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Social scientists push for new UN structure at Rio+20

The Rio+20 conference will be presented with a demand by leading social scientists from around the world for a new organisation aimed at better integrating sustainable development into United Nations structures, in a move as radical as the international governance reforms that followed World War II.

The initiative stems from a proposal last March by 32 leading social science professionals affiliated with the Earth System Governance Project, a global alliance of hundreds of researchers and leading research institutions under the chairmanship of Professor Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam, and published in Science.

Their suggestion of a high-level UN Sustainable Development Council, or UNSDC, directly under the UN General Assembly and with a strong role for the world’s 20 largest economies (G20), has been further refined by 200 researchers in environmental social science gathered at the annual Earth System Governance conference in Lund, Sweden.

The proposal for a UNSDC has now been worked into the “zero draft of the outcome document” of the Rio+20 conference, with the working title The Future We Want.

“Societies must change course to steer away from critical tipping points in the Earth system that could lead to rapid and irreversible change,” Biermann says. “Incremental change is no longer sufficient to bring about societal change at the level and with the speed needed to stop Earth system transformation.”

Earth System Governance, or ESG, is the largest network of social scientists working on policy issues related to global environmental change. It brings together some 300 active members and 1,800 associate researchers in disciplines such as political science, economics, sociology, ecology, policy, sustainability and law.

As director of its research alliance, Biermann has been a driving force behind the ESG initiative, heralded in his inaugural lecture, “Earth System Governance as a Cross-cutting Theme in Global Change Research”, at VU Amsterdam in 2005.

He chaired a scientific committee mandated by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) to draft a new ESG project. The project was endorsed by IHDP in New Delhi in 2008, launching the programme for a 10-year period from 2009-18.

Currently, it is hosted by Lund University, with a secretariat located at the university’s Centre for Sustainability Studies and with Ruben Zondervan as executive director.

Affiliated research centres are based at Colorado State University in the US, Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Australian National University, the University of East Anglia in the UK, the University of Chiang Mai in Thailand, and in Sweden at the University of Oldenburg and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

All the centres are engaged with work on resilience – the ability to deal with change and continue to develop. New centres are emerging in China, Africa, Eastern Europe, India and Latin America.

The project is collaborating with masters programmes at Lund, Oldenburg, the VU University Amsterdam and others.

It is attached to MIT Press with a dedicated book series on ESG, while affiliated researchers publish extensively in other major publishing houses and in scientific journals. Earth system governance research fellows and senior research fellows are exchanged across the network.

The network’s conceptual methodology focuses on the ‘anthropocene era’, the new geological period where human behaviour drastically changes the geosystem, requiring objectives, values, norms and knowledge to describe and analyse the changes.

Karin Bäckstrand, associate professor of political science at Lund, who is on the ESG scientific steering committee, listed some reforms for global sustainability governance to be considered at the Rio+20 summit in an article in Lund University Magazine.

These include strengthened environment and sustainability issues in the UN system, international regulation of potential environmentally harmful new technologies, transformation towards a green economy, and stronger mechanisms for participation, consultation and representation of civil society in multilateral negotiation processes.

Biermann says that to achieve these objectives “structural change in global governance is needed, both inside and outside the UN system and involving both public and private actors”.

Gudmund Hernes, the former Norwegian minister of higher education, agrees. In his book, Hot Topic-Cold Comfort. Climate change and attitude change, he wrote: "It is no longer generally assumed that humanity can carry on business as usual. There is a foreboding that joint action, indeed global action, is urgently needed."

The book was one output of the largest Nordic venture for research and innovation ever undertaken, the top-level research initiative on climate, energy and the environment, which was initiated by the Nordic prime ministers. In it Hernes argued for the need to integrate social science into research within the field.

"An apt metaphor for where we are at collectively, is being on a floating iceberg: you understand that it melts, but may not be willing to do what needs to be done," Hernes told University World News.

Biermann concedes that, given the current austerity measures and economic crisis, the timing of the proposal is not ideal.

“The German chancellor is not coming; the UK prime minister is not coming; and everybody is focusing on saving the euro,” he says. But he remains optimistic that agreement on a new UN agency can be reached.

“Our hope is that a roadmap for further negotiations that will lead to these reforms will be acted upon in Rio, and that within a one- to two-year period the proposal will be accepted, since it is needed to coordinate economic and environmental policies.”
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