Human Experience as a Resource

Climate Access editor David Minkow asked for my views on must-reads in the social science literature this year, as part of a year-end roundup of climate resources. I thanked him for asking, but suggested he must have better sources. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the recent literature on climate change policy. Although I am very much interested in what other sources have to say about highlights in the 2012 literature, I suspect the main resources for climate change mitigation and adaptation lie elsewhere.

Social scientists who contribute to the peer-reviewed literature tend to be constrained by funding sources and peer review, if not by inclination, to focus on separate pieces of the overall problem. In my view, the problem is to reduce net losses and vulnerability (or increase resilience) to extreme weather events and climate change. The pieces include such familiar topics as uncertainty, planning, public opinion, engagement, messaging, funding, measures, etc., as barriers or as means for making progress.  In addition, the literature prizes general findings; particulars mostly illustrate or support generalizations.
 
All of this is relevant to making progress in problem-solving, but incomplete and insufficient. Back in 1999, Neil Adger understood from his case study of coastal Vietnam “the complex nature of social vulnerability and the importance of the political economy context.” He considered it “not meaningful…to generalize from the analysis” because “[d]ifferent societies face differ threats of global climate change over the next century.”  We now understand that many different communities from the bottom up also face different problems in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in adapting to climate change.
 
The priority in my view is to integrate the many relevant pieces in particular contexts, showing what has worked (and what hasn’t) in solving climate-related problems. Capturing the complexities and eventually communicating them to practitioners to inform possible adaptations elsewhere begins with comprehensive case studies. But case studies are disadvantaged in peer review and rare in the literature.  With few exceptions, the best case studies I have found so far were written by practitioners on the ground to communicate with other practitioners – not by social scientists.
 
My expectation that the main resources for climate policy lie in experience on the ground, not in the literature, was corroborated by the Kresge Grantees and Practitioners Workshop on Climate Change Adaptation last February in Portland, OR. Some 80 participants reported the progress they had made and what they had learned in practice.  John Nordgren and I summarized the main themes in “Climate Adaptation as an Evolutionary Process: A White Paper” (April 6, 2012). But what had worked (and what hadn’t) in the leading cases represented at the workshop remains undocumented for the most part. 
 
For the most significant resource of 2012, I nominate the experience of Hurricane Sandy. For millions who experienced the devastation personally, and possibly hundreds of millions through the media, Sandy corroborated and made concrete scientific projections of climate change impacts. That is a major resource for advocating action to reduce net losses and vulnerability to extreme weather events at all levels in both the public and private sectors – and, as events unfold, a major resource for learning more about what works (and what doesn’t) in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
 
Sandy also recalls the extreme heat wave and drought in eastern North America that magnified the impact of James Hansen’s Senate testimony in June 1988, which echoed previous Senate testimony. As Steve Schneider observed, “In 1988, nature did more for the notoriety of global warming in 15 weeks than any of us [scientists] or sympathetic journalists or politicians were able to do in the previous fifteen years.” Since then, a continuing flow of excellent science has not made much difference in global GHG emissions.  A lot more is involved in making progress on our many climate-related problems.
 

Ron Brunner is a policy scientist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder

Photo via (cc) Flickr user DVIDSHUB

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Ron Brunner