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Perspectives sur les enjeux contemporains | More Perspective on Current International Issues

The Nobel Prize and the ‘Wicked’ Challenge of Climate Change

Publié le 1 décembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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As recognized by the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore’s style of science communication reflect complimentary approaches to global capacity-building in the face of ‘wicked planetary environmental issues’. How do these initiatives work to strengthen communication between science, politics and people? Might their effects be enhanced by complimentary projects on a local scale?

 Hipster Grafitti
Hobvias Sudoneighm,
Hipster Grafitti, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Today’s environmental and sustainability issues can be described as ‘wicked problems’ because they are complex and inextricable from social and political circumstances1. Global climate change is one example in kind. Being highly uncertain and raising concerns related to inequality and security, the issue is further complicated by its global reach and demand for immediate action. Outdated forms of environmental problem solving and ecosystem management are simply not sufficient to counter ‘wicked planetary issues’ such as global climate change. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize draws our attention to two initiatives that seek to address complex global issues. While recognizing that these initiatives do not in themselves represent the final word on climate change, this article will explore their unique contributions, how they differ from traditional environmental problem-solving models and how they might productively be connected to more locally oriented environmental initiatives.

Using Old Models for New Problems

Environmental problem solving has depended on technological solutions stemming from the values of the so-called ‘progressive era’ – in particular, the belief that, given adequate resources, science and technology can solve all environmental problems2. Underlying this belief are the ideas that science is objective, and that optimal outcomes can be achieved through the application of scientific facts and figures3. Such thinking ignores the connectedness of contemporary environmental problems to complex social, cultural and economic circumstances

Wicked environmental problems involve high uncertainty and the possibility of dramatic, non-linear, changes in ecosystem function4. Thus, as much as science progresses, scientists alone will never be able to present a simple solution for a complex problem. Citizens and politicians must come to understand the complexity and inherent uncertainty of today’s environmental issues well enough to quit asking science to eliminate them through the development of better technologies. Complete certainty as a pre-requisite for action is no longer feasible. While technological development, in the climate change context, is an empowering tool, finding a new energy source or other technological solution will not provide direction for constructive institutional change to face environmental threats. Further, a technocratic approach implies that societal values and individual behavior need not change. The result- we would fail to develop the capacity to solve other global challenges, such as water scarcity, land degradation and species extinction5.

It is clear that our dusty toolbox, dating back to the progressive era, is not sufficient to confront wicked planetary problems such as climate change. Transparency and knowledge sharing by scientists may contribute to an improved understanding of complexity and acceptance of some uncertainty – capacities that are central to addressing wicked environmental issues. To do so, research must be presented in a context that answers to the expectations of societal benefits. Science must also be trustworthy to the public – a value currently enforced by rigorous peer review6. While scientists, politicians and citizens have traditionally occupied separate realms, an extended peer review community involving stakeholders and politicians could contribute to a more robust problem-solving process7. Enter the IPCC and Al Gore.

New Models for Building Institutional Capacity in Light of Wicked Planetary Issues

The IPCC and Al Gore were awarded the 2007 Peace Prize for their efforts “to disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change and lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change8”. These efforts represent capacity-building of global governance systems that link scientist, politician and citizen. A strengthened framework for information sharing between these sectors is a foundation on which to create change in the traditional ways of dealing with environmental problems. For example, two important factors that make international and political cooperation more likely are: greater scientific consensus and increased public concern9. The IPCC is an institution that seeks to achieve strong global scientific consensus, while Al Gore’s work has helped to increase public concern. While these initiatives were created in response to climate change, their legacy can be used to strengthen efforts for other wicked planetary issues such as global water scarcity and land degradation10.

IPCC: Building Global Consensus

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seeks to “assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation11”. The IPCC is a novel model because:

1. It isinterdisciplinaryin nature. The IPCC assesses climate-related issues in domains ranging from the biophysical to the social and economic.
2. It isglobalin membership. Hundreds of experts from all over the word prepare the IPCC reports, contributing as both authors, and reviewers. Report authors also include governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “identified directly because of their special expertise reflected in their publications and works12”. This helps to hold the IPCC documents to the highest standards of accountability.
3. It wasdeveloped in responseto a global issue. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) joined together to create the IPCC in reaction to the problem of global climate change in 198813.
4. It asks politicians and scientists to work together. The process of developing reports demands that the politicians become more knowledgeable, working in the same room, writing and reviewing reports with scientists and NGO representatives14. The IPCC has been referred to as a ‘hybrid’ organization due to its emphasis on mixing scientific results with policy implications. Politicians have a say in the wording of the IPCC reports15. At the same time, a chain of vigorous peer review and expert editing committees ensures the validity of these reports16.

