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Sustainability, Uncategorized

What makes a policymaker take action on climate change?

As someone who takes personal action and supports policies to take wider action to combat climate change and as someone living in a province where the current government makes regular decisions that go in the face of the science and bet against the need for climate change action, I’m curious what would make a policymaker choose to incorporate climate science into decisions. Is it understanding the science? Is it knowing that other policymakers include climate action in their policies? Is it whether or not the population affected by the policies are supportive? Does personal experience with climate change induced disasters matter? This is what Steynor et al examined for natural resource policymakers in Africa.

Despite the need for climate action to mitigate the risks of climate change in areas like agriculture, water management, health services, and disaster management, the policymakers in East Africa have not used available climate science to inform policies. The question Steynor et al (2021) wanted to answer was how could this be changed. The two main answers were experience with extreme weather events and their perception of social norms.

Personal experience with extreme weather events seems pretty logical. It’s hard for us to justify planning for events we don’t think will happen. We saw this with how ill prepared many places were in the face of a global pandemic. Even just the basic supplies to survive for a few days are hard to store if you don’t think you’ll need them. If you live, like I do, in a location where you just need to turn on a tap to access clean water, it’s harder to maintain a household policy of always having a few days worth of water stored in the house.

I wonder if there is another piece to this though. I always have extra allergy medications, but rarely have extra water. This is largely because the likelihood of me experiencing an allergy attack is a lot higher than that of me experiencing a water shortage. If you’re concerned about people having food on the table today, or being healthy enough to work today it is challenging to set policies that focus on the future and that is what climate change policies are still generally perceived as. This is a major reason why social justice has to be part of any climate action.

The second finding of the relevance of social norms is interesting. It makes me think of the strategies of community based social marketing (CBSM). CBSM highlights the importance of social norms in encouraging uptake. If you think everyone produces more waste than you do in a week, there isn’t much motivation to improve more. But if you discover your garbage output is higher than 80% of your neighbours you may be more inclined to improve.

I feel like the provincial policymakers in Alberta are being led by a different approach to social norms though. It seems like the provinciala approach is if everyone else is doing it, we must do the opposite. This is entirely my perception but it makes me wonder if there are characteristics that make someone reject rather than comply with social norms? This could be a negative in something where the norm is positive like taking action on climate change or responding quickly to a global pandemic. But it may also be positive as in the case of cisgender individuals including their pronouns when that isn’t a norm in order to contribute to inclusive environments. Or, an individual entering a space where they stand out because of aspects like their gender, sex, or skin colour.

Policymakers are a required part of climate action, so there’s a high need for research like this. I also think it can help inform action on other issues like poverty. I wonder if one avenue of potential research is how to give people first hand experience without them having to actually experience a local disaster?

This article definitely triggered a lot of thought for me, which is one of the things I like about reading research in fields that aren’t my own. I highly recommend reading, listening to podcasts, or watching videos in diverse areas, it gives so much food for thought.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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