Building Bridges between Scientists and Policymakers to Reach Sustainability

U.S. Air Force/2nd Lt. Andrew Caulk
Senior Airman Jacob Prine checks the fuel connection to an F-15 Eagle prior to testing new, environmentally-friendly fuel, part of the Air Force’s effort to change half of its continental U.S. jet fuel to alternative fuels by 2016. The authors argue that the politics of global stewardship should be more carefully aligned with the politics of national security.

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission released a report that would define the next 25 years of progress toward a sustainable future. Breaking with earlier conventions that saw development exclusively in terms of economic growth, the report urged policymakers to include social and environmental impacts in their considerations. The UN Brundtland Report also introduced the concept of intergenerational equity, that is, no generation has the right to use the earth’s resources in such a manner that it compromises the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This means that development can only be sustainable if the consumption of natural resources is kept within the amount that the earth is able to replenish. A sustainable future may seem far away, but research advances over the past few decades have meant the vision outlined by Brundtland is closer than many think.

At the time of the Brundtland Report and the Earth Summit in Rio, the term natural resources typically referred to materials or substances that could be collected, mined, or harvested for human use. Since then, our perception of natural resources has expanded through a greater understanding of how the earth functions as a single interacting system, along with our role in influencing how that system functions. Thus, we now recognize specific processes or functions within the earth system as also being natural resources. Examples of such earth system resources include soil formation; pollination by insects; natural carbon sinks both on land and in the sea; the ozone layer, which reduces the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth’s surface; and the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. These earth system resources can also be overused.

This changed perception has helped inform a new global debate about how to equitably distribute these limited resources. A first step to sharing resources within a sustainable framework is to develop a globally accepted set of metrics to measure the consumption of these resources. Quantifying resource demand is more straightforward than quantifying supply, although there are as yet no universally accepted metrics for assessing resource demand. For some critical material resources (for example, oil, phosphorous, metals, etc.) considerable effort has been devoted to estimating the remaining global supply. Here, again, there is no general consensus as to the metrics to be used. However, for many of these resources, the discussion centers not on if they are exhaustible but, rather, when they will become so scarce that it will no longer be economically feasible to extract them. An important contribution to attaining sustainable development, then, becomes the establishment of mechanisms and incentives for the reuse of natural resources, where this is technically feasible.

Quantifying the global supply of earth system resources is much more difficult than quantifying the supply of material resources. For many of these resources, the limit of the resource available for human use or consumption is set by the willingness of society to accept the change in living conditions that overuse of a given earth system resource would imply. Science must guide society’s decision makers in their determination of limits for the total allowable take (analogous to total allowable catch in society’s management of fisheries) for critical resources. Two things are necessary for providing this guidance: (1) the development of scientific methodology to estimate the consequences of various scenarios for the societal use of resources, and (2) mechanisms for collating and assessing the available scientific information and channeling it to policymakers.

Interesting new approaches are under development for estimating the consequences of various scenarios for earth system resource use. One such approach is the planetary boundaries concept,1 which identifies nine critical resources and proposes, on the basis of existing scientific data, boundaries or limits for their use. The authors argue that such analyses can identify a “safe operating space for humanity.” The planetary boundaries approach has only recently been introduced and it certainly needs refinement before it can be used in political decision making. Nevertheless, an indication that such an approach is of interest and potential value in the governance process can be found in the attention it has received among government officials and policymakers, most recently in the report of the United Nations General Secretary’s High Level Group on Global Sustainability.

Thus far, global political leaders have established limits on human depletion of only two earth system resources: the ozone layer and the natural concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (i.e., an upper limit of 2°C for anthropogenic global warming). In the case of the former, Montreal Protocol regulations ensure compliance with the identified resource limits. With respect to use of the atmospheric greenhouse gas dump, negotiation is still under way in an attempt to achieve compliance with the accepted limit of the resource.


UN Photo/UNFCCC/Jan Golinski
Diverse international interests, represented here on opening day of the 2011 UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, mean that general and diffuse calls to sustainability may not inspire change on the necessary scale. According to the authors, managing the human relationship with the earth system and its resources will require an internationally recognized and respected infrastructure.

Setting a political limit on the size of the atmospheric greenhouse gas depot available for human greenhouse gas wastes would not have been possible without input from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together the global scientific community to assess the available documentation for human influence on the global climate system and provides political leaders with guidelines concerning the consequences of setting different limits on the potential size of the resource available for human use.

In the same manner that the IPCC has provided the scientific basis upon which political decision making can be based, managing the human relationship with the earth system and its resources will require establishment of an internationally recognized and respected infrastructure. This infrastructure would convey a synthesis of the scientific understanding of the given resource’s role in earth system function as well as human impact on the resource to decision makers. This infrastructure must form the bridge that carries scientific understanding of human impact on earth system function to political decision makers. Given the crucial role that this infrastructure will play in the transition to sustainable development, it is important to consider what characteristics might give it the greatest chance for success.

