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FEATURE: Communicate and transform – messages from the planet under pressure conference

By Mairi Dupar, Global Public Affairs Coordinator, CDKN

Thousands of researchers and sustainable development practitioners gathered in London for the conference ‘Planet under Pressure: Knowledge towards solutions’, (26-29 March, 2012). The conference aimed to bring together the latest scientific knowledge and practical thinking on sustainability to feed in to the Rio+20 Summit in June.

The focus of participant discussions and subsequent ‘calls to action’ for decision-makers can be summarised as: communicate effectively for sustainable development, transform behaviours for sustainability, and ensure economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development hold strong.

These themes echoed not only through the general sessions and conference statement, but also through the CDKN-sponsored panel on new directions in climate compatible development.


Policy-makers, researchers and practitioners alike were consumed by the challenges of communication. Speakers lamented the broken bridges of poor communication between science and policy, and between science and the public. On the last day of plenaries, I counted ‘communications’ as the most-cited word in speakers’ summing up remarks.

Much of the debate was around the knotty question of how scientists communicate their evidence base at a time when “Science has come to a point where it is more capable of interrogating our situation than ever before” (Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP).

The debate began with a focus on what I’d call a ‘megaphone’ approach to communications: how to broadcast the pure scientific facts so that others can understand, and act on them? For a conference dominated by scientific researchers, perhaps it was unsurprising to begin in a place where ‘the facts’ are considered unimpeachable. Practical experience shows that ‘facts’ will nearly always be contested, and that’s certainly the case in the climate change and development arena. (See my recent blog, ‘Credible knowledge base is at the heart of low emissions development’).

Yvo de Boer, the former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, moved the debate from ‘megaphone communications’ to the question of framing policy options and moving forward: dialogue, said Mr de Boer, is the single most important ingredient of sustainability.

Richard Norgaard, the environmental economist, elaborated: “There’s been a lot of discussion about the new science-society partnership: that depends on building trust…it’s especially important in the ‘Anthropocene’ because the science is moving rapidly. We [scientists] need to work with the public. It’s not like we can set up long-term contracts: ‘this is what we know as scientists, it’s not going to change in next 20-30 years’. To build this shared vision we need to act morally, get positive feedback process going.” Dr Norgaard’s words are especially true of climate change and its impact on the human condition.

Stéphane Hallegatteof the World Bank looked at the challenge of communicating science this way: tell policy-makers and affected stakeholders what they can do, not what they can’t. Speaking at the CDKN-organised panel on climate compatible development, Dr Hallegatte described lessons learned from working with municipal leaders to strengthen urban resilience to climate change. “We have to stop being the bad guys, telling mayors where they cannot develop,” he said. Instead, flip the coin, and say where you can invest…We should be positive, and say where we can continue to develop while avoiding increasing risks.”


Transforming individual and collective behaviour to more sustainable pathways was the second major thread of conference debates. Many panellists’ examples of transformative action were at small-scale: hugely inspiring but not yet sufficiently widespread to signal deep global change.

Refreshingly, Bina Agarwal, the Indian economist, tackled the challenge of scale head-on. She challenged widespread assumptions that ‘scaling up’ means making successful small-scale sustainability initiatives larger. It may be more appropriate, Agarwal argued, to cultivate multiple, locally- tailored solutions into a network or federation model rather than trying to expand a small-scale project to a grander scale. She cited India’s community forestry movement as an example. Today India has over 100,000 community forestry groups, involving 8 million households, she said. This has led to 3.6 million hectare increase in forest cover since 2001 when the law on community forestry was passed. These thousands of local initiatives: “link the local to the local and the local to the global.”

The CDKN-sponsored panel showcased several instances of transformative thinking in climate compatible development:

–          Roger-Mark de Souza of Population Action International argued that development planning that puts women’s reproductive health and family planning at the heart of climate adaptation efforts would prove transformative in many countries and contexts and makes sense for the potential climate resilience ‘wins’ as well as clear co-benefits for women’s rights and wellbeing.

–          Kathy Galvin of Colorado State University described the platform for dialogue that has evolved in Kenya’s Masaai Mara where group ranch and traditional institutions are “collapsing” thanks to repeated years of severe droughts. Here, climate change impacts experienced by communities now, and exacerbated by years of poor environmental management, are forcing transformations in decision making institutions. Community innovators come together with what Galvin terms “empowerment teams” of climate scientists and/or ecologists. Together, they are testing land management and livelihood innovations, assessing the impacts, and creating adaptive learning cycles.

Honouring social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development

The report of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, Our Common Future, and the first Rio Earth Summit, to which it gave rise in 1992, emphasised the need to balance social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development in order to provide for successive generations’ wellbeing. Support for such a balanced approach was reinforced in multiple debates at the Planet Under Pressure conference.

Many participants criticised the term ‘green growth’ – a criticism which may presage debates at the Rio+20 Summit itself, where the host government has tabled ‘green growth’ as a focal issue.

Although definitions of ‘green growth’ abound (CDKN’s ‘Guide to Green Growth’ defines relevant policy goals broadly across the social, economic and environmental spectrum), the label alone emphasises economic (‘growth’) and environmental (‘green’) aspects, appearing to neglect aspirations for social wellbeing. At one extreme, a concept of ‘green growth’ that couches progress in terms of economic growth rates coupled with reducing the carbon intensity of GDP, could risk deprioritising poverty reduction and important progress in rights- and equity-based approaches to development that have emerged in recent decades. The intense debates around locking social safeguards, including indigenous rights, into REDD+ agreements reflect the fear that economic and environmental (particularly carbon-focused) programmes could ignore social aspects at their peril.

Dominik Reusser of the Potsdam Climate Institute presented at the CDKN session on his team’s work to develop ‘livelihood indicators’. These indicators expand on the criteria used in the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) and promote monitoring of a more complex and meaningful set of social, economic and environmental criteria.

 Moving forward to Rio+20 and beyond

Communicating effectively, transforming behaviour and achieving environmental, social and economic progress in tandem are huge challenges to be addressed at Rio+20. To address these challenges, lateral thinking and practical innovation are needed.  From rural communities in Kenya to forest management groups in India to more climate-resilient development patterns in coastal cities, some of the above examples of lateral thinking and practical innovation begin to add up to a big solution.

Read Simon Maxwell’s blog for an analysis of the UNCSD compilation document, which was drafted as the Planet Under Pressure conference was underway. This compilation document will contribute towards the final Rio+20 outcome document. Watch this space for further analysis of Rio+20-related debates in the months ahead.


 Image of solar light, Pakistan, courtesy of DFID.

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