The common problem of consensus

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This is a copy of a post on the DECC blog that I wrote in September 2012. See the original.

Last week I wrote about the launchby China of their version of DECC’s 2050 Pathways Calculator. What I didn’t mention was that the Chinese officials were so enthused that they wanted to encourage other countries to copy DECC as well. So the launch had representatives from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, the USA, the UK and Vietnam.

We talked energy and we talked climate and, mostly, we talked 2050 calculators1. It confirmed to me that we all want energy systems that support jobs and growth, that relieve fuel poverty, that don’t cause dangerous climate change or pollution, that don’t cost much, that are low-risk and that are publicly acceptable. It also confirmed to me that we all differ in what we are willing to compromise from that ideal. So far, no surprise.

But I was surprised. Or perhaps just a victim of a blinding flash of the obvious: when faced with these compromises, the differences between countries are no bigger than the differences within countries. The UK has all colours of views, some very strongly held. The same appeared to be true everywhere. The common problem we all seem to face is what to do, given these differences.

Almost all the countries had analysts – people like me who try to work out the best compromise, given the facts. Almost all the countries also had stories about how such analysis didn’t deliver consensus: the analysis might be too opaque to be trusted; or it might exclude trade-offs that important groups thought sensible; or it might rely on facts that are uncertain or unknowable; or it might be communicated badly. More problems in common.

We’ve had a go at some of these problems with the the 2050 Pathways Calculator: we’ve tried to make it simple and transparent enough to be trusted; we’ve tried to make it expressive enough for people with wildly different views to express their beliefs and preferences; and we’ve tried to make versions that work for different levels of expertise (excel, web, my2050). It is far from perfect, but we’ve discovered a lot of people that like it and in Beijing we heard a lot more enthusiasm. Over the next couple of years I expect our approach will be copied again. A common solution to some common problems.

But the 2050 calculator is a common solution to the small problem of good analysis, not to the big problem of achieving consensus about what to do. Something we are thinking about is whether and how we can get this consensus. We’ve had a go: we’ve made our tools public and seen them used in lots of different ways by enthusiasts, academics and industry; we’ve been sent thousands of different pathways and attempted to analyse their attributes; we’ve tried out different types of workshop with different groups of people: MPs, civil servants, industry experts, diverse members of the public and schoolchildren. But we are debating whether we need to do something more systematic to solve our common problem of consensus.

I’d welcome your ideas. If they work, they might even be copied round the world.

  1. In addition to the UK and China, South Korea and Belgium are both in the process of building their own.