All posts by Victor Galaz

Institutional Dynamics and Emergent Patterns in Global Governance

Can environmental regimes really be viewed as complex dynamic systems? Oran Young makes a nice effort in his latest book “Institutional Dynamics – Emergent Patterns in International Environmental Governance” (MIT Press, 2010). While the study of environmental and resource regimes certainly has a strong track record in political science and international relations, Young makes a novel and detailed analysis of what he calls “emergent patterns” – patterns of institutional change that arise over time from the dynamics of complex systems (pp. 8). Young observes, and unpacks five patterns:

Progressive development: this patterns starts with a framework convention followed shortly by one or more substantive protocols that are amended and extended to accommodate new information. Example: stratospheric ozone, and the Montreal Protocol.

Punctuated equilibrium: this pattern occur in cases where regimes encounter periodic stresses which trigger episodes of regime building and change. Example: The Antarctic Treaty System.

Arrested development: here, regimes get off to a promising start but then run into barriers or obstacles that block further development. Example: climate change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Diversion: this pattern includes regimes that are created for one purpose, but later are redirected in a manner that runs counter to the original purpose. Example: International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Collapse: this pattern includes cases where regimes have been in operation for some time, but then encounters external or internal stresses and transforms into a “dead letter”. Example: North Pacific Sealing Convention.

Young recently published an article [PDF] for Global Environmental Change on this topic. You can also listen to an interview with him here.

Homer-Dixon on Risk, Uncertainty and Crises

Think Globally Radio recently posted a number of great interviews. Here is one interesting one with political scientist, and renown author Thomas Homer-Dixon from University of Waterloo (Canada) – one of the world’s leading scholars on the intersection of environment, security and crisis.

Direct link to the interview can be found here.

Should Political Science Be Relevant?

This article might be of interest for all political scientists doing sustainability research. After decades of being dominated by quantitative models and theory-driven research, a panel of prominent scholars at the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting, discussed whether  political science at all, was relevant for policy-makers trying to solve real-world problems. The Inside Higher Ed reports:

Gerry Stoker shared “a wicked thought” […]. What if he called as many senior figures in political science as he could reach and asked them “if they had ever said anything relevant in their entire careers”?

[...]

[…] Stoker also said that the discipline doesn’t reward relevance. A young scholar is more likely to be promoted for “the novelty of methodological contribution” than for “research that actually has an impact.”

The panel included very interesting interventions from prominent political scientists Sven Steinmo (University of Colorado at Boulder), Bo Rothstein (Göteborg Universty, Sweden) and Elinor Ostrom (Indiana University/Arizona State University). Prof. Bo Rothstein provided an interesting  observation:

Rothstein, […], said that maybe the problem to discuss isn’t whether political science is relevant, but whether American political science is relevant.

“If you want to be relevant as a discipline,” he said, “you have to recruit people who want to be relevant.” And in this respect, he said, American political science departments are not doing well.

Read the full article here.

The “Ctrl+Alt+Del” of Global Change Sciences

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This is one of those important things that seldom make the headlines. While climate change science has received considerable public attention, especially since the controversies around the IPCC scientific assessments, another fact is seldom, if ever, acknowledged – that  a number of international global change programmes are reorganizing to better match the increasing need for policy-relevant, integrated sustainability science.

The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) as an example, has been reorganizing its work the last years, to better integrate the natural and social sciences and acknowledge the non-linear features of global change. This integration is to be developed by a range of ESSP associated research programmes and projects, including (prepare for an alphabet soup….) DIVERSITAS, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, GWSP , GECHH, START and MAIRS. This paper lays out the thinking behind the ongoing reorganization.

One important change under the ESSP, and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, is the reorganization of the previous programme Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC, lead by the international institutions legend Oran Young), into a new initiative: the Earth System Governance Project (ESG). The ESG, lead by Frank Biermann in Amsterdam, aims to study the role of multilevel governance, institutions and actor-networks in dealing with global environmental change, and includes several international research centres.

In addition, the International Council for Science (ICSU), in partnership with UNESCO and the United Nations University, is launching a new international initiative based on the insights and framework provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS). PECS ambition is to address the following question: ‘how do policies and practices affect resilience of the portfolio of ecosystem services that support human well-being and allow for adaptation to a changing environment?’. PECS will provide scientific knowledge to the newly launched “IPCC-like” Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). An article published in PNAS in 2009, lays out the thinking behind the PECS programme.

So, if you ever get the question “where are the scientists that will help save the world”, the answer is easy: it’s ESSP, PECS, DIVERSITAS, ICSU, IPBES, ESG, IHDP, IGBP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, ….

