Innovation to tackle climate change must be socially responsible

by Behnam Taebi and Eefje Cuppen | Delft University of Technology
Monday, 20 April 2015 12:03 GMT

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

More proactive inclusion of social issues helps make new projects more acceptable to the public

The monumental challenge we face in tackling climate change means solutions will depend increasingly on new and emerging technologies, which have the potential to engender significant public opposition. 

A key problem is that such controversy ultimately increases the likelihood of project failure. Think of major wind parks, carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects and shale gas schemes, for instance, which have been put under moratorium, or stopped altogether because of public opposition. 

Our research indicates that success or failure in such projects can be determined by how well discontent is handled in dialogue with those involved. 

A good example is nuclear waste disposal in Sweden, which has been the result of extensive public participation and ultimately yielded much less opposition than elsewhere.

What such successful projects share is a thorough process of public engagement. This highlights the urgent need for a new paradigm of responsible innovation in which societal and ethical issues are better anticipated up front. 

The rationale is that more proactive inclusion of social issues helps make new projects more acceptable to the public. 

To be sure, responsible innovation does not mean that all controversy will be avoided. Particularly with new technologies, we need to contemplate unknown risk during development, implementation and operation. 

However, if we are to seriously address climate change, we need an approach to risk that does not reject all new technologies because of potential unknowns. 

Some of the tenets of this responsible innovation approach have important lessons for major projects in the future, including:

Don’t ‘throw money’ at local communities

Local controversies are often explained away as a conflict between common interests, such as a secure energy supply, and the private interests of citizens, such as devaluation of house prices. This is commonly characterised as the “Not-In-My-Backyard” (NIMBY) phenomenon.

But NIMBY is a too simplistic representation of the reality. This is why strategies such as compensation for local communities are often unsuccessful, when they are perceived as trying to pay off opposition. 

Public responses to risk are often diverse and more nuanced than we give credit for.  We need to recognise this.

Don’t see controversies only as disagreement on technical details

Conventional wisdom goes that controversies often arise from a lack of technical understanding among the public.

While a better explanation of technological risk is laudable, the expectation that this increases public acceptance is challenged by empirical studies. If anything, a better understanding of risk might even make people less likely to accept it. 

This should not be a reason to keep the public in the dark. Rather, we need to better understand the sources of opposition, which may require extensive public outreach, and then find tailored remedies.

Don’t rely on more scientific studies to resolve controversies

When controversies arise, policymakers are inclined to reassess proposed schemes in order to reiterate that there are major benefits that outweigh the very low risks. 

But experience shows people might take such further studies to mean that their genuine concerns are not being taken seriously.  And since it is possible to find research underpinning virtually any perspective in a controversy, this can give rise to arguments over values disguised as conflict over ‘facts’.

Embrace controversy because it will give invaluable perspective on public concerns

Another received wisdom is that controversies arise from ‘emotional’ - hence irrelevant - public responses to technology.  This derogatory response presupposes a divide between experts who know the answers and others who can only be told what is right for them.

A more realistic view acknowledges that people who object to technical developments are often the ones who will be directly subjected to potential risks and unintended consequences of technology. 

Controversies often depict serious public concerns. Ignoring them is likely to exacerbate controversy.

Taken overall, solutions for climate mitigation will depend heavily on new technologies that could well engender significant public opposition.

Policymakers should therefore move toward a new paradigm of responsible innovation in which the societal and ethical issues are better anticipated and acted upon up front. 

Dr Behnam Taebi is assistant professor at Delft University of Technology and a research fellow at Harvard University. Dr Eefje Cuppen is assistant professor at Delft University of Technology.