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Imagination in Climate Policy: A Story from Norway

Published onOct 26, 2023
Imagination in Climate Policy: A Story from Norway
  1. Imagination

    Stavanger, Norway. 2067

“Sit and eat! And put that phone down.” Solveig sighs as she pushes the cereal towards her son. Teenagers. “Nina!” she calls, pointing her head towards the narrow wooden staircase, which leads up to the small bedrooms. “Breakfast! Hurry, I have a council meeting today!” As always, her daughter is slow to emerge from the bathroom and will likely refuse breakfast. “Just coffee,” Nina calls from upstairs. Coffee has become a luxury, with prices skyrocketing and supply getting scarce, but Solveig likes to indulge her daughter’s love for it. When Nina finally emerges, Anders has finished his cereal and is hunched over his phone again, engrossed in a game. Gazing out the window of their small house, Solveig lets her eyes wander over the rocky Stavanger coast, out to the abandoned oil platforms in the distance and the barely visible floating wind farm—Norway’s largest, at least for the time being. Oil town no more. The vision sends her mind to this morning’s kommunestyre meeting. She’s anxious about this one. As the head of the city’s climate change adaptation committee, it’s her responsibility to develop an adaptation strategy for the coming decade, and she has little progress to report. The 2060s have been rough for communities up and down the Atlantic coast, and it’s clear that their approach has to change. Also, the scientists couldn’t give her any straight answers about what they should expect over the next 10 or 20 years. All this talk about variability, uncertainty, and tipping points has left her committee frustrated. Every interest group seems to have different concerns, and she can’t figure out how bring them all together. “Mama?” Nina sounds impatient. Solveig focuses on her daughter. “Can you drop me off at the Equinor building today?” Nina is studying carbon-storage engineering at the University of Stavanger. A future carbon engineer. Her grandfather and great grandfather had been engineers, too. It appears that she would bury the stuff that they had extracted from the ocean floor. And she’d do it in the same place: Stavanger.

Imagination has important and often underestimated functions in our personal and collective lives. It serves both as a stabilizer of social reality and a facilitator of fundamental change.1 We use our imagination when we remember a beautiful moment from the past weekend; when we learn about concepts like democracy, supply chains, or nerve signals; when we arrange our summer vacation or plan for our retirement. We also need imagination to envision the future impacts of climate change in our hometown, and to collectively—as a family, a community, or a country—agree on what we should do today to contain climate risks and prepare for the changes to come. This particular use of imagination as “our primary cognitive mechanism for anticipating and deliberating on the future”2 is what makes it so interesting for social scientists like me, in my work on cognition and climate change politics. Recognizing that imagination is an essential capacity for making good future-oriented decisions, exercising agency, and driving sustainability transformations,3 I want to understand how we can foster this capacity among different kinds of people and communities. Strengthening imagination requires that we pay attention to its cognitive and social dimensions,4 the “methods and practices” that we can deploy to engage in collaborative imagination,5 but also how imagination is linked to the exercise of power and influence over collective decisions and community trajectories.

About two years ago, I moved to Norway, which has become an important part of my research and a fascinating context for exploring the imagination of climate futures. While I learn about my new home, my observations and experiences have begun to merge with my research about futures thinking and climate politics.

  1. Imagination and Climate Change Policy

The council meeting on the community’s industrial development policy has been going on for less than 20 minutes, but things have already become heated. Solveig is trying to remain calm and let her colleague finish. Once again, he’s holding forth on Stavanger’s heroic past, the days of transforming a small fishing town into the center of Norwegian oil extraction, technological innovation, and wealth creation. The energy nation Norway, born in Stavanger. Solveig wonders if the tirade upsets her so much because he delivers it so often or because he sounds like her father—stuck in the past, unwilling to learn any lessons from it for the future. The oil industry has disappeared not because of a far-sighted national policy, but because of changes in the global political economy. First, renewables had become so cheap that it made more sense to invest in solar and wind than in deep-sea drilling, let alone Arctic exploration. Then governments decided that no more combustion-engine cars could be sold—Norway was one of the first! Coal production was banned. Then, climate impacts ramped up so quickly that oil and gas lost their social license. Pressured by social movements, governments withdrew their support, subsidies disappeared, banks stopped financing new developments, and nobody wanted to buy the stuff anymore. The oil industry went belly-up with a lot of its “assets” still underground. One hundred years after giving birth to Norway’s oil industry, Stavanger had become its graveyard. The trauma of that process was visible wherever Solveig went, including at her own family’s dinner table. Her parents and grandparents had all worked in the oil industry, and they’d refused to acknowledge its demise for as long as they could. It seemed impossible for them to imagine that things could be different, maybe even better. And, of course, things did change. Change is the only constant in their lives now.

Climate change policymaking involves a lot of imagination. Decision-makers have to imagine the sprawling global process we call climate change and its likely future impacts on nature, people, and infrastructure. When will sea-level rise start to affect beaches, buildings, roads, and harbors? How will more heat affect people’s health, local agriculture, and water availability? What would a drought mean for farming, forests, wildlife, hydropower generation, and treasured leisure activities like fishing? Decision-makers also need to imagine how people will respond to these changes, and why and how different kinds of solutions for these problems might work. How high of a seawall is needed? Where should we plan for the new coastal road? Do we need a public awareness campaign about the risks of extreme heat? Some communities even need to ask whether they should relocate incrementally, or abandon their towns before sea-level rise renders them uninhabitable. Imagining these different aspects of our possible climate futures, whether at the scale of a town like Stavanger or a country like Norway, is always shaped by people’s values and identities—their deep convictions about what a good life looks like and how such a life can be achieved. And those beliefs are connected to our memories of the past and understanding of the present—also types of imagination.

When Norwegians imagine their country’s future and how it might be shaped by climate change, they’re thinking about all the things that make Norway a great place to live today and envision the continuation of those “characteristics of a good country” in the future.6 Those characteristics are key components of their identity as Norwegians—what makes them “good people,” in their own culturally specific context. Norway is a small country and a strong democracy with high levels of social trust and public trust in government. It’s also a wealthy oil-export nation. Since the 1970s, fossil-fuel extraction has been making Norway rich, while almost none of the oil is used domestically. The income generated by the international sale of oil flows into Norway’s sovereign wealth fund (which has decided to divest from fossil fuels), providing long-term financial security for all Norwegians and supplementing government budgets. Norwegians are proud of this smart and far-sighted management of fossil-fuel resources for collective wellbeing. Oil is at the core of the Norwegian good life; imagining a future without this source of security, wealth, and happiness is impossible for many.

The psychological need to shield the current Norwegian good life from climate change, especially from the idea of phasing out fossil-fuel extraction, might be one of the reasons why concern about climate change among Norwegians is lower than in most other European countries. Based on recent polls, very few Norwegians are very concerned about the impacts of climate change on themselves (11%), their country (18%), or future generations (33%); more than half of Norwegians are not worried about personally experiencing impacts of climate change.7 In other European countries, the share of people who are unconcerned is significantly smaller, e.g., 18% in Poland or 33% in Ireland. Norwegians are also far less likely to experience fear, guilt, or moral outrage related to climate change compared to people in France, Germany, or Italy.8 They do not want to think about the future impacts of climate change or the need to do anything about it today, because climate action threatens their way of life.9

The fact that climate change doesn’t yet affect Norwegians in ways that go beyond inconvenience does not help. While the Norwegian Arctic is experiencing some of the most extreme climatic changes on the planet to date, the Arctic is not a central part of Norwegians’ identity and imagination of who they are. Extreme events, including wildfires, have not yet affected Norway as acutely as other wealthy democracies in the Northern hemisphere. The country has experienced changes in temperature, rain, and snowfall patterns, interrupting energy supply and water provision, but few people have connected these temporary troubles to climate change. Absent more significant personal experiences of climate impacts, most Norwegians find it easy to avoid thinking about climate change and hard to imagine that the future might be different.

As a result, Norway’s national climate policy is focused on mitigating domestic emissions, refusing to even debate a phase-out date for oil production, while the country champions “ambitious” global action in international negotiations.10 Political leaders tend to underestimate the risks of domestic climate impacts and the corresponding need for adaptation planning. The country’s central policy objective is to create a “low-emission society” by 2050,11 leaving the door open to continued fossil-fuel use coupled with imagined (not yet existing) carbon-removal technologies. In a sense, Norway is seeking to hold on to and extend its past into the future, rather than imagining how things could be different.

  1. Climate Tipping Points – Challenging the Imagination

Exasperated by the impossible task of developing Stavanger’s adaptation strategy for the coming decade, Solveig decides on a whim to dig in the city’s archives and understand how this has been done in the past. There is so much scientific information, yet so little of it has a regional or local focus, almost none of it is integrated (what happens if you add up warmer air, more intense rain, higher storm surges …), and most of it points towards more rather than less uncertainty and variability in the future. How do you make plans based on this messy stuff? On top of all of that, she now must seriously consider the effects of both the recent North Atlantic sub-polar gyre collapse and the continuing slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). She doesn’t understand why scientists call these things tipping points—they seem to be slow-moving disasters, menacing beasts, keeping the secrets to their collective future locked away in the dark depths of the Atlantic. In a heating world, Stavanger has to grapple with regional cooling! Messed up. How unprepared they had found themselves for these changes. The sub-polar gyre had surprised them all, completely reversing the adaptation logic of the last 40 years. They still struggle to explain this to the public. Solveig wishes she could time-travel to 2200 to see for herself what these changing ocean currents—plus all the other trends—will do to Stavanger’s climate, its roads and irrigation systems, the power lines, and her retirement weather. Hopefully there is some wisdom to be gained from the past in the archive, even if folks 50 years ago didn’t seem to know about climate tipping points. She discovers Stavanger’s Environment and Climate Plan from 2018 and the city’s very first Climate Adaptation Strategy issued in 2023, the year she was born.

Climate tipping points refer to large components of the Earth system (tipping elements) that can, under certain conditions, flip rapidly and irreversibly from one stable state into another.12 For example, the Amazon rainforest could turn into a savannah within a few decades or the world’s polar ice sheets, which have existed for millions of years, could melt. Climate scientists have identified sixteen climate tipping elements to date, including ice sheets, ocean currents, forest biomes, coral reefs, and permafrost.13 Major uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge remain regarding when (for example, at what level of global average temperature) each tipping process might start, how long each process will take, and how these changes could affect different communities and ecosystems around the world. Some scientists believe that some tipping points might already have been crossed and that a handful of systems could reach tipping points in the 2030s. For example, the disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might now be unstoppable.14

No human being has ever experienced or observed a climate tipping process; given the long time scales involved, tipping points present a massive challenge for our imagination and our collective decision-making. How can we envision social-environmental reorganization processes taking place at continental scales over a century or more? Given our limited ability to predict social change, how can we anticipate the impacts on and responses of people in Brazil, Bolivia, or Colombia, including the Indigenous communities at the frontlines of change, to the potential transformation of the Amazon rainforest into a grassland? How will the loss of this generator of oxygen and humidity affect the planet? How about the loss of biodiversity? We need imagination to conceive of a plan of action to prevent tipping processes, or to prepare and manage their short- and long-term impacts.

Tipping points force us to expand our imagination far into the future because the short-term decisions of the human community, over the next decade or so, will reverberate for millennia. What we do or fail to do now, especially how deeply and quickly we reduce carbon emissions, matters for everything and everyone who will live on this planet for thousands of years to come. Today, such long-term thinking is urgently needed to inform our mitigation decisions: efforts to reduce emissions, keeping global temperature rise in check and preventing potential tipping points. But some processes might already be in motion and some prevention efforts might fail. Adaptation planning needs to start considering the multifarious possible impacts of tipping points on communities around the world—what kinds of risks we might encounter and how best to prepare for them.

In Norway, adaptation planning needs to consider multiple climate tipping elements, including the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the slowing of major Atlantic Ocean currents, the thawing of Arctic permafrost, and shifting boreal forests. Ice sheet loss leads to sea-level rise and affects the salinity and regional temperature of the oceans, contributing to the slowdown of the big ocean currents that move water around the world. If the AMOC weakens or even collapses, it would cool temperatures in Northern Europe, change rainfall patterns, strengthen storms, and mess with agriculture. Scientific uncertainties make it challenging to understand when and how these tipping elements and their interactions might affect life in Norway, and how these impacts will differ in Oslo, Stavanger, Trondheim, Tromsø, and Svalbard. These uncertainties might persist for decades, while adaptation professionals will have to draw up their plans to the best of their collective knowledge and abilities, marshaling their imaginations.

  1. Science, and Climate Change Policy and Decision Making

It feels like a punch in the stomach. Solveig sits back, staring blankly at the VR set in her hands, letting it all sink in. Torstein’s question snaps her out of it: “How was it?” One of the younger council members, he is particularly passionate about gadgets and AI. Solveig stands up, looking for words to describe what she just experienced, and how it made her feel. She had invited these climate change researchers from the University of Stavanger to help the committee better understand the confusing science, the uncertainties, interactions between different kinds of climate change impacts, and what it all could mean for life in the city over the next decade. They don’t have facts—it’s impossible to know the future—but their adaptation strategy has to be grounded in some assumptions, beliefs maybe, about the most likely future weather conditions, storms and rain, ocean temperatures, fish stocks, forest changes, extinctions. The researchers were eager to help. Today, her committee convened in the university’s VR facility on campus. After a presentation on expected climate impacts in the region, each committee member spent a few minutes in the VR environment—goggles, headphones, gloves, shoes—and explored a virtual version of future Stavanger. When she stepped into the VR world a few minutes ago, she the saw changes 10, 20, 50 years down the line. The flood damage, the coastal erosion, the dead fish, the abandoned houses. And she felt, was still feeling, so many things that she couldn’t quite put in words, not yet. The researchers had explained that a big component of VR-based learning was the emotional experience that came with sensory immersion in a hypothetical future. Reading and hearing about this stuff was one thing, seeing and feeling it was quite another. Torstein is excited rather than deflated, his face full of eagerness. “Did you see that flood damage in 2080? I knew the museum was at risk, but I didn’t even think about Havneringen! We need to rethink the road improvement project.”

Science plays an important role in helping us imagine how the future might be different than the present. Scientific information about future anthropogenic climate change (for example, curves that show how much carbon humans are likely to emit each year through 2100, corresponding future changes in global average temperature, or the annual amount of sea-level rise over the rest of this century) are important foundations for policy discussions about the kinds of measures that should be taken to contain and adapt to global warming.15 If science didn’t open these windows into our possible futures, the human community wouldn’t be able to understand the challenge it is facing or what kinds of actions to take in response.

Given the importance of scientific knowledge for climate policy, the proper or desirable relationship between science and policy is a subject of great debate. How do we produce knowledge in dialogue with how we make meaning, so that new information catalyzes change? Who is and should be involved in the creation of knowledge? What kinds of knowledge do we need to solve the problems we face?16 What are the best ways to communicate about scientific knowledge with different audiences? Our understanding of the relationship between science and policy has changed tremendously over the last two decades. While we used to think of these two domains as strictly separate, with an arrow of knowledge “transfer” from science (the domain of truth-seeking and facts) to politics and policy (the domain of values, conflicting interests, and power), we now conceive of these two spheres as intricately connected.17 Knowledge is co-produced18—generated through complex interactions between scientists and policy-makers—in processes that involve disciplined research, data, and evidence, but also values and political interests.

While this more complicated picture better reflects how knowledge and meaning emerge at the interface of science and policy, we still tend to overestimate the role of scientific information in shaping policy choices.19 We might also overestimate the role of science in shaping our future imagination20 as compared to the arts, sensory experiences, and especially stories.21 Multiple technologies, including virtual and augmented reality, but also microscopes, cameras, and sound recorders, can extend or expand our limited sensory abilities, helping us to see, hear, smell, and feel more, including experiences of the not-yet-lived. It’s important that we learn how to integrate different forms of communication to maximize our ability to learn about—make meaning of—our possible climate futures. Our future visions guide our decisions, and they should have a scientifically informed, but also emotionally and culturally meaningful foundation.

  1. The Responsibility to Imagine

Imagination, especially our collective imagination of possible and desirable futures, is a crucial ability for making good collective decisions. Climate change offers just one context in which imagination matters for societies’ responses to the problems they are facing, and the extent to which these responses are effective: reducing risks, facilitating adaptation, and improving people’s lives over time.

Imagination involves both cognitive and social processes and is influenced by a large set of factors: the values and beliefs a person holds; their personal relationships, social networks and professional or institutional interactions; their environmental experiences; the news they consume; the novels they read; and the technologies they use (and how they choose to use them). Consequently, the specific ways we imagine our futures differ tremendously across individuals and communities. Nevertheless, most people share a strong desire for stability and continuity in their lives, which creates a tendency to think about the future like a somewhat adjusted version of the present. Imagining radically different ways of living, working, and being is hard; our minds actively work against it. However, considering such radical alternatives is necessary in this moment when we need to chart pathways to sustainability. If we cannot move beyond merely tweaking the present in our imagined futures, we’re unlikely to succeed in our efforts to address the climate crisis.

So, we need to start fostering our imagination capacities. Future storytelling and reading, experiencing scientific information through virtual reality, and participatory foresight processes such as scenario development22 are all part of the toolkit we have available to train our imagination muscles to do things they haven’t done before—like imagining a day in the life of a person living 50 years from now (like Solveig) in a place we know and love, or maybe even 500 years from now, in a place we’ve never visited. You might protest, people living 500 years from today aren’t relevant for our decisions today! But through climate tipping points, every human being alive today is causally and morally linked to every human being who might be alive hundreds of years from now. These links between the living and the yet-to-be-born are not of equal nature and strength for everyone. We have different levels of culpability for climate change related to our knowledge, consumption patterns, socio-economic status and wealth,23 and economic or political power positions.24 We live in different cultural, environmental, and historical contexts.25 We have different conceptions of our moral responsibilities to future generations. But regardless of these differences, we all have the right, the potential, and maybe even the responsibility to imagine.

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