Transdisciplinary Research on Climate Engineering

Why CE requires participation and cooperation beyond classical scientific borders

By Dr. Thomas Bruhn

Dealing with climate change is a challenge for all mankind. It is an endeavor that will concern all parts of the global society for several generations. Perhaps it is even the first such challenge in human history. Consequently, the nature of the processes needed to master this challenge is rather new. For many academics, it is often normal – though perhaps not intentional - to address problems within separate and homogeneous expert groups. With climate change, this is not possible. All strategies we develop to tackle climate change will affect all mankind, and therefore pose a particular challenge to find solutions we can globally agree on, or at the least, decision-making processes in which we can all participate.

I offer here a short perspective on how a small core of CE researchers at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, have thought about - and acted upon - how to move beyond disciplinary borders. Engineering the climate would mean that mankind takes over the role of consciously and proactively steering a significant part of the Earth system with, by definition, implications for all people on Earth. Such an issue is so complex that it requires the work of multiple scientific disciplines – it requires “inter-disciplinary” work. Beyond this, however, it is highly controversial and a concern for the entire society. A global endeavor like climate engineering needs to be jointly addressed by many different communities that would potentially be affected by the suggested measures. Therefore, we need so-called “trans-disciplinary” approaches that reach beyond the classical boundaries of academia and involve active participation of all relevant stakeholder groups.

Transdisciplinary approaches combine different knowledge systems and foster a mutual learning process between different kinds of societal groups. A genuine co-design of research questions, strategies, governance etc. has the potential to ensure true ownership of the outcome of such processes among all involved stakeholders, because it takes into account the broader societal context in which science and technology development exist. No societal group can claim to have the capacity to solve and master this challenge alone. On the contrary, we need the cooperation of all societal groups, be it in science, politics, industry or civil society, in order to lead an upfront and transparent discussion about the suggested ideas and potential side effects. The last thing that would be helpful for this process would be if different groups in society begin to see each other as opponents that follow their own non-consensual goals. We are indeed all sitting in the same boat (or “on the same planet”) and want to find solutions that are beneficial to us all.

Though continuously growing, transdisciplinary approaches are still a relatively recent development and new to many. The IASS tries to find new ways how to facilitate such research in climate engineering focusing mostly on the analysis of risks and side effects, not only on the natural science side but particularly also from the social science perspective. As a first concrete step, this means to us that we do not just do our research behind closed doors and then communicate the results once the research work is finished. Instead we seek a proactive exchange with other societal stakeholders about the topic of climate engineering and our work in this field. The purpose of this exchange is mutual in its nature. It is not only about informing others about our research. It is also about inviting people from varying academic, policy, and civic backgrounds to contribute to our work; for example, by framing the research questions we investigate and thereafter staying in regular exchange with us throughout the process. If we want to address research questions that are relevant to society we first need to learn what these relevant aspects are. This helps both to generate knowledge that serves societal needs and also to understand better the socio-political context in which the entire research process is conducted.

Thus, for me as researcher at the IASS, it is of major importance to establish close relationships based on trust with societal groups that are or could potentially be concerned with the topic of climate engineering. As an example, we are holding informal dialogue meetings with non-governmental organizations in order to establish a better understanding of each other’s approaches and concerns. In addition, we have hosted workshops with religious and spiritual leaders, as well as with decision-makers and researchers from Pacific small island states, in order to identify their perspectives on the topic of climate engineering. And of course, we hope to gather researchers in the scientific community with policy experts, representatives of NGOs and international governmental institutions, and members of the public to expand these conversations at CEC14. These are only a few examples of the efforts we make to include these perspectives from outside the scientific community that help us broaden our understanding of the societal relevance and complex implications of climate engineering research.

Like all suggestions to deal with climate change, climate engineering needs to be jointly addressed by all parts of society. Only if we learn to cooperate beyond cultural, societal and disciplinary borders and to act based on mutual understanding and trust we will be able to find truly sustainable solutions for the overarching challenges we all are facing together.

If you are interested in participating in CEC14, you can submit a proposal to host a session here. Please check back regularly to this blog for updates in conference planning, including opportunities to apply for travel funding.