A verdict on Planet under Pressure

March 30, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

Planet Under Pressure is over. We’ve heard from eminent sociologist Antony Giddens about the ineffective, virtual world of conferences; we’ve heard from technology policy specialist Nigel Cameron about the scientific bubble that has no purchase on the real world. Did PuP, as we came to call it, have ‘cling’ power?

Did the plane fares, the carbon offset fees, the daily lives left in suspension, the mammoth, expensive, conference apparatus, merit the effort — or could it all have been better directed, as one senior delegate argued , towards actually tackling environmental problems?

Most commonly used words in questions asked during the first three plenaries of the conference
Planet Under Pressure

Some over-used words at the meeting no longer have ‘cling power’ with me. I apologise for this but words like ‘engagement’, ‘governance’, ‘value-change’ and ‘empowerment’ slide off my tired consciousness leaving nothing behind.

But, because of this, one of the delights of this conference was the way in which social scientists offered routes away from these increasingly empty terms. Their presentations helped explain why scientists are modern-day Cassandras – accurately prophesying doom (and, in their case, repeatedly prescribing engagement, governance and empowerment) — but destined never to be heeded.

Values don’t just change to order: scientists have to be a bit more sophisticated than that. This was made compellingly clear by sociologist Kari Marie Norgard. She presented a mind-boggling (to a humble science reporter) analysis of personal, cultural and social attitudes to climate change based on the nested theory of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

She convincingly demonstrated that the climate change message is so damaging to our perceptions of ourselves, on all three levels, that it is no wonder we ignore it.

From Richard Wilkinson there was the insight that some values do alter with the changing level of equality in society. From governance expert Oran Young, we saw that common crises (World War II, the Great Depression) can drive bickering nations into new ways of governing themselves at a global level. This linked with a call from panellist Pamela Collins for a ‘global patriotism’ – a kind of wartime footing that would bring out the collective best in us and see us acting for the global good.

And the insight from several sub-captains of industry (including oil company Shell and UK waste company Viridor) seemed to be: don’t bother with complex, value-changing engagement strategies – slap the right tax on us and we will innovate our way in a new, greener direction.

I wonder if the social scientists picked up similarly illuminating titbits from the natural sciences. Surely this meeting has been a success in fostering links between them (in addition, of course, to Future Earth – the vast, tangible conference outcome).

When I asked a number of senior organisers, before the meeting, how I would know if it had been a success or not, they all told me that its uniqueness (which lay mostly in its interdisciplinarity) meant it was already a success, simply by existing.

More formal negative and positive analyses will emerge over the next months (and see our final news story here). But for me, at least, it did shed light on why scientists’ exhortations fail and what might begin to solve the problem.

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

How to adapt to climate change: ask the locals

March 30, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

The one group conspicuous by their absence in the Planet Under Pressure conference is the local communities who, one would presume, have the highest stakes in all the developments and debate on climate change.

The reason is obvious: no one invites indigenous communities to conferences straddled by international and national policy experts and scientists. But it turns out that local communities are finding their own ways of coping with increasingly erratic weather changes, without the top-down ‘expert’ inputs, so thank you. And some experts suggest scientists could learn a thing or two from them.

Tirso Gonzales, professor at the department of indigenous studies in the University of British Columbia, described today (Wednesday) how for local communities who have been living in the Peruvian Andes for 8000 years, climate change is not a new phenomenon. They have the local knowledge to deal with erratic weather patterns, but neither scientists nor policy experts care to talk to them.

A session on ‘resilient communities: local pathways to meet the energy, climate and resource depletion challenges’ on Tuesday heard several case studies about how local farming communities in Nigeria, Senegal and India are devising their own methods of coping with the impacts of changing weather, even as their governments grapple with policy announcements and implementation.

Ranjay Singh, scientist at the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute, Karnal in northern India, cited several examples of local communities devising their own solutions, from cross-breeding yaks to  domestication of wild species with drought or flood tolerance, to intercropping to adapt to the changes they see around them.

“Most of the community knowledge led initiatives are based on incremental learning and natural adaptive capacity,” Singh says.

What’s missing is the will and interest of natural and social scientists to include this informal traditional knowledge into their research strategies, share experiences and knowledge, says Gonzales.

The day, for now, has not yet dawned.

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

How to make business environmentally ingenious

March 29, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

A plea against bureaucracy when designing ways of getting businesses to be greener was made by Colin Drummond, chief executive of a UK waste company, Viridor, one of the few industry representatives to address the plenary sessions.

“Bureaucracy prevents new ideas coming forward,” he said, and gave a compelling example.

He contrasted the environmental footprint of the UK’s water industry with that of its waste industry.


Tax on landfill in the UK has seen a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

“But we have achieved it at the cost of a huge increase in carbon dioxide emissions – and is the system robust enough to cope with future droughts?” he asked.

In contrast, with the waste industry there was “no bureaucratic approach” he said. There was just a tax on every tonne of waste that went to landfill.

Making landfill too expensive drove ingenuity, with the result that waste handling in the UK has seen a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions; a five fold increase in recycling; a six fold increase in renewable energy generation … and a profit for shareholders.

The argument that incentives work better than regulation was also put forward by Shell’s Martin Haigh, whose reception on Day One we covered here.

“If there was a global price on carbon that would transform the incentives for Shell,” he said

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Why egalitarian societies have more cyclists

March 29, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

The more unequal a society is, the fewer cyclists it has.

This turned out to be a useful insight which, after it was put to the Tuesday plenaries, was referred to by conference speakers again and again.

