Reality check

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 29th July 2021 by Glenn Lyons.

I saw a mention on Twitter that there are now two tribes when it comes to climate change: doomers and deniers. How can people’s views of reality be so different? Do the doomers need a reality check or the deniers, or both? A reality check, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “an occasion that causes you to consider the facts about a situation and not your opinions, ideas, or beliefs”. Are the doomers getting the same facts as the deniers? Is it how they are interpreting the facts differently that leads to difference of opinion? Or are we just short on facts?

We’ve had extreme weather this summer across the globe with flooding and record-breaking high temperatures. We then get a BBC News headline “Climate change: Science failed to predict flood and heat intensity”, with the article itself going on to say that scientists’ “computers are not powerful enough to accurately project the severity of those extremes”. The doomers, I assume, are left thinking ‘its even worse than we thought’, while the deniers are drawn to ‘science failed’.

In terms of the transport system, I recently held my hands up on Twitter realising I didn’t have a clear handle on being able to answer the question of how much of an impact electric vehicles will have on total carbon emissions. Sure, they remove tailpipe emissions, but what about the carbon associated with materials mining, parts production, manufacture, maintenance, disposal, electricity generation, effects on demand for cars, effects of lower cost per mile on car usage and on travel patterns and land use, infrastructure provision, and, and, and? My Twitter call-out was answered with a suggestion to take a look at “How clean are electric cars?” by the not-for-profit clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment. Of course, the answer to the question is that there are lots of variables involved and in turn it’s a great big ‘it depends’. The reality is that emissions are reduced but it’s hard or impossible to determine by how much.

So, the facts are fuzzy, reality is fuzzy. Net zero by 2050 is also fuzzy at this point to interpret – and Professor Greg Marsden in his wonderfully crafted review of the Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP), entitled “Decarbonisation Island Discs: a playlist critique of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan” worries that there is “a huge danger of a dishonest decarbonisation”.

So the reality check becomes a realisation that we just don’t know how serious the climate emergency is and we just don’t know how substantial the most popular means of addressing transport’s contribution to the problem really is as a solution. We seem to now appreciate that there is a problem and also appreciate that we have some things we can do, and are doing, to tackle it. What we don’t know (collectively) is how well the problem and the solution line up and in turn what our real future prospects are as a species.

However, the problem is that we don’t just have a really complex problem but a wicked one: we can’t agree on the full extent of the nature of the problem and have differences of opinion over that; we have a lack of evidence (or at least easily interpreted evidence) about the problem; and the problem also links into other wicked problems like ecological collapse, social inequality and capitalism. In the face of a wicked problem, competing views and approaches are not the best way forward – diversity of views brought together in the spirit of collaboration are.

This is what you might imagine COP26 is for, and perhaps many of the intentions of representatives of the countries taking part are honourable in this respect. Yet the actors involved have vested interests and competing priorities. Jam today for them may be the priority, leaving others waiting on jam tomorrow. And this applies not only to political leaders but to people throughout society: the private sector firm judged by profit, the resource stretched local authority, the professional who wants to climb the corporate ladder, the overworked household that wants a holiday abroad, the individual who needs to pay the bills, and so on. This doesn’t even take account of those for whom there may not be much jam today and who lack the power to influence. Each actor faces their own reality and not all realities are the same.

Then the communication games take place – selective interpretation of available facts presented in arguments that align with the vested interests of the rational actors concerned. Such interests are not always declared and communication can be further clouded by a multitude of unconscious biases that shape each actor’s interpretation of reality and how they interpret others’ interpretations of reality. Strategic ignorance may be involved where there is an effort to avoid becoming aware of some aspects of reality because it would mean in turn taking or sharing responsibility to do something about that part of reality. Across actors is an awareness of what they have to lose and to gain from the course of developments and this influences how they play their hand.

How often have you heard those in authority say we need to have honest conversations, we need to have the difficult conversations? How often have you ever really seen those conversations take place, warts and all? It sounds good in principle but it belies the realities of the balance of power. Not everyone is climbing the greasy pole but there are plenty who are.

Yet such conversations are what we need to help provide us with a reality check and get to grips with what confronts us and what needs to be done. We should all be hungry for reality checking and be prepared to keep looking beyond our echo chambers. Where possible we should stand up and not only stand by when we are unconvinced that facts are being understood or taken sufficiently seriously. We should be prepared to constructively challenge within our sphere of influence. None of this is easy with wicked problems but we can each make a contribution and make a difference.

I find myself always coming back to the precautionary principle, which “enables decision-makers to adopt precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high”.  Shame on the world’s political leaders at COP26 if they do not adopt this principle, shame on them if they deny that we face the possibility of being doomed. When we don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like and life on this planet depends on it, we should be looking to do more than whatever we think is enough.

Beyond the TDP and COP26 we need more than reality checking between doomers and deniers (important and foundational though that is). We need doers – turning intentions into actions, with a preparedness to work in the context of a fuzzy reality to deliver change on the ground of the forms that we believe will make most positive difference to the decarbonisation challenge. In terms of implementing the TDP this is about progressing technology fixes to reduce and remove direct (tailpipe) emissions; but more challenging still is turning the TDP’s warm words about planning and behaviour change that reduce car dependence (see my own review of the TDP – “The Transport Decarbonisation Puzzle (TDP)”) into a reality. Check.

About the Author

This post was written by Glenn Lyons. Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility, UWE Bristol