With the aim of producing policy-relevant science, the IPCC has taken a definitive stance regarding the causes and potential remedies to climate change, thereby providing the impetus for environmental policy development around the world17.

The IPCC builds capacity to face global environmental issues by establishing venues for open knowledge transfer between scientist, policy maker and citizen. It forces politicians to develop more knowledge-intensive decision-making processes by including them in the process of building the reports. The structure and demands of the IPCC also affect the role of the scientists, who must work with other researchers and politicians, demanding communication and cooperation between disciplines and across social sectors. All reports are highly accessible to the public on the IPCC webpage.

The application of IPCC reports for national policy development is dependent on the social-political dynamic at the national scale. A case in point is the disparity in policy development influenced by the IPCC reports between the United States and Germany. Germany is making use of the reports to legitimize and develop climate policy while the United States is not18. High economic dependence on fossil fuels and oil lobbying groups in the U.S. may contribute to this disparity. Another key variable is the role of the media in fostering political concern. Messages in the media can contribute to public receptiveness to and demand for environmental policy. For example, a comparison of media coverage in the U.S. and Germany between 1988 and 2004, found that the number of stories in the American mass media portraying a skeptical attitude toward climate change was much higher than those found in the German counterparts19.

Cutting Across Scales: Communication and Co-management

In his film, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore took scientific data on a timely environmental issue and made it more accessible. Documentary filmmaking as a means of exploring environmental issues is not new. Sir David Attenborough and David Suzuki have been sharing scientific information in this way for decades. However, Al Gore was able to use his political position as leverage to deliver his message. In part because he brought an image of high-profile politician together with the goals of an educator, his approach seems to have helped to generate broader support on the need for political action to combat climate change20. His film’s popularity stands as an example of the potential of science communication.

Films such as An Inconvenient Truth can educate and empower large numbers of people around the world, but science communication initiatives are also effective at the local scale. In Sweden, for example, a non-profit organization called Albaeco works closely with researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center, bridging cutting edge environmental research with the Swedish citizens and politicians. Albaeco uses communication strategies such as art exhibitions, speaker series and newsletters. For example, in collaboration with Swedish National Television, Albaeco has developed a comprehensive learning project about human’s interactions with nature that encompasses radio, webpage and film components. It also coordinates directly with politicians, providing consulting services to government agents about environmental research21.

Ideally, citizens with access to current research through science communication can become active participants in creating a vision for our common future. Many novel and creative models are being created on the local scale, tap into growing public concern and re-shape the roles of the scientist, politician and citizen. These initiatives enable citizens to act on information they may have received from effective science communication.

Adaptive co-management is one example of a management strategy that actively challenges the role of the citizen, scientist and politician. As a form of local ecosystem management, it combines a dynamic learning-by-doing process with management power sharing between user groups, government agencies and non-governmental organizations22. Introduced by C.S. Holling in the 1970’s, adaptive management is based on experimentally testing hypotheses about uncertainties in ecosystems. It is considered an adaptive approach because, by including both a rigorous scientific method, and an acknowledgement of uncertainty where necessary, it allows for dynamism in both management strategies and the system being managed. The approach can be applied to situations where local knowledge is integral to learning about a given system, which allows both scientists and stakeholders a direct say in policy development. This model has had success in the crayfish industry of western Sweden, where local landowners formed the Lake Racken Fishing Association and, together with scientists, implemented strategies to enhance crayfish habitat and reduce threats23.

The adaptive management cycle uses management as a tool to actively learn about uncertainties in an ecological system, where the learning is facilitated by the management practice. It has been argued that this model may be appropriate for situations with high uncertainty but demanding immediate action. Some researchers believe that it may be a promising means of addressing the global climate problem. In particular it is considered to be an effective way to bridge the gap between climate research and climate policy24.

Citizen science’ is another management approach that challenges traditional sectoral roles, engaging the citizen in scientific information gathering. Advocates of citizen science argue that long term monitoring of biodiversity and land use are costly and time-intensive, and citizens’ unique place-based understanding of a system over time can be an asset for the scientific sphere25. For example, The Monarch Watch is an organization that is international in reach, sharing information on the identification and migration of monarch butterflies26. Adaptive co-management and citizen science projects are complementary to initiatives such as the IPCC and the popularization of environmental challenges, building on global consensus and improving capacity to address planetary issues.


The scientific community has had information with regards to global climate change for two decades27. Research on other planetary issues, such as water scarcity and global alterations of the nitrogen cycle, has been around just as long28. However, adapting policy and creating institutional capacity to face such daunting issues has been lagging far behind. Tightening ties between politics, science and people, across scales, is one democratic way to speed up the process.

