“It is important that scientists and creative people sit together.”

Science talk with Andrea Bigano from the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change

A Eurobarometer survey published in September revealed a high level of interest in science and technology (82%) and a desire amongst citizens to learn more about it in places like town halls, museums and libraries (54%). More than two-thirds (68%) believe that scientists should intervene in political debates to ensure that decisions take scientific evidence into account. But how much space is really given to science in policy-making nowadays? And what formats work best for scientific communication to create interest and engagement? We put these questions to Andrea Bigano from CMCC and senior scientist at European Institute for Environmental Economics

ENC: Social scientists like you, Andrea, can provide governments with essential knowledge to help them take informed decisions. How much do you (and your fellows) feel listened to by political leaders?

AB: Thank you for this question. My feeling is that the attention given to climate science by policymakers has been increasing in recent years and most certainly compared to ten years ago or earlier. However, there is justified concern that this is not yet happening fast enough.

The increasing frequency of extreme climate events and the growing mobilisation of civil society and young people in steady and organised protest against inaction are undoubtedly pushing  climate change up in the political agenda. In many countries, climate change is becoming a relevant issue even within the electoral time horizon. On the other hand, the fact that politicians are paying increasing attention to the problem does not necessarily mean that they always advocate the solutions put forward by the scientific community. Their job as politicians implies paying attention to demands from all stakeholders. This may conflict with what the science suggests or they simply have different timetables. Their task is very complex, but my impression is that most agendas (bar those of the staunchest defenders of fossil fuels, fortunately fewer and fewer by the day) are converging towards urgent climate action.

As this interview is taking place in the middle of the COP 26, it is hard to say if the conference will ultimately be a success or a failure, as any agreement and commitment made at the end will ultimately need to prove its actual worth in the years to come. However, the pledges we are seeing are indeed a sign of this tension between two things: on the one hand, the (too) recent openness of policymakers to take the demands of an increasingly worried constituency seriously. On the other hand, the stalling and  reluctance of lobbies and interest groups – without forgetting the need to acknowledge the right to a fair transition path for the decarbonisation of developing countries. Hopefully the negotiators will work a miracle and get all or most of the countries on board, but realistically they will have to compromise midway. What remains striking and encouraging is that the political agenda now contains goals that were regarded as extreme just a few years ago. It is an incremental and painful process and we need to put our best hopes and efforts into making sure that this trend accelerates before the window for action closes, because no more time can be wasted.

ENC: You just mentioned that climate change is evolving at high speed, but we are still not taking the urgent and radical measures needed despite all the scientific evidence staring at us in the face for decades now. Many local governments have their hands tied by regulations and laws that simply don’t match the goals of the Paris Agreement. Do you think scientists need to find new ways of generating interest in their findings, new scientific communication?

AB: Yes, but in parallel to traditional scientific communication. The latter is a prerequisite to the circulation of scientific ideas within the academic and policy communities. Authoritative and rigorous information is the fuel that keeps the scientific knowledge-generating process running, and we need to be mindful of its fundamental role. At this level, we need to make extra efforts to reach out beyond the respective jargons of the various scientific disciplines, because climate science is probably the most interdisciplinary field that exists. I think that EU research programmes, with their strong interdisciplinary focus, are a powerful driver of integration and mutual understanding among scientific disciplines, and this is bound to pay off in terms of quality and relevance of the scientific output. 

On the other hand, it is crucial that the messages of the scientific community are made interesting, relevant, and understandable for everyone. To this end, I think we should remain open to all communication means and put no limit on creativity. After all, climate change is an existential threat: it is our existence and that of our offspring that is at stake. Arts, literature, music, movies are about conveying powerful feelings and emotions, like those aroused by existential trajectories torn apart by climate change. The connection is clear and there is increasing awareness about climate change narratives across creative communities. Thus, it is important that scientists and creative people sit down together to explore all possible means of communicating in a simple way the urgency of climate action to readers, viewers, music fans and social media followers. The faster this becomes a clear and real priority for all, the faster it will rank as a priority in the politicians’ agenda.  Incidentally, CMCC is involved in this process and we recently took part in a cross-fertilization event between arts and science on climate change.

“We need to make extra efforts to reach out beyond the respective jargons of the various scientific disciplines.”

The other way of raising awareness is by giving people the opportunity to contribute to the process of generating new ideas and knowledge through co-creation. This is well understood by the EU and is becoming a required ingredient of all research projects under Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe. Co-creation is, by the way, very useful to work out feasible actions and solutions at the local level, which is so crucial in the Mediterranean area. 

ENC: Indeed, CMCC is one of the scientific partners in the Interreg-MED project, Efficient Buildings Community. By 2050, fossil-fuel heated buildings should be a thing of the past. What messages do you want to send out to those policymakers who can influence the built environment?

AB: The project covers cities in 13 Mediterranean countries. I would recall that the Mediterranean is a special place in many ways. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, a crossroads of history, art, cultures, trade flows and people flows, the latter recently taking on a dramatic dimension due to the tragic conditions of migrant routes to Europe, incidentally increasingly driven also by worsening climate conditions in the countries of origin.

Working within the Interreg Med Programme, with its practical approach of encouraging innovation on the ground, has shown me how important the local dimension is for climate change action, both for adaptation and mitigation. Buildings are facing different threats and use energy differently in Mediterranean Europe compared to Northern Europe, and this means that policy measures focusing on buildings should be adapted to local circumstances for them to work best. This month, we released a joint position paper in cooperation with colleagues working on Green Growth and Renewable Energy within the Interreg MED programme. A very interesting parallelism emerges from the paper between the crossroads role of the Mediterranean region and the crossroads role of buildings in favour of concrete policy measures that can effectively support the current EU energy transition and decarbonisation drive. Buildings can be designed and used to save energy, produce energy sustainably and use materials in a circular and sustainable way. These three dimensions can be put together to form a virtuous circle which reinforces sustainability. Taking the specific features of the built environment of the region into account, in our case the Mediterranean region, is a necessary precondition for this to work best.