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23/10/2014

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Engaging on climate change

Members of the public can experiment with their own energy mixes for the UK, using a web tool launched by the Department for Energy and Climate Change. David Mackay explains how it works, while Nicola Frost asks whether the associated online debate makes for valuable engagement. 

My2050

David Mackay brings evidence to life

The UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.  A range of technologies and lifestyle-change options is available, to transform how much energy we use, and where we get it from.  And we need to select from those options a combination that adds up – a combination that delivers a lifestyle that makes us happy, using energy sources that are sustainable.

David Mackay brings evidence to life

The UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.  A range of technologies and lifestyle-change options is available, to transform how much energy we use, and where we get it from.  And we need to select from those options a combination that adds up – a combination that delivers a lifestyle that makes us happy, using energy sources that are sustainable.

The transformation required is so big, there is no one technology that can solve the challenge.  And every option, be it wind, nuclear, biofuels, solar power, hydroelectricity, building insulation, smart thermostats, public transport, car clubs, rail freight, or smarter food choices, has both supporters and critics.

Evidence-based debate 

At the Department of Energy and Climate Change, we are keen to move the public debate about these options on to a constructive, evidence-based conversation.  This conversation needs to encompass the full picture, so people understand which lifestyle choices drive our energy consumption; and it needs to be grounded in reality, constrained by the laws of physics and the technical limits of engineering and innovation.

We set ourselves the challenge of communicating all this information transparently and fairly, in a way that is engaging and intelligible, particularly for younger audiences who will live with many of the decisions we make today.

Choosing the future 

Our solution, My2050, is an online simulator that transports users to the UK in 2050. When they arrive, they find nothing has been done to reduce fossil fuel use, and it’s up to them to choose combinations of demand-side options and supply-side options to reduce emissions, and still keep the lights on.  At their disposal are fourteen levers across the energy system. 

For example, you can insulate houses; use more public transport and bikes; switch to electric vehicles; build wind turbines on and offshore; even deploy emerging technologies like carbon capture and storage. In all sectors you can choose the level of effort, all the way from doing nothing to all-out action.

To make the experience engaging, My2050 tells the story visually. In response to your choices, wind farms and power plants pop up, and buildings, traffic and infrastructure are transformed.  Alongside these visualizations of your house, your town, and your countryside, My2050 contains embedded summaries that explain key options and technologies, their strengths and limits. And this isn’t just a computer game – it’s all based on real UK data. My2050 shares the same underlying analysis as its big brother, DECC’s 2050 Pathways Calculator.

Deliberative element   

The combination of fun visuals and open, honest analysis makes My2050 a uniquely powerful engagement tool that brings the data and the science to life in a way that helps people understand the choices, implications and tradeoffs involved, and make a meaningful contribution to the debate.  It also lets users think more widely about their preferences and prejudices, especially as they realise action is needed across several sectors. Are your views about wind, nuclear, and agriculture connected to your views about transport and heating? They should be!

We’ve worked hard to make this a deliberative experience. My2050 prompts reflection by giving direct feedback on users’ choices and their implications. Users may refine their preferences, and once they are happy they can submit and compare their choices with those of others.

My2050 is a great example of how evidence can be communicated engagingly without compromising the quality of the analysis – even for such a broad area as energy and climate change.  We launched My2050 in March, and so far over 60,000 people have logged on and 11,000 have had a go at creating their own low carbon UK. Try it yourself at www.decc.gov.uk/2050!

An unclear pathway to public engagement

Nicola Frost doesn't think so

To coincide with the launch of My2050, an online game that lets the player make virtual decisions about the UK’s energy future, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently hosted an online debate. It aimed to stimulate discussion on how the UK can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. But was this a successful public engagement exercise, or did it just make people switch off?

Nicola Frost doesn't think so

To coincide with the launch of My2050, an online game that lets the player make virtual decisions about the UK’s energy future, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently hosted an online debate. It aimed to stimulate discussion on how the UK can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. But was this a successful public engagement exercise, or did it just make people switch off?

As a focus for the Pathways Debate, eight experts were each asked to use DECC’s 2050 Web Tool to illustrate the actions they believe the UK should take to sufficiently reduce its emissions.  After presenting their pathways, and arguing their relative merits and problems, the debate was opened up for public contribution.

Specialist knowledge

Whilst more than 10,000 people have already played the My2050 game, participation in the debate turned out to be rather lacklustre in comparison. Of the 168 posts made during the debate, 110 were made by a public consisting of just 51 individuals.

Perhaps a lack of publicity was partly to blame, but more likely was the existing specialist knowledge and associated confidence that appeared to be an implicit prerequisite for getting involved. A basic internet search of a few public contributors’ names revealed sustainable technology engineers, oil and energy professionals and climate change campaigners amongst others. Combined with the experts, this resulted in something akin to a round table discussion at an industry event, so it’s not surprising that the My2050 game, with its jargon-free language, colourful graphics and easy-to-use format, has proved more appealing to the public.

Poor structure

Problems with the online structure of the debate added a further barrier to participation. With such a huge range of discussion topics sparked by the 2050 Web Tool, some logical order and sub-structure would have been welcome.

For example, if somebody had a specific interest in nuclear power, a tag and search system to help guide them to relevant postings would have been helpful. Instead, the debate appeared as one long prose, which had to be read from the bottom-up, covering a multitude of issues and conflicting opinions. Some technical problems, such as posts taking a long time to appear, or appearing out of place, only added to the confusion.

Intelligent discussion

Despite these problems, those who did take part applauded the debate for its intelligent, thought-provoking and technically advanced level of discussion that lead some of the experts to reconsider their pathways.

Debating how the UK should act to reduce its emissions is a healthy and necessary part of the important decision-making process, which the government has committed to making as transparent as possible. As a public engagement exercise, however, the debate issues were too broad, the assumed level of knowledge too high, the content too technical and the format too confusing to connect with a wider audience.

Finding the balance

Climate change public engagement initiatives are notoriously difficult to get right. On the one hand, leading people to believe that they can do their bit by recycling their plastic bags is underplaying the bigger issue, whilst TV adverts depicting an apocalyptic future world blighted by climate change do nothing more than scaremonger. Communicating the complexities that come with a low carbon future is no easy feat.

Whilst the My2050 game may have succeeded in striking this balance, the majority of the public are not ready to participate in expert debates, and will not only switch off from doing so but potentially adopt a dangerous ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude that could make future engagement attempts even harder.

Professor David MacKay
Professor David MacKay is chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change
Nicola Frost
Nicola Frost is a postgraduate Science Communication student at the University of the West of England
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