This is not arguing that the IPCC and Al Gore’s communication competence will solve all complex global issues. It is, instead, a bit of optimism in a sea of dark challenges, inspired by this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Highlighting capacity-building in the way we solve problems and the potential for teamwork and communication between sectors and disciplines, may be a means of moving our thinking beyond the ‘progressive era’ to develop institutions appropriate for today’s challenges.


1. Ludwig, Donald. 2001. The Era of Management Is Over. Ecosystems 4: 758-764.
2. Lubchenco, Jane. 1998. Entering the Century of Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science. Vol. 279. The progressive era refers to political and philosophical currents in the U.S. around the turn of the twentieth century.
3. Ludwig, Donald. 2001. The Era of Management Is Over. Ecosystems 4: 758-764.
4. Thresholds exist in systems describing an abrupt change in system function after some limit has been surpassed. See Scheffer, Marten, Steve Carpenter, Jonathan Foley, Carl Folke and Brian Walker. 2001. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature 413, 591-596.
5. Will Steffen, Stockholm Seminar series Lecture, October 30, 2007, see webpage [on line] http://www.albaeco.com referenced October 30, 2007. Also, see Vitousek, P. Mooney, H.A., Lubchenco, J., Melillo, J. M. 1997. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 227, 494.
6. Lubchenco, Jane. 1998 Entering the Century of Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science. Vol. 279.
7. Funtowicz and Ravetz. 1992. Three Types of Risk Assessment and the Emergence of Post-Normal Science. In Krinsky, Sheldon, Golding Dominc (Eds). Social Theories of Risk. Riaeaeu: London.
8. [on line] http://www.cbc.ca/arts/story/2007/10/12/nobel-peace.html referenced October 29, 2007, and [on line] http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/climatechange/unreport-2007.html referenced October 29, 2007.
9. Grundmann, Reiner. 2007. Climate Change and Knowledge Politics. Environmental Politics. Vol 16. No. 3: 414-432.
10. Vitousek, P. Mooney, H.A. , Lubchenco, J., Melillo, J. M. 1997. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 227, 494.
11. [on line] http://www.ipcc.ch/about/about.html referenced October 29, 2007.
12. [on line] http://www.ipcc.ch/about/faq/IPCC%20Who%20is%20who.pdf
13. [on line] http://www.ipcc.ch/about/about.htm referenced October 29, 2007
14. IPCC procedures. [on line] http://www.ipcc.ch/about/app-a.pdf referenced October 29, 2007.
15. See webpage [on line] www.albaeco.com referenced Nov 1, 2007.
16. Grundmann, Reiner. 2007. Climate Change and Knowledge Politics. Environmental Politics. Vol 16. No. 3: 414-432.
17. IPCC procedures. [on line] http://www.ipcc.ch/about/app-a.pdf referenced October 29, 2007.
18. Grundmann, Reiner. 2007. Climate Change and Knowledge Politics. Environmental Politics. Vol 16. No. 3: 414-432.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. It is difficult to assess the actual impact of Al Gore’s film, especially in the United States. While the film has gained an international reputation, helping viewers to understand the climate change issue, it does not yet seem to have catalyzed policy change at the national level in the United States.
22. See Albaeco webpage [on line] http://www.albaeco.org.
23. Olsson, Per, Folke, Carl, Berkes, Fikret. 2004. Adaptive Co-management for Building Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems. Environmental Management. Vol. 43, No. 1: 75-90.
24. Walker and Salt. 2006. Resilience Thinking. Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Island Press. London.
25. Arvai, Joseph., Gavin Bridge, Nives Dolsak, Robert Franzese, Tomas Koontz, April Luginbuhl, Paul Robbins, Kenneth Richards, Katrina Smith Korfmacher, Brent Sohngen, James Tansey, Alexander Thompson. 2006. Adaptive Management of the Global Climate Problem: Bridging the Gap Between Climate Research and Climate Policy. Climate Change 78: 217-225.
26. Danielsen, Fin, Burgess, Neil and Andrew Balmford. 2005. Monitoring matters: examining the potential of locally-based approaches. Biodiversity and Conservation 14: 2507-2542.
27. Baker, Thomas and Case Steven. 2002. ‘Distributed Human Networks for Facilitating the Collection of Environmental Data. Paper 751, ESRI User Conference, San Diego.
28. Vitousek, P. Mooney, H.A. , Lubchenco, J., Melillo, J. M. 1997. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 227, 494., Lubchenco, Jane. 1998 Entering the Century of Environment: A New Social Contract for Science. Science. Vol. 279.
28. Ibid.

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