Part of: Communicating climate change
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What's the secret of success in climate policy?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 8 April 2011 13:24 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Brainstorming session looks at how to deliver "climate-compatible" development

Put 150 experts on climate change and development from some 40 countries together in an Oxford college. Add copious amounts of Lego blocks, an open "marketplace" for discussions, a "walk in nature", some shining examples of climate projects that have worked and inspirational speeches on how to effect change. Infuse for four days.

The result? Close to 25 "prototype" ideas to help developing countries tackle climate change, as well as a budding community of policy-makers, entrepreneurs, researchers and politicians fired up to build understanding and innovative responses to climate change.

This week's "Action Lab" was organised by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), an international alliance of business and non-governmental organisations set up with funding from the British and Dutch governments to help decision-makers in poorer nations design and deliver climate change strategies.

The gathering focused on the technical aspects of what needs to be done to achieve "climate-compatible" development, which minimises the harm caused by climate impacts and maximises the opportunities presented by a low-emissions future. It also looked at how to get results.

Lego really was part of the process; I played with it too. It was the basis of a session that used creative model-making to tease out reflections and share ideas.

The wider methodology of the meeting was to encourage people to put aside their preconceptions and deepen their understanding of the challenges to climate-compatible development, enabling them to craft potential solutions in an organic way, rather than leaping to conclusions.

Some of the problems identified included: insufficient connections between cities and communities working on adaptation and low-carbon growth; a failure to exploit the full potential of markets and measure the social benefits of carbon finance; an inability to communicate climate change in a way that's accessible and relevant to people's lives; inadequate use of science and technology to reduce risk from disasters and build climate resilience; and a need for more education about climate change.


The daily journalistic grind meant I had to leave this week's conference soon after the Lego exercise, when participants were just about to start putting together concrete projects. At that stage, some were getting a little frustrated with the pace of things, and were itching to get down to business. There were concerns the anticipated "prototypes" might not emerge. 

But CDKN chief executive Sam Bickersteth told me after the lab ended that the unusual approach paid off, at least in terms of generating proposals.

"It was a genuine 'action lab', where we were trying to turn research and policy into action, and (participants) went through this process which has really delivered some fabulous ideas,” Bikersteth said.

"More than anything it's about (creating) a community of people who will communicate and share solutions and develop ideas together,” he said.

Here are a few of the potential projects:

- Get African leaders together to build a common negotiating agenda to take to the U.N. climate summit in Durban at the end of the year

- Harness the power of storytelling in communities to uncover relevant knowledge about building resilience to climate impacts, and share it     

- Build a global system for anticipating disasters that will help limit their huge humanitarian consequences       

- Capture communities' anxieties around food, water and energy security and use trained journalists to link those concerns to climate change, via community radio broadcasts

- Support city leaders to become expert climate negotiators, and debate climate change effectively at the World Mayors Summit on Climate in November

- Educate and empower South American leaders to generate fresh thinking from the region ahead of the major U.N. summit on sustainable development (Rio+20) in 2012

- Create an international network on land-use planning and climate change, to come up with policies ahead of Rio+20

- Put together an easy-to-understand guidebook for policy makers on the green economy, development and poverty reduction

Some of these projects have been worked out in more detail than others, and their supporters will no doubt be looking for funding. If you want to check them out for yourself, videos with one-minute pitches for each will soon be up on the CDKN website

One group of participants has also proposed holding similar "action labs" in other regions, including one on the Amazon Basin to come up with creative solutions to tackle deforestation.


The test of this kind of creative hot-house will be whether any of the prototypes come to fruition and make an impact at the policy level - a process that could take several months, if not longer.

Of course, they won't all succeed. But how much does that matter in the grand scheme of things?

As economist and Financial Times editorial board member Tim Harford pointed out in a speech at the conference, failure is the secret to success because the world, its economy and related problems like climate change are so incredibly complex. Experimentation is necessary in order to find out what works.

"The human race fails constantly, repeatedly," he said. "We are incredibly good at failure, but somehow out of failure comes success."

While small successes in practical climate change work are happening all the time, many people are becoming impatient for a breakthrough at the international policy level. Frustratingly, that still seems to be some way off, and we may need to make quite a few more mistakes before we get there.


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