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Climate scientists want to better understand societal processes

11/12/2010 – Climate research needs a reorientation towards giving greater weight to the human factor, some leading figures of the international scientific community wrote in an appeal published in "Science" this Thursday. Economic, social and cultural processes have to be better integrated in models of earth system analysis that are typically geophysical. The usefulness of sustainability research is the main focus. "Research has to better understand how people respond to environmental change", Hans Joachim Schellnhuber says, director of the interdisciplinary Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "To achieve progress, we need a new balance of natural and social sciences." The physicist Schellnhuber is one of the authors of the appeal.

Amongst the other authors are the president-elect of the International Council for Science (ICSU), Yuan Tseh Lee, a Nobel prize winning chemist, and the council's executive director, Deliang Chen. The ICSU is a non-governmental organisation with a global membership of more than 150 national academic bodies and international scientific unions. Other co-authors are Elinor Ostrom, Nobel laureate in economics, Heide Hackmann, secretary general of the International Social Science Council in Paris, and several climate researchers.

The researchers identified five grand challenges of scientific importance and of relevance to decision-makers in politics and the economy, and based on a consultation process involving more than 1000 individuals from 85 countries. 1. Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions. 2. Develop and enhance observation systems to manage global and regional environmental change. 3. Determine how to anticipate, avoid and manage disruptive global environmental change. 4. Identify how to catalyze adoption of institutional, economic and behavioral changes towards global sustainability. 5. Improve our understanding on how to strengthen incentives for technological, political and social innovation.

This conjoint challenge of natural and social sciences calls for scientific funding agencies to coordinate across national borders and borders of scientific disciplines. "That's the only way of sensible spending", says Schellnhuber. "And there has to be some redistribution in favour of the social sciences." The aim is, says the appeal in "Science", "to mobilize the scientific community around a focused decade of research to support sustainable development in the context of environmental change."


Article: W.V. Reid, D. Chen, L. Goldfarb, H. Hackmann, Y.T. Lee, K. Mokhele, E. Ostrom, K. Raivio, J. Rockström, H.J. Schellnhuber, A. Whyte: Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges. Science 12 November 2010 330: 916-917 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1196263]

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