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Climate change mitigation work within a multiple objectives frame: some insights from Conversations with South African development practitioners

The DevMit Forum, held in January 2014, brought a group of nine brave South African ‘development provocateurs’ into an academic conference of the international climate change mitigation community working in developing countries. The results of this experiment were somewhat uncomfortable, but simultaneously energising. The provocateurs held up a mirror to the climate mitigation community, showing us up as a fairly inward-looking bunch, who rely heavily on the data, models, rationality and linearity of science. Whilst this has enabled us to make not-insignificant progress in our field, the challenge is such that much more progress is required, ever faster and ever deeper. I heard the provocateurs suggesting that development was a messy, multi-faceted affair, which didn’t fit neatly into linear models or nicely contained terms like ‘Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions’. I also heard a murmuring that we might need to look beyond a discourse dominated by materialism and determinism in order to achieve the pace of change needed.

The MAPS Programme has since undertaken a series of DevMit Conversations during the course of 2014 to explore these suggestions a little further. Each two hour Conversation has involved up to three external experts from a particular field (usually one practitioner and one academic), three MAPS International climate mitigation researchers, and a facilitator. The series has covered Cities, Adaptation, Consumption, Employment, Finance and Poverty, with Economic growth and Transport still to come. Discussion is prompted by a brief outline of the intention to explore both the theme itself, and the space between the theme and climate mitigation, and some starter questions. Naturally, the Conversations have been steeped in their South African context, and context revealed itself as being fundamental to the discussions.

Whilst the discussions have been wide-ranging and very different from each other, some key themes do seem to be emerging. First and foremost, I’ve been struck by the complexity of this ‘developing country system’ we are trying to influence; complex and dysfunctional, although that might be a particularly contemporary South African perspective. There is no clear preferred development path. There is actually little that is clear. There are lots of experiments, wide-ranging failure, and pockets of success. There is a lot of interconnectedness, many moving parts. There is little rationality, things happen and we seldom understand why. This system is very human, very spatial, very messy, highly irrational, and struggling with a serious dearth of capacity and skills.

What is clear, is that there are few neat answers and solutions to the ‘development’ challenge, a challenge that is textured and multi-layered.  Often the groups were not on the same page in our discussions: what exactly does development mean anyway?   Sometimes it felt like the climate mitigation space we inhabit is situated on another planet, at other times it felt like we were one big ‘development’ community grappling with exactly the same issues.   I was surprised to learn that in some cases climate mitigation was seen as a possible solution to development issues where no others were to be found. I’m debating whether the recent ‘development-first’ approach to climate mitigation is perhaps not yet the right framing, and that we should rather be considering ways and areas where low carbon perspectives can in and of themselves enable development, as the system evolves?

Mitigating climate change requires the stringent application of a carbon budget over decades, whilst climate impacts will escalate over a similar timescale. So as a climate community we work with the very long term, and the issue of timeframes is a core aspect of our work. This issue was conspicuously absent from the Conversations, the development perspective seems to be steeped in the present.  But I wonder whether there isn’t actually more alignment here than first meets the eye? South Africa is making infrastructure investment decisions, and its Cities are absorbing a pace of urbanisation over the next decade, the form of which will significantly determine our economy and society’s emissions profile for decades to come. So perhaps climate’s ‘long term’ is actually a lot more embedded in the present than the current focus of our work suggests.

During the Conversations we received feedback on how we as a climate mitigation community are perceived, sometimes invited, other times not! Significantly, we are not being understood. We heard that we talk a different, acronym-filled language. We were also criticized for being naïve about the complexity of development challenges, and arrogant in our dealings with other experts. However in one Conversation we self-reflected that as a climate mitigation community of practice we have had to make a case for our cause and defend this against an active and ‘vicious’ campaign against us, which possibly accounts for some of the focus and arrogance. We are relatively unique in this amongst development fields, although perhaps a parallel could be drawn with those working on the HIV AIDs epidemic in South Africa under the Mbeki administration.   What does this history mean for how we do what we do? And is there room to breathe out a little going forward? 

Amongst many questions raised by the Conversations, I’m left wondering how as a climate mitigation community of practice we can continue to go deep, to work on issues such as timeframes, and advocate more stringent emissions cuts, but also to start going broad. Climate mitigation, or a low emissions profile is a non-negotiable aspect of a well-functioning society. How do we communicate and embed this across all the many decisions and leverage points of the complex, evolving system that is the developing country of South Africa?   How can this be done similarly in other development contexts?

Finally, a pause to reflect on what these questions bring to the MAPS Programme. In some MAPS countries we are moving towards dealing with the very long term. In others such as the MAPS Africa countries we are just beginning a process of planning for a future low carbon economy and society. We are simultaneously looking at how we can leverage the southern-based network and community we have developed over the years. It may be useful to consider where should MAPS be in terms of deep vs broad, and the Programme’s particular role in inserting low emissions as a non-negotiable aspect of a well-functioning society.