Google Flu á la Sweden

The fact that the spread of flu could be predicted by tapping into searches on Google, gained much attention during 20098-9. (See however here). The idea to tap into web searches to find early warnings of disease outbreaks seems to be spreading, this time however, applied on something that Swedes know far too well: the extremely infectious norovirus. The virus is known to give nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

A research team at the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, recently published data showing that queries for *vomit* (asterisks denote any prefix or suffix) submitted to the search engine on a medical website in Sweden (www.vardguiden.se), match the number of laboratory-verified cases almost perfectly (see figure).

Figure. Number of queries for *vomit* submitted to a medical Web site (blue), number of laboratory-verified norovirus samples (red), with baselines and 99% prediction intervals, and number of media articles about winter vomiting disease (black) in Sweden, 2005–2010. From: Hulth A, Andersson Y, Hedlund K-O, Andersson M. Eye-opening approach to norovirus surveillance [letter]. Emerg Infect Dis. 2010 Aug: http://www.cdc.gov/EID/content/16/8/1319.htm

The original article in Emerging Infectious Diseases can be found here.

Volcano and global environmental surprise

Volcano eruption is certainly one, but which are other possible global surprises? In 1994, the Aspen Global Change Institute organized a two week workshop on global environmental surprise. The results from this workshop can be found in Stephen H. Schneider and colleagues 1998 article “Imaginable surprise in global change science” (Journal of Risk Research, 1(2)). By “imaginable surprise”, they mean

The event, process, or outcome departs from the expectations of the observing community or those affected by the event or process. Seen from this point of view, surprise abou t one or another aspect of climate change is an after-the-fact reaction to an observation or new scientiŽfic fiŽnding that, in some sense, lies outside our range of expectations.

In the list of 40+ types of surprises, you find not only volcano eruption, but also, just to mention a few:

  • A reduction in ‘conveyor belt’ oceanic overturning leading to cooling at high latitudes occurs, despite general (but slower) global warming.
  • Heat stored in the ocean at intermediate depths is released to the atmosphere, leading to rapid warming.
  • Dimethyl sulŽfide emissions decline with reduced sea ice, causing cloud brightness to decrease and warming to accelerate.
  • Dimethyl sulŽfide emissions change with sea-surface temperature change.
  • Synergism of habitat fragmentation, artiŽficial chemicals, introduction of exotic species and anthropogenic climate change affect ecosystems in unforeseen ways that reduce biodiversity.
  • Geo-engineering is practised intermittently by only a few nations causing international political conflicts and greater environmental instability.

    Don’t say you weren’t warned….

    Roving Bandits 2.0

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    Red or precious coral Corallium rubrum, A proposal the regulate the trade, especially on the internet in this species was defeated at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Photograph: Giovanni Marola/AFP/Getty Images

    As a brief follow up to my previous post on Cyber-environmental politics, the Guardian and Techradar.com, both report on how the evolution of the Internet speeds up the extinction of endangered species, pretty much the same phenomena explored by Fikret Berkes and colleagues in Science in 2006 denoted “Roving Bandits”. The Guardian reports:

    The internet has emerged as one of the greatest threats to rare species, fuelling the illegal wildlife trade and making it easier to buy everything from live lion cubs to wine made from tiger bones, conservationists said today.

    The internet’s impact was made clear at the meeting of the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

    Delegates voted overwhelmingly today to ban the trade of the Kaiser’s spotted newt, which the World Wildlife Fund says has been devastated by internet trade.

    A proposal from the US and Sweden to regulate the trade in red coral – which is crafted into expensive jewellery and sold extensively on the web – was defeated. Delegates voted the idea down mostly over concerns that increased regulations might damage poor fishing communities.

    Trade on the internet poses one of the biggest challenges facing Cites, said Paul Todd, a campaign manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

    “The internet is becoming the dominant factor overall in the global trade in protected species,” he said. “There will come a time when country to country trade of large shipments between big buyers and big sellers in different countries is a thing of the past.”

    Resilience Theory in Colombia

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    Does resilience thinking have any impact at all on the ground? These two very interesting examples came in via Lorena Franco Vidal at the NGO Fundación Humedales de Colombia. In January of this year, the mentioned NGO decided to initiate a climate vulnerability and resilience assessment of the Fúquene wetland complex in the east of the Colombian Andes (2,600 meters over the sea level).

