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What matters the most for global environmental change research: Humans or resources?

What matters the most for global environmental change research: Humans or resources?

By Myanna Lahsen

The scientist Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” to emphasize that humanity now, collectively, is changing the geology of the planet, interfering dangerously with the operation of its geophysical and biological systems. Humans are the ones provoking the biogeochemical changes, suffering the impacts, and capable of taking deliberate action toward more sustainable uses of the world’s resources. Therefore, it is counterintuitive that global environmental change (GEC) research focuses overwhelmingly on the resources themselves rather than on human systems and practices.

A new international research program, called Future Earth, seeks to bring the social sciences into the center of GEC research. In my new article in Science, Technology & Human Values, I analyze the re-envisioning processes that gave rise to Future Earth.

Repeatedly, international institutions revert back to a more familiar science agenda that privileges prediction, especially when it comes to climate.

Future Earth represents an important advance, but powerful funding agencies are weakening the efforts to refashion the research agenda to better respond to the broad sustainability challenge. Repeatedly, international institutions revert back to a more familiar science agenda that privileges prediction, especially when it comes to climate.

Images of global environmental change

The continued dominance of the biogeochemical sciences in global environmental change (GEC) research is evident when one performs a google images search on “global environmental change.” The search yields the images that are among thousands others along the same lines.

Many images show the planet, sometimes in flames or subject to other effects illustrating human impacts. Also strongly recurrent are computer-generated maps of the globe with vibrant colors indicating the temperature changes projected by computational atmospheric models. Other sets of images show forest fires and dry soils and sterile deforestation and exposure to heat and drought. Yet others show animals, penguins and many polar bears, a good number of them floating at sea on loose sheets of ice.


This image shows a barren Earth but what about the absence of actors who shape decisions that might help reduce the problem of environmental changes? I Photo Courtesy: Pexels

As a whole, the images share a remarkable feature: the near absence of people (a few victims can be spotted, albeit with great difficulty) and the total absence of images of actors – policy makers, industry leaders, consumers and associated institutions – who most shape decisions that variously cause and might help reduce the problems of resource depletion and deleterious environmental changes.

Changing the linear model of science for policy

The images reflect the decades-long emphasis in GEC research on identifying present and future bio-geophysical impacts of human behavior. The guiding assumption has been that, once produced, information about such impacts will generate the needed changes in policy and behavior, not least because decision makers, it is assumed, will “take actions for the benefit of society and environmental sustainability” (source: Belmont Forum site).

While this optimistic assumption – the so-called “linear model” of the science-policy interface – is increasingly questioned, it is still dominant among powerful research institutions and leaders who define GEC/environmental research agendas at both national and international levels around the world.

The overemphasis on bio-geophysical conditions in GEC research sidelines inquiry into how, more concretely, societies might seek to achieve transformations towards sustainability – how to positively alter decision making and actions of powerful human actors, institutions, and processes that drive or control large levers of current global environmental problems.

During the latter half of the 2000s, a series of independent review panels concluded that GEC research had insufficient influence on policy making, and recommended greater integration of social science research as a solution.

The reviews helped give rise to a multi-year process to re-envision an international research agenda in which the natural sciences no longer should dictate the Earth systems research agenda because “social sciences will be at least as important” to efforts to address the challenges of global environmental change (Reid et al. 2009).

The re-envisioning process eventually yielded what now is known as Future Earth, a newly minted international research program and engagement platform.

The re-envisioning process eventually yielded what now is known as Future Earth, a newly minted international research program and engagement platform. Long-standing GEC research-coordinating programs are merging into its research agenda which better integrates natural science with environmental social science and humanities research under a three-pronged focus on planetary dynamics, global development, and supporting transformations towards sustainability.

Funding future earth

Time will show how well the reenvisioned research agenda will overcome obstructing institutional inertia and inclinations towards status quo. Internationally, research funding largely remains in the hands of the Belmont Forum, which continues to issue its own calls for proposals separately from Future Earth. The Belmont Forum is a subset of the world’s most influential funding institutions and it is backed by most of the world’s best-funded national science agencies (for a full list, see here).

The Belmont Forum participated in the decision-making process that produced Future Earth. Yet – as I discuss in the article – it has continued to privilege diagnosis and prediction of bio-geochemical processes over more social science-inclusive transdisciplinary research.

Funding is a key means of maintaining as well as changing status quo. It is therefore significant that the Belmont Forum mainly supports the natural sciences, and that the environmental social sciences and humanities have no equivalent institutional backing by powerful national agencies. For example, the first call for proposals under Future Earth, led by the International Social Science Council with support by the Swedish International Development Agency, could offer funding for only three (of nearly 90) full proposals for action-oriented transdisciplinary research in support of a transformation to sustainability, despite many competitive proposals to this call for innovative transdisciplinary research on “processes of social transformation needed to secure equitable and durable solutions to some of these urgent global problems.” This shortage of Future Earth funding underscores the need to rethink science funding structures at both national and international levels.

Rethinking funding structures goes hand-in-hand with the vitally important project of doing away with outdated and unproductive values and mindsets that undermine the co-equal partnership and collaboration needed across disciplines and the social and natural sciences.

Differing perceptions of quality and credibility among disciplines are major obstacles to successful collaboration. Addressing and overcoming their obstructing influence in research and funding institutions is key to ensuring that more innovative research will be produced in support of progressive societal transformations towards sustainability.

Myanna Lahsen is Senior Associate Researcher in the Earth System Science Center of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE, Brazil), Executive Editor of Environment Magazine and of the domain on the Social Status of Climate Change Knowledge under Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs): Climate Change, as well as advisor to Nature Climate Change. 
The article was originally published on Backchannels.
Featured Image Credits: Department of Geosciences UMass
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