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Conference debriefing by Bogusia Igielska

This one-day conference organised by newly formed UK National Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (UK HDGEC) aimed to assess the two landmark report on climate change and its implications - The Stern Report and IPPC AR4 - with particular focus on social science research as an essential contribution in looking for solutions.

Global Environmental Change (GEC) requires cooperation and collaboration across diverse array of disciplines, methodologies and approaches. The conference gathered top UK experts, both of physical and social science researchers, campaigners and academics, to mark necessary steps forward in tackling climate change. The key speakers included top American ecological economist Bob Costanza from University of Vermont, Diana Liverman from Oxford University Centre for the Environment and reviewer of the latest IPPC report, Marcus Oxley from Tearfund - development agency working with a global network of local NGOs to help eradicate poverty, and finally Harriet Bulkeley (Durham University) - UK specialist on environmental governance and urbanization.

Bob Costanza, one of the main contributors to the World Climate Research Project presented a lecture full of scientific facts and data, that however had one straightforward conclusion - integration, multi-scale approach and participatory policy and decision making are at the core of finding the solutions to climate change, in both mitigation and adaptation processes. He advocated for integration in vision (how the world works now and how we want it to work in the future), tools and analysis and implementation. We need to develop theories and models that work across all the scenes, that are multi-scale and interdisciplinary. Another very important point raised by Costanza was that science is not objective. He claimed that well being, happiness, utility and welfare has always been subjective and thus traditional indicators (GDP) on which we base today's policies and environmental decisions fails to deliver good results. Next interesting point being made was that we should stop talking about developed and developing countries, instead we should use the terms under- and overdeveloped. GDP suggests that income increase results in higher quality of life, whilst more studies proves that over-consumption leads to decrease in happiness and well-being. This also implies new approach in modelling environmental services( Multiscale Integrated Models of Ecosystem Services), that as mentioned earlier, needs to be more participatory but also include cultural and social aspects. Building connections between humans and environment is a must, without it we can never talk about environmental understanding. Costanza clearly showed that neoclassical approach to economics fails to deliver appropriate solutions to the modern and future world. Thus, we need to revise all market institution and reveal true costs and benefits. We have to realise that not all the services can be privatised, and that not all the profits can be converted into monetary values. Social benefits often tend to be enormous but with current, short term approach primarily focused on financial costs and benefits fails to recognise true values and needs of both people and non-human species.

Whilst Bob Costanza presented his vision as an social science expert, Diane Liverman talked from the physical science point of view. She agreed with the previous speaker, however she claimed that the physical science research has delivered too little information to translate this knowledge in adequate political decisions. Its has been taken for granted that since IPPC report concluded that climate change has anthropogenic source, that since we identified which ecosystems will be the most affected we can now take the action. There is no doubt that extensive mitigation and adaptation measures are necessary, however, scientific research still has not revealed which level of this action is required, particularly on the regional scale. What does that mean? Liverman pointed out several gaps in that IPCC WG1 and WG2 and clearly showed that policy conclusions are based on limited models that often do not agree on the direction of change. Studies done on ecosystem services can be translated into policy making, however we can question validity of the conclusions. It seems hard to believe but in the modern world there are still regions that have never been researched. Surprisingly or not, the IPPC report is mostly based on studies conducted in the North, with a very limited coverage in the South. Apart from gaps in geographical and sectoral coverage, Diana Liverman identified several other limitations of the IPCC report, such as no analysis being done beyond the year 2050 or impact on ecosystem in case the temperature raises above 2C, inability to aggregate case studies or such trivial problems as translating documents into English. She also listed recommendations that would significantly improve validity of the report - including uncertainty and probability, examining barriers to adaptation and synergies with mitigation, developing more creative scenarios, targeting understudied sectors and regions etc. This speech raised several important issues and started a hot debate among the delegates, whether we actually can or should question the validity of the IPCC report. Liverman's response was simple, both IPPC and Stern Report have many gaps and limitations but it is the best study available now. We should not reject it but realise how little do we still know about climate change, and particularly

Both, Bob Constanza and Diana Liverman presented where we are now when it comes to tackling climate change and indicated what still needs to be done but what are the research - policy interface and where we go from here? This was the main topic of the afternoon panel where governmental, NGO and urban arena perspective were to be presented. Even though, the government view on the problem had to be left out, as the representative did not show up, the latter ones delivered very interesting visions on current problems and needs. Marcus Oxley, did not want to undermine the need for scientific research but as an NGO representative, pointed out that we need cannot wait for more studies to produced. We need to take action now as we already know that there is a causal relationship between development and disasters and that almost 70% of natural disasters are said to be attributed to climate change. We argued that we have to tackle the gap between policy and practice immediately and that strengthening local scale governance is the solution here. Next, he believes that climate change is a great threat to the modern world but at the same time it can be seen as an opportunity. Climate change is the issue that may help solving the problem of the gap between the rich and the poor world. Climate change is THIS THING that neither can escape or isolate from, thus have to take common action. Here the social justice and climate change justice deal with the same thing, that is redistribution of the resources. The following speaker, Harriet Bulkeley, talking about mitigation and adaptation to climate change in the cities linked very well to the arguments presented by Marcus Oxley. Disasters such as floods and hurricanes that are attributed to climate change, will soon threaten not only cities and poor, overpopulated metropolis in the South. Key cities - New York, London, Amsterdam - could be severely flooded in the near future, and that will certainly affect the global economy. She also pointed out that the actions have to be taken mainly in the cities as urban areas are responsible for as much as 78% of carbon emissions from human activities (Stern report).

All this being said, David Simon, chair of UK HDGEC ensured that the conference will also present the role of UK leading UK ‘human dimension' initiatives in tackling climate change. Institutions like Tyndale Centre, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) or Global Environmental Change and Human Security (GECHS) presented projects, research studies and initiatives that they are currently undertaking. The conference revealed how much there still has to be done and how important is the contribution of social science research to combat the climate change. It started a creative and constructive debate and panel for exchanging thoughts and ideas as well as created links, cooperation and collaboration between various institutions and initiatives that together can quantify, understand and built solutions to global environmental change.

Posted by Miriam Kennet November 2007


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