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Science and the climate change process

 image   Good, long-term policy is impossible to arrive at without careful dialogue with the scientific community. 

A dialogue between science and policy is crucial for mutual understanding of the many challenges associated with finding the best solutions to ensure transformation towards a more sustainable development path globally. Addressing climate change is at the center of this transformation.

Accordingly, under the UNFCCC, governments have agreed on a long-term global goal to limit the temperature increase to 2°C above the pre-industrial global average temperature.

Governments also agreed to carry out a first periodic review of the adequacy of this goal between 2013-2015. The review seeks to address both the adequacy of the 2°C goal in light of the ultimate objective of the Convention and the adequacy of the overall progress towards achieving this goal. Science plays a central role in providing the evidence needed, as well as presenting possible solutions.

The UNFCCC process regards the scientific assessments provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the most trusted source of peer-reviewed, policy-relevant scientific information. The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is currently in preparation, and will be released between September 2013, starting with Working Group I report on the physical science basis, and October 2014, when the Synthesis Report is completed.

The science-policy interface moves forward

The importance of enhancing this relationship is increasingly recognized by both scientists and policymakers.

The scientific community is more and more aware of the importance of interdisciplinary research, needed to support decision making at all levels, from local to global. At the March 2012 Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions conference, a major meeting of the scientific community, scientists produced the pdf-icon State of the Planet Declaration, in which it emphasizes a demand for more integrative, international and solutions-oriented approaches to research, focusing on policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability.

At the same time, the UN Secretary General’s Global Sustainability Panel recently released Resilient People, Resilient Planet - A Future Worth Choosing report, which emphasizes the value of an enhanced science-policy framework for action towards a sustainable future. The panel’s recommendations include launching a major scientific initiative to strengthen the interface between science and policy, and defining the “planetary boundaries”, “environmental thresholds” and “tipping points”.

The Secretary General has also listed addressing climate change as one of the actions on his pdf-icon five-year action agenda. These actions include securing, by 2015, a comprehensive climate change agreement applicable to all Parties under the UNFCCC and strengthening climate science, thereby promoting evidence-based policy making.

These actions reflect an all-round deeper understanding of the complex and interconnected relationship between ecological, economic and social systems currently supporting some seven billion people on this planet.

A critical time for science, policy, and the shape of things to come

For the international response to climate change, this deepening awareness of a healthy dialogue between the science and policy spheres comes at a crucial time.

It is now evident that observed changes in the Earth’s climate system are happening at a remarkable pace, unlike geological processes which evolve over thousands or even millions of years. At Planet Under Pressure, scientists recently reiterated their urgent messages on changes in the Earth system and the associated growing risks and threats that humanity is facing with regard to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources.

They also acknowledged a need for an interconnected solution, where research plays a significant role, including through monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing possible solutions.

Within the UNFCCC process, science and policy meet in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) at an annual research dialogue, where updates on recent climate science are shared. This ensures that governments are informed of the most recent science, in the intervals between IPCC Assessment Reports. The IPCC also releases policy-focused special reports in the interim, recently presenting their Special report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation (SREX), and, late last year, the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN).

The climate change process stands at a point where the problem is clearer than it has ever been; the possibilities and solutions are many and growing; and policymakers have shown their desire for ambitious solutions. The ability to take action amid complexity through this careful dialogue between science and policy is more crucial than ever.