    According to Lorena, this work has been very much inspired by a range of publications on “the problem of fit” – that is when the dynamics of complex social-ecological systems isn’t matched by institutions and governance [e.g. Cummings et al 2006, Galaz et al 2008], as well as the Resilience Alliance workbook for scientists. In addition, the evaluation of biochemichal variables (in bottom and water sediments of the lake) are – inspired by Elinor Ostrom’s work – done by the fishermen community of the wetland. According to Lorena, this group of local stakeholders have been training monitoring for 2 years to be able to follow environmental change in the lake system.

    But there is more. During 2008 and 2009, papers on “the problem of fit” as well as David Salt’s and Brian Walker’s book “Resilience Thinking”, inspired a suggested reframing of Colombian biodiversity policy towards an increased emphasis on social-ecological systems, and the need to address multilevel interactions in governance. Results of the suggested modification include, amongst other things: i) a new conceptual framework for biodiversity management, based upon the resilience thinking paradigm applied to socio-ecological systems; ii) a model that accounts for the various stability domains in which natural and social systems appear in the territory; and iii) a revision of the state – pressure – response model, in order to include new drivers of change affecting biodiversity.

    The outcomes of this latter “update”, are now being used for systematic country-side consultations, and we look forward to hear more from both these initiatives!

    Cyber-Environmental Politics?

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    Google and renewable energy? Hackers, deforestation and carbon emission rights? This might sound like an odd mix of events, but something is definitely in pipeline. Global environmental change and rapid information technological change have for a long time been viewed as parallel, and decoupled global phenomena. A number of events in the last month indicate that this is likely to change. Just consider the following events:

    GoodMorning! Full Render #2 from blprnt on Vimeo.

    Internet giant Google recently got an approval in the US, to buy and sell energy. This happens after the company’s explicit ambition to become one of the major players in renewable energy. According to the New York Times: “The company’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl said the company was fully committed to accelerating the development of renewable energy technologies that can prove more cost-effective than coal power, as a means of both curbing carbon emissions and trimming its own giant energy bill”.

    In addition, computer hackers seem to have found a new pool of resources to steal from – emissions trading. As reported by Wired recently, hackers have been successful in stealing millions of dollars by launching “a targeted phishing attack against employees of numerous companies in Europe, New Zealand and Japan, which appeared to come from the German Emissions Trading Authority”. A similar attack was assumed in Brazil in December 2008 when hackers managed to get in to the government logging databases. The impacts? Illegal harvest of 1.7 million cubic meters of timber, according to Wired.

    One final example is of course the ongoing bashing of the IPCC, and the now infamous e-mail hack of UK climate scientists. An interesting follow up is this op-ed in The Australian, arguing that the Internet is allowing climate change skeptics to gain traction. One of the more thought-provoking quotes from the article states:

    The `climate consensus’ may hold the establishment — the universities, the media, big business, government — but it is losing the jungles of the web. After all, getting research grants, doing pieces to camera and advising boards takes time. The very ostracism the sceptics suffered has left them free to do their digging untroubled by grant applications and invitations to Stockholm.

    See also John Bruno of climateshifts.org, who asks “Who is orchestrating the cyber-bullying?”.

    Are moving into an era of cyber-environmental politics? I’m pretty sure that we are.

    The Crises of Nature, The Nature of Crises

    Maybe it’s just part of my personal PCSD (Post Copenhagen Stress Disorder), but it seems like one of the most interesting topics emerging in frontiers of the earth system governance agenda, is that of building global institutions able to deal with not only incremental environmental change (e.g. biodiversity loss, land use change, climate change), but also crises.

    Crises events (i.e. unexpected, high uncertainty, cascading dynamics, limited time to act) pose from an institutional point of view, quite different challenges than those normally addressed by the global environmental governance research community. These are related to the need for early warnings, multilevel networked responses, and improvisation. In addition, crises forces us to reconsider the way we look at communication technologies in global environmental governance [e.g. "Pandemic 2.0" in Environment here].

    Oran Young’s brief talk from 2008 on adaptiveness and environmental crises, is not about environmental regimes in the conventional sense, but rather about the importance of role plays, simulations, and deliberations around unlikely, but high impact, scenarios:

    The Center on International Cooperation (New York University) in addition, just recently launched a report entitled “Confronting the Long-term Crisis – Risk, Resilience and International Order”, that pretty much reiterates the point that debates around global governance are moving towards an agenda that focus not only single global environmental stresses, but also on multiple, interacting social-ecological ones.

    This issue was also raised by Brian Walker and colleagues in a policy forum in Science last year.   You can watch an interview with him here.

    *  I owe the catchy title to my colleague Fredrik Moberg at Albaeco.