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Climate Conversations: Bridging science and policy – from climate doomsday to an agenda of new opportunities

Published: 21 March 2023
Portrait photo of Johan Kuylenstierna

This year’s first SLU Climate Conversation took place on January 19th with a kick-off at campus Ultuna and an invited guest – Johan Kuylenstierna, former chairman of the Climate Policy Council and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, now director general of the research council Formas.

The focus of Johan Kuylenstierna’s talk was the importance of the narrative when addressing the climate crisis and achieving action. Andrew Gallagher, hub coordinator for SLU Urban Futures at Ultuna, summarises the talk:

Framing the climate crisis

Science-policy dialogue is increasingly important to address the complexity of sustainability challenges we face; and finding ways to communicate about how different dimensions and stories meet each other when we talk about sustainability.

Understanding how do we frame the story of the climate crisis, what knowledge and competences are reflected, and how these are situated within socio-economic contexts are all important to shaping the narrative of the climate crisis. Only by looking at the joined-up nature of questions and bridging science-policy can we successfully do this.

The narrative of a ‘climate crisis’ suggests that the climate is to blame rather than society itself. In reality what we are experiencing is a ‘systems’ crisis, where multiple systems are affected by society (societal development). The climate crisis is really a societal crisis.  

The impacts on society and the systems society depend upon for survival is part of the alarm about climate change, rather than the climate itself. There are climate change impacts we understand and how these interact with economic, ecological and social systems but there are also impacts where a lot more data is needed. Policy processes need to have the capacity to look at both short-term and long-term risks. Environmental risks take place across longer periods, which transcend a lot of short-term political processes.

Changing narratives

The storyline about climate change is often reduced down to a dualism of climate pessimist or a climate optimist. It demonstrates that the storyline is constructed, shaped by people. Reducing the complexity of climate change and the interconnected systemic causes and effects reflects the perceptions and understanding people have and therefore the type of decision-making. Changing the narrative of climate change to represent its complexity and basis in scientific evidence is crucial. 

The narrative is changing, for example biodiversity loss is no longer considered as only an environmental issue but rather a societal issue that needs to be addressed in planning and policy processes. Similarly, policy discourses in Sweden about becoming the first fossil-free welfare state, demonstrates narratives are changing to integrate climate change into policy-making, integrating the climate transition with social welfare.

At an international level, the UN climate conferences have changed narrative from a top down developed/developing country dualism, to a multi-state, multi-actor policy dialogue based on how to share the benefits of a climate transition. Similarly, the SDG agenda reflects the complexity of sustainability, where climate actions is just one part of a wider sustainability agenda, which is interconnected across social, environmental, economic systems.  

Inspiration vs hard choices

Talking about what kind of society we want is more inspiring way to engage people in narratives on climate change but it is more difficult than applying quick technology fixes. If we do not manage to understand the implications of a climate change transition, and ensure that the benefits are distributed events, it can result in strong kick-backs from people and society, causing social unrest.

The narrative has to sell hard choices as necessary and desirable, which would require changes across multiple levels in society. System changes, changes in governance structures and management, and greater collaboration and innovation across value chains, will be required to integrate sustainability and development agendas. Leadership to drive change is also ever more important, and for this leadership to shape a narrative portraying both hope and the complexity of the climate challenges we face.

Text: Andrew Gallagher


SLU’s Future Platforms and SLU Global organise a webinar series of climate conversations with the background of the IPCC reports. The aim is to increase the scientific conversation about climate change across disciplines at SLU.

More about the Climate Conversations