To be useful in the policy arena, the science being made available to policymakers can never be the pure academic product exchanged among researchers themselves. The scientific product presented to policymakers has to, by definition, be a negotiated conclusion presented in a politically manageable form that is shaped by the particular purpose and context. The appropriate framework for conveying scientific evidence to policymakers emerges through an interaction between political and academic actors. Although it is crucial that the knowledge content derives directly from current scientific understanding, the institutional format of the product will be decided primarily by politicians.

There is no international governance organ that a priori is assigned the task of establishing the infrastructure by which scientific evidence can be introduced to policymaking. There is some indication, however, that the UN could take an increasingly prominent role in establishing the infrastructure to convey a global scientific consensus regarding resource availability to international policymakers. However, the history of controversies surrounding the IPCC (unfair as these might be) creates a challenging basis from which to set up new similar structures. Politicians are now much more aware of both the political acrimony that can arise and the binding power that strong scientific input can place upon them than they were at the time of the IPCC’s inception. Therefore, the possible effects of allowing the introduction of strong knowledge into the decision-making process will already be taken into account when setting up these structures. In other words, if politicians fear the policies that might ensue from certain knowledge, they may also fear the empowerment of relevant scientific knowledge.

Should each of the global resources for which humans must consider constraining their use have their own IPCC-like organization? Would the multiplying controversies and campaigns drown any chance of action? Or will having a number of different infrastructures generate a normalization of this procedure and institutionalize the format for providing a scientific basis for policymaking?

Before addressing these questions, two important points need to be made. First, a productive interface between science and politics will require an evolution in the societal understanding of science. Therefore, there needs to be a focus on science education and communication. Second, actual action on the difficult demands created by scientific understanding does not emerge automatically or easily. Complex political constellations, where interests, time horizons, and competences do not line up easily when it comes to resource management, mean that the overall banner of sustainability or a call to rational self-interest may not convey a strong enough sense of necessity.


The concerted, science-based policy response to the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole is a good example of how scientific understanding of a given resource’s role in the earth system can be synthesized and productively conveyed to decision makers.

Without generally resorting to fear mongering and panic politics, it can be productive in terms of generating a sense of necessity to draw on security theory to capture the conditions under which a threat becomes part of the national security debate. The way leading states frame their national identity and their values and visions has to converge with the supranational security agenda;2 and a political process for sustainability and global stewardship could actually be designed to match political principles in play nationally. When, for example, the European Union has regularly played a leading role in environmental negotiations, it has been politically sustainable because it corresponded to a European longing for an international role and a rationale for European integration. Similar synergies might be envisioned for China and possibly Brazil, where policies for sustainability can be embedded politically in programs for national identity, domestic transformations, or foreign policy.

From this approach, the current drift toward recommending one general IPCC-like body for sustainability might be questioned. When we take into account that powerful actors will try to impose paralysis, one grand body might be dangerous—both because it is an all-eggs-in-one-basket approach and because the complexity and comprehensiveness of such an organ would make it unwieldy. The importance of fostering a general evolution in societal understanding of science also speaks for a “multitude-of-panels” approach. Rather than producing a predictable revolt against an alleged supranational philosopher-king, a creation of several such science-policy bridges could normalize the condition of doing politics based on a scientific approach. Of course, respecting different environmental boundaries may sometimes result in contradictory policy suggestions, which will produce mutual tensions and externalities. However, these tensions are real and must be politically—not scientifically—resolved. Having several panels and an emphasis on boundaries as a form of security policy helps to avoid the perception that science dictates the line to be followed and, thereby, empties politics of content. It remains a political task to choose among the different ways human society can evolve while still respecting the limits science has identified. This approach could tweak the connotations of sustainability from an ideal standard (beautiful but optional) to respect for environmental boundaries that cannot safely be crossed.

Since the Earth Summit of 1992, an understanding has emerged of the functioning of the earth system and human influences within this system that provides a framework for managing natural resources sustainably. It helps us to identify the earth system resources that are essential for development of human societies and it helps us to predict the potential effects of human use of these resources on our own habitat. Armed with this knowledge, global policymakers can designate limits—the total allowable take—of these essential resources. However, the recognition that human activities constitute a controlling force in nature brings with it responsibilities. Now that we know that humans directly influence the earth system, we have a responsibility to actively manage that influence and to become stewards of the planetary processes that support human development. For a number of generations now, humans have been inadvertently impacting the earth system. With the knowledge gained over the last two decades, ignorance is only possible with a growing effort, and we must regard most current and future human impacts on the earth system as having been intentionally induced or, rather, as a form of geoengineering. Understanding the various processes that are important for earth system function also gives us the power to understand when we are actively manipulating these processes. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing society, in general, and political leaders, in particular, on the road to sustainable development is deciding who should have the right to alter or impact earth system functioning and for what reasons.