Bio: Emily Tyler is a climate policy specialist based in South Africa who focuses on mitigation policy in developing country contexts. View Emily’s website here 

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  1. Discipline and Humility in Climate Change Mitigation Work

    “I’ve been struck”, wrote Emily Tyler, “by the complexity…” She was not alone in being astonished at the scope and richness of issues which were spoken about during the Conversations Series between climate change mitigation practitioners and ‘development’ experts as part of the MAPS PostDevMit work. As a conversation facilitator for this series and development provocateur at the DevMit conference I was also struck by the wealth of detail which emerges when disciplinary experts are brought together in open conversation. Some issues, like the role of density in urban transport efficiency were familiar (given my work in transport policy). Others, like the role of the church in South Africa in supporting consumerism, were completely unexpected. By way of response to Emily’s blog here are some of my own thoughts.

    Reflecting on the complexity in clear view during the Conversations I was struck by the wisdom embedded in the word ‘discipline’. Our ‘disciplines’ are our tools for working with the complexity of the world. They enable us to screen out certain aspects, which we then call “noise”, in order to focus on our chosen interests. Without the discipline of our discipline then this world can be a place of too much distraction. Is it an accident, I wondered, that the disciplines which delve into the richness of human experience – the historians and the ethnographers – rarely choose explicitly to intervene in it? Historians and ethnographers are the describers. They remind us of complexity (lest we forget).

    By contrast the formality of science – of hypothesis-making and restrained data-gathering – allows us to focus. Using science we see patterns and rhythms amongst the complexity. Some of these patterns are so strong that we theorise about their causes and make predictions about the future with them. Engineering and economics disciplines use scientific techniques to see the world and then to design interventions in it. The interventions are, then, somewhat limited by the filters imposed by the discipline of science. Engineering and economics have traditionally focused on the tangible and the evidenced, marshalled towards a goal of efficiency.
    Are there any alternatives to mere description or to the simplifying disciplines of science? One route out is via a ‘comprehensive’ science – one in which sufficient data, computing power and analytical savvy would allow the modelling of the ‘whole’ world. Whether you believe this is possible depends on whether you believe the intangible vagaries of human ego and quests for power over others can ever be predicted. I am not convinced that the intangible but doubtless powerful systems of hierarchy, dominance, submission can ever be drafted into a computer model.

    Another route out of the complexity dilemma is that used in climate change adaptation and poverty-alleviation practices – to be purposefully localised, grounded and site-specific. In this way grand theories or models are not necessary. The focus is on immediate issues and challenges. The adaptation and poverty-work disciplines requires attention to the present, to the livelihood life-threatening and the immediate.

    In the face of complexity it is easy to feel overwhelmed and, ultimately, defeated. “Where should MAPS be?” Emily asked, in response to these Conversations, “Deep versus broad?” In the face of an ongoing critique of science and forecasting, and in the context of our developing countries, it is tempting to throw away the broad future and focus instead on responding to the present. For Climate Change mitigation practice to do so would, though, be a mistake.

    Rather, I suggest, we need a reformed science of mitigation. The scientific method is a powerful means for producing knowledge, but that does not mean that it will necessarily direct us to, or even be able to measure, the best interventions. In the conversation on consumerism we were told that advertising, that powerful lever of capitalism, is about the aesthetic, the emotional and the sensual. Drawing on these sensibilities is how the big players of consumption persuade us to spend more and differently. Science will always struggle to measure and forecast such deliciously human responses. If advertising has clues for how to leverage our spending upwards, does it also have answers for how to create future-looking livelihoods?

    Coming out of the Conversations I remembered again that I cannot and will not know the answer to this “deep versus broad” question, or to many other questions which were raised. ‘My’ disciplines of science, engineering and sociology cannot and will not know the answers. Acknowledging this, and my own limited knowledge possibilities requires some humility of me, a dis-empower-ing of my-self and a trust instead in the power of shared knowledge commons to, somehow, find a way through. What is clear to me after the Conversations is that disciplinary arrogance stands in the way of deepened understanding. Is humility, I wondered as we completed the final conversation, one of the keys to our shared future?

    Postscript: I avoided the formality of academic referencing in order to keep with the style of a blog post but would like to acknowledge the work of my PhD supervisor John Law in particular in airing ideas of hubris and humility, and in bringing my attention to reflections on the discipline of science.

    Comment by Lisa Kane — 18th Dec 2014 @ 05:26

  2. […] between South African climate mitigation researchers and our ‘development’ counterparts (http://www.mapsprogramme.org/publications/blogs/climate-change-mitigation-work-within-multiple-objec&#8230😉 hosted by MAPS later that year. The conversations also revealed the South African development […]

    Pingback by Climate mitigation policy in a development context: How we do what we do? : MAPS — 16th Jul 2015 @ 08:06

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