Climate strikes: the challenge to research

by Clare Downing and Tina Fawcett

An estimated 2,000 school pupils and their supporters joined in a growing world-wide movement by holding a ‘climate strike’ in the centre of Oxford on 15 February, and there were similar events in other cities across the UK. A month later, and the youth climate strikes were even bigger, taking place in many more UK cities, and in over 100 countries worldwide. This youth movement was inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who has taken her message, that we need action not talk, to global political leaders and policymakers.

In response to the climate strikes, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has said: “It will require us to change the way in which our energy is generated, change the way in which our homes are built, change the way in which our land is managed and farming operates. But that change is absolutely necessary.”

We each have a teenage daughter who took part in the protests and we attended the Oxford climate strikes. At the second climate strike, we were involved in staffing an information stall offering to answer questions about climate science and responses to climate change.

Climate Strike in Oxford March 2019

The Climate Strike in Oxford (photo credit: Clare Downing)

We both work at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at the University of Oxford, on a programme looking at how we use energy. To add detail to Michael Gove’s quote – the climate challenge will also require us to change the way that energy is used by reducing energy demand, improving energy efficiency and enabling flexibility in time of use; and this is what the Centre for Research on Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), funded by EPSRC and ESRC, is all about. The question for CREDS and energy and climate researchers more generally is: how should we respond to this movement? Indeed, should we respond at all?

The information stall was not specifically a CREDS response, or a response connected to our research agenda. However, it was outreach – which is something that CREDS, and all researchers, have a responsibility to engage in to a greater or lesser extent. While it might be easier to confine a CREDS response to stakeholder engagement, it’s not clear this is sufficient.

Turning to how the strikes might influence our research agenda, an obvious thought would be to research the climate strikes themselves. This is not currently something the CREDS consortium is doing, and as a topic it seems better suited to the new Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), which is going to work closely with members of the public – establishing a citizen’s assembly and a young people’s panel to ensure key public concerns are a central part of the Centre.

The CAST research begins to respond to one of the key issues: giving those that are affected a voice. The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) has also done work with young people and sustainability.

Clearly, the children feel that the strikes empower them and give them a voice. This was the subject of a study funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on climate change and social justice. It found that climate justice is still an underdeveloped research topic, particularly the social justice aspects of adapting to the impacts of climate change. There is also less research on procedural aspects of climate justice (whose voice is heard in decisions) than distributional aspects (who will be affected and where).

The climate strike movement might directly influence CREDS research, for example, in the rates of social / technological change we assume in our models and what scenarios we model. In addition, Equity and Justice was a topic in our recent CREDS funding call.
School children have also called for the human side of climate change (what we can do and how it might affect us) to be integrated into their curriculum. This would go beyond the science of climate change, which is what is currently taught. They also want schools be run more sustainably. Can our research help with that?

The Youth Strike 4 Climate movement is likely to influence our thinking as individuals, depending on how much attention we pay to it, where we think the movement may go, and perhaps whether we know children and young people involved in the actions. What we have to decide is whether it influences us as a research community. At the moment, for us, there are more questions than answers, and we are looking to investigate some of these questions in future CREDS funding calls. To help us to decide on what specific studies we should take forward we would welcome thoughts from researchers, our stakeholders, young people and the wider energy community. One thing seems clear – this is not a movement we can ignore.

Clare DowningClare Downing is the Centre Manager for Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) where she leads the programme management and knowledge exchange activities and team. She has technical expertise in climate change (mitigation and adaptation) particularly in developing evidence for policy. She is interested in evaluating the science and process of climate change through applied research and turning the results into practical plans, policy and guidance for users. You can follow CREDS at @CREDS_UK on Twitter.

Tina-FawcettTina Fawcett is a Co-Director of CREDS, the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, and Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. Tina’s research focuses on energy demand and demand-side policy for households and organisations. She uses a multi-disciplinary approach to understand patterns of energy demand and to identify opportunities for reducing energy use and carbon emissions, and the policies that can deliver these changes. Her work has been supported by UKRI (ESRC, EPSRC, NERC), EU Horizon 2020 and other funders. You can follow Tina at @fawcett_tina on Twitter.

This year we are using the #ESRCBetterLives hashtag to highlight outstanding social science research and show how social science is relevant to everyone. Our Better Lives theme for April is ‘environmental change’. Watch out for our tweets and tell us about research that has inspired you!

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