Environmental Science And Society

An Evolving Dialogue

Environmental Science And Society : An Evolving Dialogue - Holm Tiessen


Over the past 200 years, science has undergone an evolution from curiosity-driven exploration to being the engine of development and recently the voice of planetary sustainability. These changing roles require changes in the skills of scientists and in the relation between science and society. The issues of mitigation and adaptation to global change now demand rapid adjustments in the relation between science and society, which are explored in this article.


The call for contributions to this edition of the BC Journal explains that great strides have been made to develop scientific solutions to alleviate concerns about such issues as global warming and energy demand, water quality and population growth. Yet competing interests and disagreements continue to fuel delays in the translation of knowledge and theory into effective policy. To understand the nature of these obstacles one may have to look more broadly at the role of science, and particularly environmental science, in society. Environmental policy and decision making must be informed by knowledge on the functioning of the environment and also by an understanding of the interactions between societies and the environment. In applying such knowledge, competing demands for natural resource conservation and for further growth and development must be accommodated. Such demands are influenced by public awareness and perceptionsof the value and state of the environment which are clearly in a process of change. How are science and its interactions with society evolving in order to guide decisions on natural resource use and conservation at a time when stresses on the environment have accumulated to the level of global change and threaten to undermine the foundations of traditional development patterns? The “climate” in which science operates has changed considerably over time. The visibility of science and its institutions and the influence of science and technology in everyday life of the developed countries are so pervasive that it is easy to forget that the history of modern science and its co-evolution with society is relatively short.

The Co-Evolution Of Science And Society

When 200 years ago Alexander von Humboldt explored the environment of the New World, he was driven by curiosity and was funded by his family fortune and royal sponsorship. His descriptions of the geography, geology and ecology of the American continent were both scientific and artistic, and his most significant companion during these explorations was the artist Bonpland, who illustrated the elaborate books published by the team. Already then, Humboldt noted the degradation of land in the coastal mountains of Venezuela caused by land use, describing a landscape much like that of today. He was the first to record the relationships between the altitude limits of snow and the latitude of mountains in the American Cordillera. Two hundred years later, the retreating limits of snow and glaciation throughout the Cordillera have become one of the most visible indicators of climate change.

The curiosity-driven science of Humboldt’s time and of much of the following 19th century was very different from science today. In the 1850s, John Tyndall still wrote that the new influence of science was to challenge with its “knowledge” the dogmas of religion. While developing such independence of thought, science was not yet linked to technical progress. Victorians perceived the “deep thinking” of science to be an impediment to the progress of industry, engineering and mechanical inventions.1 The modern relationship between public and publicly funded science and democratic society did not exist in the 19th century. The first doctorates were conferred in the United States in 1861, and new fields of sciences and engineering began to develop in institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (founded in 1865), Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School (1847) and Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School (1854).2 By 1900, 300 doctoral degrees were conferred in the U.S., a number that increased to over 40,000 in the year 2000. The growing science endeavour was increasingly supported by public funding, although in the second half of the 19th century Charles Babbage still complained that the pursuit of science did not constitute a distinct profession, and depended on the possession of a private fortune. Government expenditure on science in the U.K. rose from 70,000 pounds in 1869 to 2 million in 1914.3 In other words, much of what we take for granted today as public science, its structure, organization and role in society only emerged in the 20th century.

The 20th Century

By the early part of the 20th century, science had become disciplinary and was increasingly linked to technology. Science was viewed as an essential tool to dominate nature for humanity’s benefit and to drive technological development. Much of the expansion of agriculture in 20th century and the resulting population growth became only possible after the invention in 1910 of the industrial process to produce nitrogen fertilizer, which increased the capacity to grow food manifold. Scientific agriculture, industrialization, science-driven health care and improved transport were the foundations of an explosion of populations and wealth. This created an almost untrammelled enthusiasm for science and technology and a widespread belief that science could solve any problem. By the 1960s even space seemed to be within reach of science and technology, ready to solve any future resource problems and receive bold colonists. But it also became apparent that there was an environmental price to be paid for the progress and development driven by science and technology. Unintended consequences such as air and water pollution were becoming the hallmark of industrialized regions. The 1960’s “solution to pollution was dilution”; higher smoke stacks and big rivers alleviated local problems, but scientists began to report serious “downstream” effects. This quickly resulted in confrontations between the forces of progress and “ecology”. The insecticide DDT, that since the 1940s had saved millions of lives in the fight against malaria-spreading mosquitoes, was banned in most countries in the 70s and 80s after it was persistently found in most living organisms from arctic fish to human milk, and implicated in threatening the survival of several species of birds of prey. The debate over legalizing DDT again for the fight against malaria continues to this day, and is an example of the differing interests between (largely malaria-free) developed and developing nations.

Since the 1970s large-scale regional problems such as acid rain emerged and satellite technology for the first time permitted a look at the whole earth. The first earth-observing Landsat satellite was launched in 1972 providing opportunities for global environmental monitoring. The stratospheric ozone hole over Antarctica was discovered in 1985 and was soon traced to man-made chlorofluorocarbons. Dilution was no longer a solution as emissions took on global proportions. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 was the first international treaty that, on the basis of scientific evidence (on the causes of the ozone hole), restricted industrial processes globally. Only 10 years later, the Kyoto Protocol incorporated scientific evidence on the effects of greenhouse gases and resulting predictions on the future course of global warming into political will. The protocol imposed restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, which are due to the use of energy from fossil carbon, one of the foundations of industrialization. In less than 100 years, science had run a course from being a tool to dominate Nature to one to monitor Nature’s threatened functions, and the ecological sciences have introduced the term “sustainability” into public debate and policy decisions.

Climate Change

Planet earth absorbs a total of 235 watts of solar radiation per square meter, which warm the atmosphere, lands and oceans. At steady state, without net warming of the earth and its atmosphere, an equivalent 235 W are being radiated back into space as long wave radiation. Like the silica (SiO2) in the glass of a greenhouse, the carbon dioxide (CO2) of the atmosphere traps some of the long wave radiation that is re-radiated. If the CO2 concentration increases, that absorption increases and more heat is retained. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are being added to the atmosphere by human activities: the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 35 percent during the industrial age, that of methane by 151 percent, and that of nitrous oxide by 18 percent. As a result, about 1 percent (some 2.5 W m-2) less radiation is now leaving the earth than 100 years ago. With a total earth surface of 511 million square kilometers this is an additional heat retention of some 1300 gigawatts, or the equivalent of about 10 percent of humanity’s total power consumption. The combined analysis of surface and satellite measurements of the earth’s temperature has resulted in a consensus that there has been an average warming of about 0.7°C over the past 150 years. It stands to reason that the additional heat retention and the observed warming are related. Since the physics is relatively simple, why is the debate about global change so complex? And how can science contribute to the evolving debate?

Exposure, Risk and Vulnerability

Humanity is being exposed to the effects of an additional 2.7 W m-2 retained by the earth system as a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Does this carry significant risks? In order to prove global warming, scientists had to work hard to calculate global averages and their trend over the years. Yet few people have a feel for an “average temperature”, and most don’t know what the average is in the place they live. A rise of 0.7°C is what most places on earth experience between 8:00 and 8:15 in the morning. These are not concepts or numbers with which societies associate risks, so science is called upon to explain.

Worldwide observations are showing retreating or disappearing glaciers in mountains. Particularly the tropical Andes are losing their glaciers very rapidly. The Arctic sea ice is shrinking and the Northwest Passage is opening in the summers. In the Antarctic, the ice mass may be increasing due to increased snow fall at higher but still far from melting temperatures. As white snow and ice disappear, the darker land or sea surface absorbs more heat from the sun (in scientific terms, its albedo is lower). As permafrost in the Northern wet lands of Canada and Russia warms, it may release methane. While absolute methane concentrations in the atmosphere are still very low at 1.7 part per million (ppm) compared to some 380 ppm of carbon dioxide, methane is 25 times more effective at retaining outgoing heat radiation in the atmosphere. So the warming that is already occurring may trigger additional warming in a positive feedback. These are some of the more predictable effects of the current trends in global temperatures. When Panama voted in a national referendum to build a second canal at an investment of billions of dollars, did it factor in the potential effects of an open Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific?

Extreme climate events are much more visible are generating much more debate than the creeping change of global temperatures. In his book “State of Fear”, Michael Crichton describes extreme events as a desperate invention by “environmentalists” to convince the world of an otherwise quite harmless global change. In the story, storms, calving glaciers and even a tsunami (a geological event, totally unrelated to climate) are engineered to artificially raise the state of fear about climate change. Yet an increase in the occurrence of extreme climate events has relatively simple physical explanations related to the warming that has already occurred. An atmosphere that retains more energy contains more energy. An ocean that is warmer also holds more energy. An atmosphere that is warmer holds more moisture. Atmospheric energy is released in winds, warmer tropical oceans energize hurricanes, and more moisture evaporating from the oceans falls as rain in such events. The risk and experience of more extreme climate events can therefore be related to current climate change in relatively simple causal chains. At least in some regions the risks of climate change are therefore quite real. The analysis of the present and past conditions of the atmosphere led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to declare in 2007: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid 20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” And it is “very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.” The present climate risks are therefore very likely manmade and related to greenhouse gas emissions.

The foundations of global industrialization and wealth distribution are being questioned by demands to curb CO2 emission, by moving away from the carbon economy. To justify such a step a prediction of future risks is invoked. What can be predicted about the climate change of the future? The relationship between energy retention and temperature contains no time function. What if there are non-linearities, positive or negative deviations, in future warming as CO2 rises further? To help answer such questions and attempt to predict what might happen, climate science has developed global circulation models (GCM). These models are themselves the center of an often polemic debate. In a recent article in the on-line journal Skeptic (2008, volume 14 number 1, www.sceptic.com), Patrick Frank makes a case that, “GCMs cannot discern an ice age from a hothouse 5 years away, much less 100 years away. Earth may be a winter wonderland by 2100 or a tropical paradise. No one knows.” And when “it comes to future climate, no one knows what they’re talking about. No one. Not the IPCC nor its scientists...not me, not you.” Indeed, no one “knows”, but if current measured trends are extrapolated they are quite close to the aggregate mean predictions of GCMs. GCMs are complex, and like all models, they are only as realistic as the knowledge and assumptions that go into their construction. A few years back, different GCMs did not even agree on the sign of the temperature change. One problem for instance is that water vapor that absorbs outgoing radiation will enhance atmospheric warming, but if that moisture condensates into cloud it will reflect incoming radiation, thus cooling the system. Cloud formation remains an intractable problem, together with other difficulties such as eddy currents and surface exchanges. Some argue that indeterminacies are so inherent to the climate system that they will always frustrate attempts at longterm forecasting.4 Modellers often gauge a model’s accuracy by comparing it with other models. But since models have many equations and assumptions in common, agreement among them does not provide greater accuracy. In a way, such circular improvements provide the same uncertainties with greater precision.

Despite these problems, GCMs help to develop an increased understanding of climate systems. They provide a systematic way in which to explore scenarios, and they connect components of the climate system, aggregating data and information into more comprehensive knowledge systems. Even though they are very useful in these functions, it should not be forgotten that they are not deterministic decision tools. GCM outputs are problematic if they are overinterpreted. “Though modellers lack a conceptual basis for knowing whether the long-term climate is predictable, their discourse often moves from describing longterm global climate predictions as being possible in principle, but presently unrealized and uncertain, to suggesting that their models are in fact predictive. The increasingly realistic appearance of ever-more comprehensive simulations may increase the temptation to think of them as truth- machines”.5 On the other hand, the limitations of GCMs in predictions of the future is often abused in the climate change debate as an indication that there is no “real” risk, or that disaster scenarios are fabrications of models. Available measurements provide evidence for current climate change and mere extrapolation of current trends shows significant present exposure to climate change. This carries future risks which are only partly predictable. As with any other risk, decisions of whether or not to expose oneself to the risk depend on vulnerabilities, real or perceived. Vulnerability to global change risks is a result of many factors, both biophysical and social.

Vulnerabilities, Communication and Decisions

The uncertainties associated with emerging environmental risks and any resulting decisions must also be seen in the context of vulnerabilities. Human effects on the global environment and their feedback to societies are now so pervasive that resulting environmental dilemmas are inextricably linked to coupled human and biophysical systems.6 Assessments and decision processes will therefore involve many actors who may make competing claims about scientific truth. The debates on climate risks and vulnerabilities will go well beyond individual scientific disciplines and often beyond the realm of science. It is therefore useful to remember that in “matters of hazards, no one is an expert - particularly not the expert”.7 In terms of science and its dialogue with society, the complexity of human-biophysical systems means that boundaries must be breached: natural and social science must collaborate, legal frameworks must be considered, and communication with society and its decision makers must become intelligible and bidirectional. The needed “boundary work” will have to occur at many levels: between disciplines, sectors of society, individuals, and organizations.8

The era of global change imposes new demands and rules on science and its interaction with society. Societies need to understand and use science in their decision processes. As environmental issues attain global dimensions, the knowledge and understanding needed for decision-making become more complex. Interactions between different natural resource functions must be considered and related to the costs and benefits to societies locally and globally. The resulting decisions should balance the value of natural resources against development opportunities that may have to be foregone because of a choice for conservation. The sciences of the environment that have been called upon to inform this balancing act, have become more complex under global change as issues attain global dimensions and complex interactions emerge that go beyond the capabilities of individual disciplines. One of the most serious impediments to rational decision making in this context is a lack of knowledge and agreement on the value of natural resources and their availability in the future. In economic parlance, the balance could be achieved if one could rationally “internalize the externalities” of economic development, i.e. include the natural resource cost in the balance sheet used to decide on development. But this is rarely achieved.

In addition to changes in the atmosphere, most environments have been modified by human impacts. Land-use change, deforestation, urbanization, and pollution of ground and surface waters affect ecosystem function at a global scale. As a result, resilience not only of individual ecosystems but the entire earth system, and sustainability of human activities are increasingly interrelated. The role of science in society is being challenged by this complexity and the urgency to understand the fundamentals of sustainability.

The Co-Evolution of Science and Society

Science- and technology-dependent societies, faced with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ecological risk scenarios, need to look beyond science towards other types of knowledge because many ecological problems today involve irreducible uncertainties that escape expert awareness, definition, and control.9 Uncertain environmental threats should be assessed by scientists and society together since science can only play a limited role in the conflict resolution between conservation and development.

The role of science as a collaborator of society in the resolution of urgent problems is relatively new. Many scientists are not prepared for this role, and science education is only beginning to address the multidisciplinarity and communication skills required. In the context of global change, scientists are being asked to 1) predict the rate, shape, and extent of global change - a traditional scientific task; 2) provide decision aids for mitigation - a task linked to modelling efforts, but requiring additional skills relevant to the decision process; and 3) provide guidance toward adaptation - an extension task taken on by only few academic institutions. In democratic societies that are increasingly developing stringent accountability cultures, these demands are becoming linked to funding decisions. In response, science is undergoing transformations toward greater societal and policy relevance, both in its choice of subject matter and in its communication of results. These transformations do not happen in a linear or planned process but occur in an undirected manner as scientists and research institutions respond to changes in science funding, attitudes, and policies.10

Policies for conservation are often difficult to promote because they typically call attention to what should not be done and therefore often emphasize the negative side of development and growth. As a result, there is a policy dilemma between current development demands, and present and future threats. In this difficult situation, in order for science to succeed in influencing policy and decisions, it must develop a number of attributes that go beyond its traditional role. These needed attributes are credibility, acceptability, practicality, usefulness, and accessibility.

Traditionally, scientific credibility is provided by peer review. Wider credibility, though, is developed very differently through endorsements by people or organizations trusted by society or its representatives. Both credibility and acceptability are enhanced when the research process is transparent and accessible and research questions are developed in a broader societal context. This is a long way from the curiosity-driven research of the past and from the technological hubris of only a few years ago. Conducting global change research for adaptation and mitigation requires dialogue. For an effective dialogue, a persistent and patient engagement with the appropriate audience for the scientific message is required. Two dangers arise from such engagement: a) Scientists may turn into advocates, possibly at the expense of good science which is essential to credibility. The development of advocacy may undermine the neutrality demanded of the scientific process. b) Participative designs may result in science being entirely determined by the perceived needs of sections of society, neglecting the need for research to be proactive, ahead of societies’ preoccupations and demands.

Practicality and usefulness are obviously needed if scientific information is to guide society in decisions and actions, but these attributes are not highly valued within academia. Close cooperation between natural and human sciences is required to establish full causal chains between natural risks and human vulnerabilities. Such interdisciplinary science is still one of the most difficult tasks of global change research. But in academia, work involving cooperation between different science disciplines is often seen as a dilution of scientific rigor. The typical merit system based on peer-reviewed publications in disciplinary journals does not value interdisciplinary work to the same degree. As a result, such work counts less toward promotion and recognition.

Accessibility in the scientific world means open data sources, accessible metadata, and publications in recognized journals. Accessibility for society and decision makers implies condensation, synthesis, and translation of scientific knowledge into different forms of communication. These are tasks for which scientists are ill-trained and rarely rewarded. Such communication may require skills that can be better obtained through partnerships between science and nongovernmental or other organizations. In the recent analysis of several years of international global change research experiences in the Americas, links to NGOs were often difficult but eventually very successful. In that experience, NGOs involved in development and resource management had a need for scientific information and cooperated with researchers. In turn they offered scientists their own expertise in bringing scientific knowledge or technical solutions back into the communities, using communication and demonstration tools with which scientists are less conversant.11

The Way Forward

Adaptation to and mitigation of global change call for timely decisionmaking that take into consideration multiple contexts of environment and society. The complex decision processes and impact analyses needed for adaptation to global change require a durable communication and integration between science and policy sectors. To inform such decisions it is important to link knowledge from different disciplines and sectors: scientists need to link across disciplines, and policy actors across departmental and ministerial divisions.

There is some progress in developing cooperation between natural and social sciences through interdisciplinary university programs, often at master’s degree level, and through collaborations between international research programs dedicated to natural and human sciences. Adjustments are still needed in award and career systems that will encourage interdisciplinary work and that give recognition to a combination of science excellence and policy engagement. New funding programs are just beginning to create opportunities and challenges in multidisciplinary science and the outreach needed to bring results to the public and decision makers. Meeting standards that combine the criteria for both policy relevance and scientific excellence places greater professional and personal demands on the researcher. The global change science community is an exponent of the process of developing policy relevance because its science is increasingly driven by societal concerns.

Similar to the disciplinary divisions in science, there are divisions between government departments. In the face of global change issues, governments are making efforts to bridge these divisions through the creation of global change or climate change offices that have mandates across departments and ministries. Such efforts towards interdisciplinary and intersectoral cooperation and governance could be enhanced by appropriate capacity building. For example, bringing together experts on climate and health, both scientists and practitioners, has already resulted  in improved prediction of and responses to insect-born diseases in some countries: the links between El Niño, regional rainfall patterns and insect populations have provided an opportunity to mobilize public health units in advance of probable malaria outbreaks. Both knowledge and trust need to be built if scientific predictions, which always contain uncertainties, are to guide the use of public funds towards such adaptation strategies. One example of such cooperation between science and policy are the joint capacity building programs being developed by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) together with the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and UNESCO that allow scientists and decision makers to explore the realms of knowledge and decision making together. Much remains to be learned, but this process of mutual learning is only the continuation of an ongoing co-evolution of science in society.


Dr. Holm Tiessen is the Director of Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research. He was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Development Research, Universität Bonn, Germany; Associate Lecturer at the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan, Merida Mexico; former Professor for Tropical Agriculture at the Universität Göttingen, Germany and University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Dr. Tiessen received a B.Sc. in Cell & Molecular Biology from King’s College, London, U.K. and his PhD in Soil Science from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada.