Blog and project updates

Competing or complementary perspectives: How do local communities and national policymakers think about climate change?

A wind farm in rural Ireland (Source)

27 November 2019

This past week, I had the great privilege to attend two vastly different events in the Republic of Ireland, both centered around the ideas of climate change, renewable energy, and how Ireland can take manage the transition to a low-carbon economy. Here are a few of my takeaways from each of the events, and some thoughts about what the different conceptions of climate change means for policymaking and for society moving forward.

Imagining2050: Ballincollig Community Event (Cork City)

Imagining2050 is a research project led by University College Cork and Queen's University Belfast, which looks at community perspectives on societal transitions and climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) in different regions of the Republic of Ireland. I attended a two-day event focused on the community of Ballincollig, a suburban town which has recently been incorporated into Cork City.

The event brought together researchers and community members from Ballincollig and the greater Cork region to think about potential pathways for the community as it confronts demographic change, urban sprawl, and climate change. Participants were guided through a series of exercises which encouraged them to think about potential changes through the eyes of different inhabitants of the community. This enabled the participants to think about how changes in the community may impact specific groups (e.g. older people, youth, people with disabilities) in different ways, and what can be done to build strong, inclusive communities in the future.

A cross-section of local residents brought with them a variety of perspectives on climate change, with some noting the feelings of fear and grief that the threat of climate change causes; how we can reorient our transportation systems to be both sustainable and inclusive; and what the role of individuals is in the context of systemic unsustainability. Overall, despite the feelings of fear and anxiety, the participants I spoke with were hopeful that systems will be reformed in such a that a more sustainable trajectory for Ireland and for their local communities will be achieved.

National Energy Research and Policy Conference (Dublin)

On November 20th, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland hosted a one-day conference for research and policy professionals in Dublin. The conference was very well attended, and featured speeches and presentations from representatives of government, academia, and the private sector. The primary focus of the conference was the Transformation of Ireland’s Electricity Sector.

Speakers and panelists discussed a variety of topics and initiatives, including the Government of Ireland's new Climate Action Plan, the challenges of integrating intermittent renewables (e.g. wind and solar) into the national grid, sources of growth in energy demand, and the potential of offshore wind for Ireland.

As one would expect from an energy policy conference, the sessions occasionally tended towards the technical aspects of energy economics and grid balancing, but overall it was a superb overview of Ireland's situation as it seeks to transform its electricity system into one based on renewable, sustainable energy production.

Notably absent from the conference was any real discussion on the role of local communities in efforts to combat climate change. Speakers and audience members occasionally made references to the issues related to local acceptance of wind farms, but that was the extent to which local communities were addressed.

Key Reflections:

1. Local communities and policymakers think about climate change in substantially different ways: For most of the participants at the Ballincollig community event, climate change was thought about and discussed through the lens of 'livelihoods' - that is, how might climate change impact my day to day life or the lives of those around me? The policymakers in positions of authority look at climate change as a systemic challenge, one which must be addressed through using the levers available to the government at the moment. This is not to say that people in decision-making roles don't also conceive of climate change in a personal capacity, just that it seems that they adopt a different perspective on the issue when approaching it from their professional position.

2. How you talk about an issue affects the way people will think about the issue and potential solutions: This idea of framing is very important in relation to climate policy - how you set the parameters of the issue will condition how you think about it and what your options are. These two events provided fundamentally different ways of framing climate change - the community event purposefully tried to bring a wide-angle perspective which considers mitigation and adaptation, while the National Energy Conference was focused specifically on one subject within Ireland's energy system, therefore containing the potential conversations to one policy area. Policymakers are also constrained by the preferences and demands of the current government, as well as by conventional expectations around appropriate policy interventions.

Conclusion:

Bridging the gap between substantive, meaningful community discussions and high-level national policy can be quite daunting, but it is an area which holds a lot of potential with regards to addressing climate change. The Republic of Ireland has already demonstrated the role that Citizens' Assemblies can play in helping to address this gap. Climate change is not going away any time soon; we will have to confront it for the next several decades and beyond if we want to keep living on a habitable planet. If more policymaking can be grounded in meaningful engagement with local communities, particularly with regard to complex matters such as climate change, I believe that it will result in stronger, more democratically legitimate policy.

How do you think we can bridge the gap between local concerns and national policy? What role should local communities play in action on climate change? Tweet your response to @AlexMillerH2O .

Views of Dublin and Cork (Source)
The Lanyon Building of Queen's University Belfast
MISTRAL researchers and affiliates at the Northern Ireland Parliament Building
The MISTRAL researchers visiting a wind farm in Northern Ireland.
Prof. Geraint Ellis (QUB) introduces the MISTRAL network.
MISTRAL researchers and affiliates at the Giant's Causeway.

Recap: The MISTRAL Summer School

16 September 2019

Last week, Queen's University Belfast played host to the first major activities of the MISTRAL Innovative Training Network, which brought together 15 PhD students from 7 different universities across Europe (see the full list here). Here is a quick recap of the week!

The week consisted of lectures, meetings, tours, and even a conference at the Northern Irish Parliament building. The 15 students affiliated with the network hail from across Europe and beyond (including 2 Canadians - represent, eh?). We were joined by other students and researchers who are also investigating the social dimensions of wind energy development in a variety of contexts.

I won't delve into the substance of the many hours of lectures and discussions which focused on the theory and methods associated with good social science research, but I will provide quick overview of my highlights and takeaways from the week!

Highlight 1: The People

I'm very fortunate to be involved in a network with so many amazing individuals. As mentioned, we're a pretty mixed group from all over the world, from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds, and a plethora of languages and cultures between us. What excites me is that so many people, from so many backgrounds, can come together to focus on important, pressing questions, such as:

  • How do we scale up ambitions on climate change action across different spatial and temporal scales?
  • What can we learn from the way things have been done in the past in order to improve them going into the future?
  • How can countries learn from one another to improve engagement practices related to energy and infrastructure development?

Highlight 2: The Places

A lot of discussion this week centered on the concept of "place", in terms of how spaces are assigned different values and uses by different people. The political dimensions of how space and place are used are of interest to me, and there are few places I can think of where the politics of space are as evident as in Northern Ireland. Tours of neighbourhoods in Belfast where sectarian divisions run deep, as well as travels around the Northern Irish countryside were excellent visualizations of the importance of understanding the socio-political context of a region before a major infrastructure or energy project can go ahead. I think all of the MISTRAL researchers will benefit from this introduction to the subject area.

Highlight 3: Knowledge Exchange

As a multi-disciplinary social science research programme, MISTRAL benefits from a variety of perspectives. Each of the researchers brings their own experience and knowledge in a given field (Economics, finance, politics, sociology, etc.), and the network enables us to share information and collaborate within and across projects. One day of the Summer School was devoted to a conference on Communities, Renewables and the Low Carbon Transition. This day-long event brought together academics, planners, and policymakers from around Ireland, the UK, and beyond. The opportunity to hear from experts in the field served as a great source of inspiration for the new PhD students, and provided an important opportunity for exchanges between researchers and practitioners. I look forward to this sort of collaborative approach continuing!

What's Next?

Everyone affiliated with the network has now returned to their home institution, to dive back into the research, hopefully with renewed enthusiasm! As the academic term starts across Europe, the MISTRAL researchers are making progress on their research, and eagerly awaiting the next time the network comes together!