Knowledge in the era of climate change


Collectively, we are facing a global environmental challenge that stretches across regions, borders and cultures. To avert from catastrophic global warming and widespread ecological collapse, there is an urgent need to stabilise our damaged climate and to support the active conservation of the natural environment.

To be effective, the management of the environment requires a range of institutional bodies and policies that are based on the principles of deliberation, transparency, consensus-building, and participation. There are widescale concerns, however, that many management efforts are falling short in their attempts to embed these principles.

This article considers the promise of information infrastructures associated with democracy to limit the worst consequences of climate change, with an eye on how they may work in Northern Ireland. Information infrastructures, by definition, are the organised systems of people, policies and processes that produce, store and use knowledge to inform societal governance.

With growing conflict between expert governance and calls for the democratisation of knowledge, it is vital to explore the politics of knowledge in the era of climate change. This article argues that we require a system of information infrastructure designed to create a robust, accountable system of environmental data monitoring that also accounts for the work of inclusive community groups as stewards of landscapes.

The politics of information

When President Biden reversed the previous administration’s decision to renunciate the Paris Agreement, there was hope that western science stood on the cusp of a victory of data over politics, of scientific consensus over propaganda. Considering this event in a more critical manner, however, it served as a reminder of the vulnerabilities of data-driven decision-making.

In recent years, we have observed how populist leaders are capable of enlisting an ignorance of science towards the overhaul of the leadership of both national and international scientific institutions. This has created a situation whereby no climate policy is safe, regardless of how supported it is by scientific research.


Climate governance also faces the challenge of overcoming historic privilege and exclusion. Recent years have led us to respect the divergent experiences of disease, climate, and economic fortune by race. Although the legacy of structural racism is increasingly taken as an issue in need of reform, there remains a lack of effort to comprehensively understand the environmental burden faced by less privileged societies.

Rather than considering these challenges as paradoxical issues, where we are forced to debate the required degree of popular influence on governance, it is vital to critically understand how both crises emerge. Establishing strategies for environmental reforms that serve rich and poor alike will depend on democratic mechanisms of knowledge production. What is required is not simply more science or more democracy, but a fusion of both principles.

Transforming information infrastructures

One important fact about information infrastructures is that they have the capacity to evolve over time to serve new social and political needs. Tracing the history of how these infrastructures evolve, even over relatively recent timespans, gives us the courage to imagine how contemporary information infrastructures can be transformed. It also provides perspective on the changing mechanisms for producing environmental knowledge, which has never been static.

Indigenous communities, communities of colour, and working-class neighbourhoods have long been excluded from the process of governing land, specifically since the foundations of modern democracy were laid. Throughout the twentieth century, demands for equal representation led to reforms of various kinds, including the removal of barriers to voting in the US during the Civil Rights Era. In the midst of these revolutions, various reformers challenged the information infrastructure around government, so as to favour the inclusion of information collected by the many.

Across Latin America, followers of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire argued for literacy and regular citizens’ meetings to debate what kind of economic policies, state infrastructure, and educational institutions would best serve local communities. From these conversations, a new imaginary appeared about how modern democracies might become truly ‘participatory’, or directly responsive to citizen demand.

“It is absolutely essential that the oppressed participate in the revolutionary process with an increasingly critical awareness of their role as subjects of the transformation”Paulo Freire

By the 1970s, the global followers of Freire began to organise participatory research networks. These involved local organisers, trained in leading community discussions about local conditions, setting up workshops to debate the maintenance and future development of local townships. Many of the principles underpinning these initiatives are reflected in modern day citizen assemblies, which hint at what democracy can look moving forward.

Responsive, accountable governance of the environment

Ultimately, the challenge is to design information infrastructures that can hold those causing environmental damage to account, whether the harm they cause is local or widespread. Infrastructures should be built upon data-driven assessments of harm created both by community stewards, whose work is reflective of planetary diversity of incomes and privilege, and created and documented by research scientists.

Citizen science, a form of participatory research that involves non-scientists working with professional researchers to co-produce scientific knowledge, is a valuable example to consider. Principally, citizen science operates as means of empowering both the local knowledge of citizens, as well as the citizens themselves. Projects recruit volunteers to collect, analyse and disseminate knowledge, and have been developed as a way of contributing to (or challenging) the management of the natural environment.

There are a multitude of environmental citizen science initiatives supported in NI, reflecting the desire of many citizens to enhance their political engagement by way of participating in science. Initiatives include Seasearch diving projects, where volunteer divers recently used their collected data to call for the protection of a seagrass bed off the Antrim coast. Their lobbying led to the designation of a marine conservation zone, which prevents any form of activity or development that could damage the area.


While citizen science projects centre on practically tackling environmental issues, their remit goes well beyond nature and resource concerns. Projects also address the non-ecological dimensions of unsustainability, such as, inequality, injustice and lack of democratic accountability. In this regard, citizen science can be seen as a means of converting the environmental interest of participants into a more dynamic development of citizenship and social responsibility.

Supporting radical reimagination

Any acceptable regime of environmental governance in the era of climate change must satisfy the qualities enumerated above. Solutions of this kind require scientists, administrators, and members of the public to transcend the language of trade-offs between scientific expertise and popular democracy that has characterized climate debates up until now.

Instead of entertaining that debate any further, we need a radical reimagination of knowledge use and production. We need a system of government that integrates information from the diversity of communities vulnerable to climate change. This is a challenge that involves recognising the politics of information. When this is achieved, it may become possible to design institutions and infrastructures that can truly serve the many.




Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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Ben McAteer

Ben McAteer

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast

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