contexts, in particular that of their citizens. Even the most authoritarian of states needs to appear for legitimation purposes (Chaps. 5 and 6) to be acting in their interests. What states perceive to be a kind of general will of their citizens will therefore feed into individual state interests. Thus when President George W. Bush Senior refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, he declared that he was acting in the interests of United States citizens and would never do anything to jeopardise their lifestyle.

To the extent that a public general will informs a state’s interests exists, it does not arise from nowhere. It in fact represents a synthesis of individual lived experiences of a phenomenon such as climate change. Whilst that may be claimed at the international scale as the refusal of George W. Bush to sign the Kyoto shows, at the national scale, however, we see divisions. Rather than a homogenous ‘general will’, we see citizens acting to influence policy from diverse interests that are informed by their lived experiences.

Whether at international or national scales, public action and policy, therefore, are not simply the process and result of power play among usual suspects. They also illustrate how lived experience is marshalled collectively among citizens both formally and informally and represents a significant influence. An example of the former would be the organised local campaigns against what are considered to be damaging mitigation actions—such as the installation of renewable energy projects (Chaps. 1 and 6). The latter might be represented in rich countries by forms of ‘socially organised denial’, which is how Norgaard (2011) characterises the lack of engagement with climate change in a Norwegian village and is recounted in Chap. 7. Here, socially organised denial represents a kind of local public will not to engage with the subject.

We are thus moving towards the suggestion that a lived experience lens is useful for analysing the public action policy process with respect to climate change, both nationally and internationally. This immediately explains the existence of many competing voices in addition to those in specialised knowledge domains. In other words, analysing lived experiences within this process completes the shift from a rationalist to a public action approach on the use of knowledge in climate change policy making and intervention. It enables an alternative approach which acknowledges diversity and contestation of knowledge, inherently has to accommodate lived experiential knowledge, and fits better with how policy and intervention is made in actual practice, whether this be at international gatherings under the auspices of the United Nations or at a grounded, local level.

Lived experience also provides insights into how interests are formed by the many broader groups who seek to be heard at the negotiating table and how they understand, interpret and embrace notions of climate change. This is illustrated by the stories of the two African environmental activists—Charlene and Richard—that we introduced in Chap. 1 who acknowledged the significant influence of their childhood experiences of farming and caring for nature in making them who they are today. We suggest extending this observation to other groups, such as business people and climate scientists, who will have been influenced by historical lived experiences. Nobody is immune from their lived experience and, we add, nobody can set it aside in the name of an elusive objectivity.
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