Grand Challenges for Sustainability Science demand a change in approach

Posted on November 16, 2010


I’m really impressed with the integrative approach taken in the Grand challenges for Earth Sustainability Science report from International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council. I like the five grand challenges (below), but even more, I like the strong statement for a need for a change in approach.

The report starts by describing what traditional earth science has told us:

This research has provided invaluable insights regarding the biophysical processes that determine the functioning and resilience of planet Earth, the sensitivities of different components of the system, evidence of the accelerated pace of global environmental change caused by the human enterprise, the possible consequences of those changes, and the human dimensions of how to address these challenges.

This science also tells us that the rate of global environmental change is, so far, vastly outpacing our response and, thus, that our current path is unsustainable.

but then goes on to what science hasn’t told us:

…it falls well short of what can be considered integrated solutions. How can we change human behaviour and shape political will so as to make it possible to meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that will avoid dangerous climate change? How can societies most effectively and equitably respond to the global change that is already underway? How can they eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and achieve environmental sustainability?

The challenges bring together better understandings of earth systems (including human systems) and response strategies.

Over the next decade the global scientific community must take on the challenge of delivering knowledge required to support efforts to achieve sustainable development in the context of global environmental change. Solution-focused, strategic, interdisciplinary, long-term research is needed to improve our knowledge of the social-environmental risks facing humanity and to provide science-based support for actions to achieve sustainable development. We rapidly need to deepen our understanding of how the Earth system operates in response to human pressures, improve our ability to predict future risk patterns, and explore social transformations in the world that can overcome barriers to sustainability

To do this, we need to see transitions, from natural science dominated research to including the “full range of sciences and humanities” and from disciplinary studies to “an integrated approach that facilitates inter- and transdisciplinarity”.

The five ‘grand challenges’ proposed all need to be read with that integrative mindset – forecasting is not just about the physics of the climate system but rather about the future of the “coupled social-environmental systems”:

Forecasting: improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people

Science cannot, as yet, provide adequate predictions of the Earth system response to pressures from the coupled socio-environmental complex. This is a major dilemma for humanity as a whole. We know that humanity is pushing systems on Earth towards risks that may cause abrupt, and potentially irreversible and disastrous changes. Despite major advancements in Earth system science over the past decade, the uncertainties and risks of anthropogenic change remain too high for comfort. Human development continues along a dimly lit path of uncertainties and risks; in the absence of clarifying headlights policy makers and society at large inappropriately assume that the stability of the planet will prevail. Scientific evidence to date strongly suggests that it is too risky to continue along this development pathway.

Observing: develop, enhance and integrate the observation systems needed to manage global and regional environmental change (including “compelling narratives”)

To meet any of the grand challenges, a robust data and information system is needed that can combine data and knowledge gathered over centuries with new observations and modelling results to provide a range of integrated, interdisciplinary datasets, indicators, visualizations, scenarios, and other information products. Ensuring wide access to both past and future data, especially with regard to societal dimensions, is a key challenge that cannot be taken for granted.

Now here’s a challenge for those of us interested in visualising sustainability:

The observation, data preservation and information systems required need to: encompass both natural and social features; be of high enough resolution to detect systematic change; assess vulnerability and resilience; include multiple sources of information (quantitative, qualitative and narrative data and historical records); provide information about both direct drivers of change and indirect drivers; involve multiple stakeholders in the research process; support effective decisions at global to local scales; be formally part of adaptive decision making processes; provide full and open access to data; and be cost effective.

Confining: determine how to anticipate, avoid and manage disruptive global environmental change (and disruptive changes in social systems)

…an increasingly interconnected world generates linked trends and shocks in seemingly disparate sectors such as energy, finance, food, health, water and security. Public policies and social and economic institutions are rarely designed with such human-induced disproportional changes and regime shifts in mind.

The report argues for an understanding of non-linear dynamics and an integration of environmental and complexity science

A major focus of research must also be to better determine strategies for avoidance, adaptation or transformation of social-environmental systems to accommodate changes that are dangerous because of their speed, scale, non-linear nature, cumulative impact, self-amplifying nature or irreversibility.3 Such research can also inform steps that societies should take to increase their resilience to natural and human induced disasters.

The necessary research builds upon and integrates expertise within the sciences (social, natural, health, and engineering) and humanities and applies it to pressing coupled social-environmental research questions of human interactions with the Earth system.

Responding: determine what institutional, economic and behavioral changes can enable effective steps toward global sustainability

The time and spatial scales of global change differ fundamentally from the types of problems that humanity has addressed in the past.

Currently, decision-makers have incentives that favour short-term and private benefits, rather than long-term and collective benefits.

An effective response to global change will also require much greater understanding of the inter-relations between global environmental change, global poverty and development needs, and global justice and security.

Determining how to achieve changes in social organizations, institutional arrangements and human behaviour is just as important as establishing what changes are desirable.

I had written a paragraph describing the earlier challenges as being multi-scale but stopping too high – at local level decision makers. Where is the focus on individuals, who in aggregate make up the community?   Grumpy paragraph deleted – individuals considered here:

How can timely actions be undertaken at unprecedented and multiple geographical and geopolitical scales, where the nature and scale of the issues involved means that the actors have widely differing—and disconnected—values, ethics, emotions, spiritual beliefs, levels of trust, interests and power? How can we better understand the role of individual decisions within diverse settings as the building block of societal decisions?

Recognizing individuals, not just policy makers, as a fundamental unit forces attention to a new level of detail on how information about the environment and feedback on thresholds being reached and breached can impact social changes and actions.

Innovating: encourage innovation (coupled with sound mechanisms for evaluation) in developing technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability

Step changes are going to be required in order to address major challenges of climate change, poverty, and scarcity in land and water.

Unprecedented challenges require novel and rapid innovative responses

and this innovation needs to address the mismatch of scales

we must greatly enhance our capacity for learning and this in turn requires much more effective feedback loops at multiple scales.

The report describes only temporal scales but as I’ve argued many times before, I think this should be expanded to any conception of scales, boundaries and thresholds – so spatial, cultural, species and so on should join the temporal scale.

The report has me re-reading the PISA report “Green at Fifteen” – are we preparing students for these Grand Challenges?  Any thoughts on that one are most welcome.