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Outlawing sea level rise?

by Tom Mitchell | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 June 2012 23:48 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Tom Mitchell

This month, legislators in North Carolina made it illegal to take predictions of sea-level rise into account when considering coastal development. Instead, only linear extrapolations of historic trends are allowed in a move designed to encourage economic investment in the State’s coastal strip.

While an extreme case, it highlights the awkward relationship between politics, science and development at a time of ever-worsening news about environmental trends and prolonged economic stagnation.

Sustainable growth and development, the focus of Rio+20, will require governments and businesses to consider carefully future environmental trends (almost exclusively based on scientific projections) in order to ensure that investments maximise resilience, limit resource use and minimise further environmental damage.

These processes often raise questions about the robustness of the science and levels of uncertainty, the leadership of politicians, the environmental responsibility of the private sector and the adequacy of the regulatory environment.

It also challenges us to consider whether the economic costs of being environmentally responsible now are an investment in future generations that we are willing to make. The sometimes incompatible relationship between development and the environment is the topic of our recent paper Separated at birth, reunited in Rio? A roadmap for bringing environment and development back together’.

While I acknowledge that this is a somewhat narrow characterisation of sustainable development – one with trade-offs, costs and suspicion rather than win-wins – it is clearly a reality for some. In such cases, there are multiple systemic failings: politicians want to get re-elected, so refuse to make difficult regulatory choices that span political cycles; scientists have no incentives to be part of the decision-making process, all too often delivering predictions and rushing for the academic journals; and businesses and governments do not fully account for the value (economic or otherwise) of environmental goods and services in their investment decisions.

And do we care enough about what happens to the environment after we die? Do we really listen to predictions about our futures that aren’t strongly rooted in our past experience, however good the evidence?

Rio+20 had a chance to address at least some of these failings, through new commitments to natural capital accounting. There are discussions about reforming global institutions to strengthen the role of the environment, which may help transcend national political cycles, and more countries are assessing environmental challenges in the context of growth strategies.

There is also the call for a new global commitment to science through the ‘Future Earth Initiative’. This is a proposal for a new mechanism for international scientific co-operation on sustainable development led by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the Belmont Forum, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and others. It is designed to ‘deliver knowledge to enable societies to meet their sustainable development goals in the coming decades’.

At its most crude, the message from the Future Earth Initiative is that the health of the earth is critically dependent on high-quality science and that more investment in global environmental change science is needed to secure the best advice.

The science itself needs to be conducted collaboratively, be focused on the major challenges (of which ‘planetary boundaries’ appears a useful rallying concept), and needs to engage policy-makers and end-users more than before.

While I fully agree that the highest-quality science is critical for forging sustainable growth and development, I think we need to go further in renegotiating the relationship between science, policy and development if sustainable development is to be successful.

Here are three areas for reform:

--Evidence: we need to move beyond the obsession with a narrowly defined notion of ‘evidence’ in informing development investments. With the predicted accelerations of environmental change, the experiences of the past are of relatively lower value in guiding the future.

Evidence exclusively built on such past experience may lead us both to choose the wrong investments and to avoid the more experimental and potentially more adaptive approaches necessary for facing future trends and uncertainties. ‘Evidence’ then needs to include scenarios, model projections and expert opinion.

--Incentives for scientists: the career trajectory of scientists largely depends on the success of publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals. While there have been moves to increase the importance of achieving ‘impact’ in assessments of scientific excellence, impact is still considered too narrowly and few research funders ever provide significant support for scientists to work in partnership with policy-makers from the start and throughout.

Interdisciplinary funding is weak and there is poor appreciation of what makes high-quality action research or policy-focused scientific research. While the objectivity of science has to remain paramount, more needs to be done to bridge the science-policy divide by getting the incentive structure right for scientists – with reward for directly engaging in policy processes, providing hands-on advice, tailoring communications accordingly and demonstrating commitment to evidence-based policy implementation.

--Incentives for policy-makers: policy-makers need to be given incentives to base policy on scientific evidence, including evidence about future environments. Legislation and regulations must set out a requirement for scientific projections to be included in economic and development decisions rather than make their inclusion illegal.

This could be bolstered by the development of some kind of international legal system for prosecuting cases of ‘ecocide’. An intergovernmental panel on sustainable development may well be a useful addition to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, though the idea has its detractors

While the case of North Carolina forms a worrying entry point to this discussion, it does point to the need for a much stronger relationship between science and policy institutions in the area of economic growth and development.

A plan for economic development that is not based on a scientific assessment of current and future environments is no longer acceptable and almost certainly points to it being unsustainable.  We’ve just got to make sure Rio+20  signals the start of a much more co-operative approach to embedding science in policy, and vice-versa. 

Tom Mitchell is head of climate change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). This blog first appeared on the ODI website.