Jim WatsonLord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) visited UKERC on the 20 June to launch a special issue of the journal Climate Policy. The special issue, co-edited by my predecessor Prof Jim Skea, is a key output of the Low Carbon Societies Research Network. The Network brings together leading research institutes from Europe and Asia, and UKERC has been involved as the UK partner since it was established in 2009.

It was great to hear Lord Deben being complementary about the special issue, and about the important role that science plays in underpinning action to tackle climate change. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen a politician waving an academic journal to emphasise a point! But he also had a more critical message for the research community: there is a need for scientists to communicate better with non specialists, especially those who may be influenced by arguments that climate change is not happening, or that it is not caused by human activity.

He argued strongly that academics need to not only communicate in more straightforward terms – but that we also need to frame these arguments in a way that feels like common sense, especially to those who may not be naturally sympathetic. In common with Matthew Lockwood from University of Exeter, he argued that stating the seriousness of the problem with references to the science (e.g. limiting average global temperature increases to 2 degrees) is not enough.

To illustrate this, Lord Deben drew an analogy between action to reduce emissions and taking out fire insurance on your home. Even though you have a more than 99% chance of your house not burning down, people in the UK spend an average of around £140 a year on such insurance. For climate change mitigation, we are being asked to pay a small premium on our energy bills – which the CCC argue will rise to around £100 by 2020. Even if you are not entirely convinced by the science, he argued that this is a very reasonable and low cost insurance policy to pay for.

Lord Deben certainly has a good point here. We should not take it for granted that people will tolerate rises in energy bills to pay for low carbon policies. This is another way of arguing why such modest rises are needed. For others, including Matthew Lockwood, the solution is more radical that this reframing. The costs of climate policy should, in fact, come from general taxation rather than consumer bills. This is a good argument in principle, though a hard one to sustain in an age of austerity. I suspect that would not end the controversy about the costs of action. Lord Deben’s insurance analogy would clearly still apply.

This reminded me of a recent report by Adam Corner on engaging those with right of centre political views with climate change. This report identified a number of narratives that could help to communicate with this constituency including arguments that emphasise localism, energy security and sustainability as progress. Whilst some of these are more convincing that others in my view, they take Lord Deben’s point much further. They remind us that research is not only required to understand the implications of future energy pathways in terms of their emissions, costs, resilience and so on. Research is also required to understand the social context of our energy system – and to inform the development and implementation of climate change and energy policies.

Professor Jim Watson is Research Director of UKERC. Jim was previously Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex.