Four considerations for accelerating progress on climate change at the science-policy interface

In a side event held at COP26, ISC President Peter Gluckman called for a step change in science and science-funding in order to deliver actionable, solution-oriented knowledge, highlighting four concerns relevant to accelerating progress.

This article is part of the ISC’s Transform21 series, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development.

On the morning of 2nd November representatives from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Future Earth and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) gathered online and in-person in Glasgow, UK, for a side event at COP26, in order to focus on what the latest science tells us about how to limit global warming to 2°C, and to head off emerging climate risks.

In his presentation, ISC President Peter Gluckman reflected on what can be done to accelerate progress on climate policy, decades after scientists first started to call for international cooperation to prevent global warming. 

Watch the full event below, and jump to the start of Peter’s presentation here.

The ISC and its predecessor organizations has been active on global environmental change research for over four decades. In 1980, the International Council for Science (ICSU) co-organized the first Villach conference, an early opportunity to bring together disciplinary knowledge on climate change, and later, the 1985 conference that laid the groundwork for the formation of the IPCC. In 1988 the International Social Science Council (ISSC) responded to increasing evidence on anthropological climate change with the establishment of a committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. 

However, as the theme of the side event made clear, action to curb warming in the intervening years has not been sufficient, and as negotiators gather in Glasgow, attention is focused on how to translate knowledge on the urgent transformation required into policies that can be implemented quickly.  

In his presentation, Peter Gluckman questioned whether scientists have done enough to help policy-makers find practical, scalable solutions that are socially acceptable to the citizens they serve. Just highlighting the problems is not enough, said Gluckman, suggesting four considerations that may help accelerate progress: 

  1. Many partial technological solutions already exist, but some of the obvious solutions involve trade-offs that are not acceptable to all, such as the use of new technologies to reduce emissions coming from agriculture and food production. Scientists must address the issue of how to build ‘social license’ for necessary policy action.
  1. Citizens and countries will need to accept major changes in the way they live their lives, but everyone will have to accept that tradeoffs are needed, and tradeoffs in complex systems affect different stakeholders in different ways. This concern is relevant at different levels, from questions about fair burden-sharing for historical global emissions in the most industrialized countries of the global north, to the trade-offs at the micro-level – changes in practices in households and workplaces. Research must consider appropriate incentives for change, and the social sciences have useful contributions to make to understanding and addressing the structural, collective and individual barriers to change. A better understanding of the psychologies of risk perception and collective decision-making is urgently needed. Despite increasingly impassioned calls from the scientists and activists, political responses tend to rely on deferred actions or new technologies. The response to COVID-19 can provide lessons about how rapid change happens in the face of risks.
  1. The multilateral system, designed in the aftermath of the Second World War, must be equipped to be effective in the face of contemporary problems, and emerging nationalism. As the COVID-19 response has demonstrated, international cooperation can work in the interests of individual nations. 
  1. Science itself must change, bringing in more insights from social scientists, decision scientists, political scientists, economists and others. Moreover, business-as-usual approaches to science and science funding are not commensurate with the transformative change that is so urgently required. A step-change in funding is required, demanding commitments from public and private funders that advance the kind of internationally collaborative and transdisciplinary approaches required to produce actionable knowledge.  

At the end of his presentation, Gluckman noted that later this year the ISC will launch a Global Commission to develop a mechanism for global funding that can deliver this kind of mission-focused research within sustainability science, in line with the conclusions of the recently published Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability report:


Cover of the publication Unleashing Science

Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability

International Science Council, 2021.

DOI: 10.24948/2021.04


Image: Karwai Tang/ UK Government via Flickr.

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