It was useful because it helped people to think of ways to move beyond the impossible invocations of many scientists here, repeated endlessly at this meeting, that the only way to save the planet is to “change societal values” and “reduce consumption”.

Cyclist, Vietnam

Low status?

Richard Wilkinson, professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, and expert from the world of inequality research, told us there is a growing wealth of data showing that more unequal societies are, regardless of the overall national wealth, more fraught with health and social problems ranging from obesity to violence.

“Inequality is divisive and corrosive. The data show us that that is truer than we ever expected,” he said.

Here’s where the cyclists fit in: they tend not to come out in societies where your position is in a steep hierarchy, and thus the symbols of status you project, are important. Cyclists are also less common when you need to defend yourself against the weak. In both cases a flashy four-wheel drive vehicle is a better option for those who can afford it.

That’s why greater inequality  leads to greater consumption, argued Wilkinson, as people aspire to climb the hierarchy, acquire status and protect themselves from those beneath them.

And that, in turn, is why reducing inequality may be the route to reducing consumption.

Wilkinson also said that people (and businesses) in more equal societies are more public-spirited and thus more likely to act according to the greater environmental interest.

The previous day, doctoral student Pamela Collins called for a ‘global patriotism’ – the kind of sentiment that has pulled communities together during times of war – as a route to rising above individual interests to halt Earth’s environmental decline.

So is tackling societal inequality, therefore, the first step?

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Is geoengineering a lot of hot air?

March 28, 2012

Joel Adriano
South-East Asia & Pacific regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Geoengineering was described as a “pretty scary” idea by scientists who have been assessing its ramifications said Ben Kravitz, Carnegie Institute for Science. He has been studying the idea of mimicking the cooling effect of  large volcanic eruptions on climate. This could be done by continually pumping sulphates into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from earth.

Could we mimic this volcano?

He tested two scenarios — releasing suphates at the lowest layer, the troposphere, or the highest,  into space. Both cases carried the risk of serious unintended consequences.

Geoengineering is a highly controversial concept since it involves large-scale deliberate manipulation of the planet to remove greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and mitigate global warming. Some of the techniques, such as solar radiation management, are meant to reduce the warming effects of carbon dioxide.

Kravitz said the first idea, put forward in 1977, was to pump carbon dioxide into the deep ocean.

Colin Axon, of Brunel University in the UK, explained that issues included cost (energy, people and investments), materials, process, water and space (land and distribution).

Margaret Torn, head of the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Berkeley National Laboratory, US, who studied carbon carbon dioxide removal by terrestrial ecosystems, found that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages if the landscape was altered, for example by intensively planting trees where there used to be none.

But, she said the study showed that “there can be ways to manage land to increase carbon sequestration”.

“There are lots of grey areas in geoengineering” — and so far she said, very few researchers have actually came up with compelling research.

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Just how inclusive is ‘Future Earth’?

March 28, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

Future Earth is a vast plan to draw together the big international global change research programmes, and funders, together, to deliver, as ICSU president Yuan Tseh Lee (interviewed here) says, “action-oriented research that society really needs”.

Anyone uneasy at how pratical, inclusive and nimble this behemoth of a collaboration can be (read our latest story on Future Earth here) was invited to a Town Hall session last night, to quiz Future Earth’s behemoth of a transition team.

One worry was how Future Earth would ensure it didn’t just “recycle basic knowledge and not actually be able to generate action”.

The reply was that, as agencies like UNEP are part of the collaboration, it would be forced to stay “action-oriented”.

But most of the questions probed just how inclusive this project, which aims to include just about everyone in setting its research goals and implementing them, will really be. The most upset member of the audience was a biological scientist who felt Future Earth was being driven by the climate and geosciences communities. Emphatically not, said the panel — we have DIVERSITAS, the biodiversity people, on board for a start.

Also: yes – there would be engineers; yes — humanities (there’s an environmental historian on the team); yes – a goal is to recruit and empower scientists from developing countries; yes – social scientist involvement is absolutely critical.

But it’s proving hard, said a member of the transition team, to persuade the last group to join.

There was really only one question that stumped the team: How will you know if you have succeeded?

The team had no answer to this question of metrics, which could be problematic if soliciting funds from outcome-obsessed funders like the UK’s Department of International Development.

But it felt like Future Earth has won the greater argument – that researchers need, urgently, to find out what the outside world needs from them and then pool their frames of reference to deliver it.
This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

The Matrix and the virtual world of conferences

March 26, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

It was refreshing to hear a talk from Anthony Giddens, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, in the UK. After the railings of scientists, someone who can throw some light on why their prophecies fall on deaf ears is always welcome.

Image from the Matrix

Green illusion: the parallel world of "The Matrix" mimicks the relationship between the conference and the world outside, suggested UK social scientist Anthony Giddens

Giddens invoked the film, The Matrix, to illustrate what he sees as two parallel and unrelated worlds: there’s the world of international conferences and then there’s real life, which continues, unabated, on its disastrous paths.

“When you look at those negotiations as they unfold,” he said, referring to events such as the climate change negotiations in Durban in November 2011, “to me they exist in a sort of simulated world where success is determined in terms of how far you keep the negotiations going.

“Then there’s the real world where things look very bleak.

For example, he said, “for all the talk of the green economy and green growth, there is not a single green economy in the world”.

Giddens is pinning any remaining hopes he has on other fora — “states, groups of states, regional agreements”.

“I hope that developing countries might play a bigger role as leadership countries.

And he is also hopeful for networks — of cities, of youth, of ‘transition towns’.

These, to adapt a saying of the Beatles star John Lennon, are where life is happening while the conferences are busy making other plans.

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

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