Strengthening the links between science and society for action on climate change in France

Climate change mitigation, adaptation and action were on the agenda for a recent national symposium bringing together scientists and stakeholders from across France.

Provence Alpilles vallon du renard

This article is part of the ISC’s new series, Transform21, 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.

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In recent decades, France has experienced multiple heatwaves, with grave effects for public health and for the environment. What’s more, those heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense: of the 43 heatwaves observed between 1947 and 2020, as many took place between 2005 and 2020 as between 1947 and 2005. At the same time, an increase in sea level and shrinking glaciers and permafrost threaten to irreversibly alter the landscapes and livelihoods of some of the country’s most popular tourist spots. According to a report of the French Senate published in May 2019, if global CO2 emissions trends continue unabated, climate change in France will have reached ‘alarming’ levels by 2080.

Of course, that report was published before the outbreak of COVID-19, which has turned lifestyles in France and many other countries upside down, and led to a decrease in global fossil CO2 emissions – at least in the short term. What matters now is how to turn that 2020 decrease into a longer-term trend, and how to do so in a way that’s equitable.

It was against this backdrop that the 3rd national conference organized by the network of the expert groups on climate in France (GREC: Groupe Régional d’experts sur le Climat), and among them the Science-Society intermediation structure, Ouranos-AuRA, took place at the end of January 2021 under the patronage of the French National Committee for Global Change (CNFCG). And the questions of climate change mitigation, adaptation and action – the theme for the symposium – were all the more pressing.

Whereas past symposia were held in person (in Bordeaux in 2017 and Marseille in 2018), the third national conference was a virtual meeting. As animators of Ouranos-AuRA and members of the organizing committee Sandrine Anquetin and Céline Lutoff explained, that created unexpected logistical challenges, but it also meant that the meeting was able to bring together participants from much further afield – such as from the Guadeloupe regional expert group on climate (Groupe d’Experts sur le Climat en Guadeloupe), or members of Ouranos Quebec.

Regional expert groups on climate – or ‘GRECS’, as they’re informally known – exist in several of the regions of France. Their mission is to share knowledge on the region’s changing climate, and to connect with regional decision-makers to improve evidence-based policy making at the regional and local level. The different regions of France are diverse in terms of climate and landscapes, from glaciers in the Alps through urban, industrial and agricultural landscapes to the sand dunes on the Atlantic Coast, meaning that France is confronted by diverse and differing climate impacts at the regional level.

In addition to bringing together researchers working across mainland France and its overseas territories, the symposium was also designed to bring together different local actors working to confront the daily reality of climate change in their regions. It’s estimated that there was an equal share of researchers and practitioners attending the meeting, which allowed for discussions about how climate scientists can meaningfully engage with people working at the grassroots.

Discussions with local actors revealed that there’s a real appetite for working together for tangible change, explained Céline Lutoff:

“They are ready to take action on climate change, and whether it’s about mitigation or adaption, that’s not the question. The question is how: what can we do now, and how do we start making positive changes. That allowed us to broaden our perspectives to look at what the concrete issues and barriers to change were in the different regions.”

In discussions with people working with the reality of climate change every day, the boundaries between what’s considered a climate change policy or a policy to protect biodiversity are much more fluid than people think, explained co-President of the CNFCG, Wolfgang Cramer. In the Alps, for example, shorter periods of snow cover and hotter summers are changing the types of vegetation available, and therefore changing the food available for animals and livestock, as well as the types of ecosystem services available – for example for tree roots in limiting soil erosion and regulating drainage. There’s a clear understanding that measures to protect against climate change can also be good for biodiversity and for local agriculture, and so on, said Cramer.

Conversations at the symposium demonstrated the importance of making connections between climate scientists and practitioners implementing adaptation and mitigation measures.

 “I felt that there was a real expectation for ongoing follow-up and support coming from the local actors. They are very conscious of the need for change, but there’s also a need for ongoing support” said Lutoff.

As Sandrine Anquetin underlined, one of the challenges for researchers working with local practitioners is the need for continued interaction over the long term:

“People working at the grassroots in different regions encounter these questions every day, so there’s a need to stay in very regular contact. That’s the real challenge for the GRECs – as scientists, we work with regional actors on specific projects, and for the duration of those projects the local actors are very engaged, but when the project ends there can be a feeling of ‘so what now?’ As scientists we’re used to moving between projects, but for local actors this is their daily reality, so we need to be able to respond to their needs on both the regional and national level. Bridging this gap between science and local action is one of the missions of the GRECs.”

Whilst there might not be an immediate solution, this kind of work can be very rewarding, said Anquetin:

“Solutions need to be found collaboratively. That’s time-consuming, but it’s also exciting, because we’re really responding to current needs”.

As a follow-up to the symposium, a number of synthesis notes are being developed and will be shared online in the coming months. The CNFCG  and network of the expert groups on climate (GRECs) are also considering how to take forward learnings from the meeting to build longer-term engagement.

One of the key messages resulting from the meeting is the need for improved communication and different approaches that go beyond one-way communication in order to inspire new audiences. Innovative approaches were trialled throughout the virtual meeting, for example through ‘serious games’ such as ‘it’s getting hot in the Alps!’, which was developed by Pascal Servet to demonstrate how different actors can be engaged in imagining new solutions to climate challenges.

As Lutoff explained, using different methods of connecting with new publics is all the more important when you consider that ‘eco-anxiety’, or worry about climate change, is leading some people – and especially the young – to feel overwhelmed to the point of not doing anything on climate change[1]. Many of the symposium participants noted that this ‘eco-anxiety’ was affecting the people they’re working with, and one thing that helped was to work with artists and others who could help open up space for interaction and imagining different possibilities for future action.

In working towards action on climate change, says Anquetin, there’s a need to construct new stories that can help inspire more people[2]. As one of the symposium participants remarked, it’s time to build a new narrative that can help move us towards the construction of a new future – one that includes the contributions of many different actors and researchers, drawing on the full diversity of skills and knowledge available to create durable change.

[1] Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102263.

[2] Harris, D. M. (2017). Telling the story of climate change: Geologic imagination, praxis, and policy. Energy research & social science, 31, 179-183.

Image par Jean-Michel SACHOT de Pixabay