Theories of (climate) change and a nice song about complex causal chains……
March 6, 2012
Spent a happy half day with the climate change team at IDS last week, at the invitation of the team leader Matthew Lockwood, who besides being a climate change star (see his Political Climate blog), wrote The State They’re In, a brilliant book on the politics of African development. We were exploring the theories of change (explicit and implicit) that underpin their work, and the conversation reminded me of similar discussions in the NGOs (only with a bit more Foucault). A few observations:
The discussion was useful because although research is undoubtedly essential in improving our understanding of climate change, its impact, how people are adapting, new ideas for mitigating carbon emissions etc etc, if that research is to influence policy, researchers need to think hard about the political environment and the complex transmission belt that determines whether research findings do or do not influence policy.
The IDS team seem to have three main targets in mind for their research and advice – donors, states in developing countries and social movements. But thinking on the donors and social movements is much more developed than on the state, with some real ambivalence about whether they see the state as part of the solution or the problem (as you’ve probably worked out by now, I definitely think it has to be at the heart of any long term solution on both development and environment).
Their theories of change seemed attuned to a steady state world – a steady accumulation of evidence, research and nifty policy papers will lead to incremental but in the end transformative (whatever that means) change. Wrong. In reality, most such evidence and research will be ignored until moments of opportunity arise (probably linked to massive natural disasters in powerful countries, but also elections, changes of leaders etc etc). So you need a mechanism to identify those moments, drop everything, rehash and update existing research and advice, and get your thinking rapidly into the hands and heads of post-shock policymakers desperate for answers. That is not going to be achieved through the usual slow grind of journal articles and academic seminars.
The approaches also seemed based on the assumption of positive change, when climate change in particular is currently marked by stasis rather than change – I would have liked to hear more about how IDS is trying to understand why things aren’t changing (north and south) and how research could perhaps help unblock the sources of inertia.
As always in these discussions, success partly comes down to what kind of people we need to be to ensure research has some influence. A lot of what makes research successful in influencing policy is down to networking skills and influencing. But as Malcolm Gladwell so graphically describes in The Tipping Point, we are not all natural networkers, and I’ve met a fair few academics who really struggle with that kind of interaction. In particular, if you’re going to influence elites and governments, you’re much more likely to succeed if you can like and empathise with them, rather than say through gritted teeth ‘OK, I’d much rather be down with the grassroots, but I am now going to engage with the enemy.’ For some reason the enemy in question doesn’t find that very appealing…….
The change processes being discussed often seemed largely linear and purposive rather than complex, random and chaotic – but at this point I will leave it to team member Tom Tanner and his memorable song on the traumas of proving impact.
If you want to check the references in Tom’s song, they are: