The missing ingredient

What if the missing ingredient in climate action and creating sustainable societies was the lack of a proven solution or solutions?

I’m doing some research into social change at the moment and I’ve just come across this brilliant lecture by Julie Unwin, CBE of UK research and social change organisation Joseph Rowntree Foundation, given in 2014 which outlines a very useful recipe for how to create social change.

Very briefly what you need is:

  • A ‘burning platform’ – a sense of crisis that coalesces agreement around the need for a problem to be addressed.
  • A compelling narrative – this explains why change is needed and that the problem is not inevitable and what change looks like.
  • A tested, proven solution – having one (or more) aids the formation of a clear and compelling narrative for action and for change by helping state that the problem is not inevitable and it can be changed.
  • Extreme supporters providing emotion and challenge – outlier or non-mainstream positions force the window of public opinion to expand to include them thus making them legitimate solutions. Emotion (through the power of connection and identity) plays an important part in this process by making outlier positions or views appeal to the mainstream (eg. gay rights) and social movements organise around this emotional mainstreaming appeal to demand change.
  • Surprising friends – allies who may have different interests but ultimately want the same change (eg. big business for strong climate policy). Also, advocates and intermediaries lend credence to interest-based lobbying which can turn politicians off.
  • Events – events (often unexpected or unforeseen) provide key moments to outline the problem and the solution(s) and push through change.
  • Evidence and emotion – provide power for the recipe by providing proof of a problem and solutions and the power to unite movements and grow support for change.

It struck me that, according to Unwin’s recipe, the reason the world has been lagging on effective climate action is that there are no truly proven solutions.

  • The ‘burning platform’ sense of urgency is there given constant warnings by scientists and economists.
  • The narrative that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed is there,
  • There are extreme and mainstream supporters for climate action and corresponding mainstream support amongst publics and some politicians.
  • There are allies everywhere including big businesses who see the business sense in avoiding dangerous climate change.
  • And we all know that the events, evidence and emotions are there after decades of climate science and especially as climate change starts to impact us today.

What’s missing? A tested and proven solution to reduce emissions and tackle climate change whilst maintaining prosperity and helping people climb out of poverty.

And this is bad.

As Unwin puts it, without a clear solution to a problem presented as needing changing, you get alarm and desire for change but inaction.

Sound familiar?

We’re all aware of the climate paralysis many people express: “What can I do, I’m just one person!” “I can’t have any impact.” “There’s no point trying, there’s nothing we can do anyway.”

Is the lack of a proven solution in the narrative for climate action over the last few decades perhaps the key reason for climate inaction despite all the impetus for action?


Considering we don’t really have time to wait around to test economy-wide solutions as we need to act significantly and now, there is an option. Unwin goes on to point out that if there is no proven solution you can at least have a well-reasoned and modeled one.

So, briefly, what do we have?

Looking at resources, renewables are of course flourishing but they are not yet proven at the scales we need to keeps us under 2°c of warming. There are however plenty of indicators already (here, here and here) that they are a ready, cost-effective and working solution to reduce emissions and that they will indeed reach necessary scales (here, here, here and here).

From an economic perspective, of course carbon-pricing mechanisms have been pushed as a potential solution by economists and activists for many years now although their political, economic and emissions-reduction effectiveness has been mixed.

In terms of successful international cooperation to tackle climate change, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which have helped massively in alleviating global poverty, reducing child mortality and increasing primary education, are a great example of a proven solution to complex global problems. The Sustainable Development Goals which will replace them are being aimed at tackling climate change, amongst other problems.

These are the kinds of solutions to climate change, proven at different levels, that we should be highlighting constantly in order to have the strong and compelling narrative Unwin identifies that is capable of inspiring action on climate.

(Photo at top: Julie Unwin, CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation – York Press)


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