Pragmatic science: the challenge of 2014

16th January 2014


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Maria Grant

Peter Young argues that the biggest challenge facing practitioners in the year ahead is in effectively communicating their environmental knowledge

The rigour of science and engineering can be a burden. Environment professionals, who are almost exclusively scientists and engineers, will feel that burden more in 2014 than ever before. Why? Well, as scientific evidence of the relevance and value of their knowledge builds ever stronger, public interest in their endeavours is at risk of decline.

The key challenge will be responding to an increasing marginalisation by politicians and society looking for quicker resolutions to economic and social woes. Worse still, the scale and long-term commitment needed to tackle environment concerns – climate change, resource security, water scarcity, sustainable construction and decarbonisation – is so extensive that most public leaders find it better to deny the need to change than to enter a proper scientific debate.

So, the challenge in 2014 will be to show how short-term economic and social needs can only be met sensibly by taking the environment into account and, indeed, putting it at the forefront when choosing solutions that will prove sustainable to the benefit of all, especially those who will be on the planet beyond 2050.

However, to do this requires a little less rigour. In tackling the purely emotional response of public-speaking politicians banning phrases such as climate change, for example, a scientist will never prevail, however good her or his evidence. This is why we see the UK parking its climate change commitments at a time when the news is full of the costs of extreme weather and increased commodity prices.

The problem is that you cannot prove in a scientific sense that the gales, floods and price increases are directly a result of climate change and even less so global warming, which will continue long term, but year-on-year is not predictable.

What is needed is a new pragmatic approach to articulate the environment knowledge we have, and to expose those who deny the pre-eminence of environmental challenges and solutions to our future wellbeing. And there is a great forum to demonstrate this, the corporate sector. More and more companies are adopting environment-savvy corporate strategies to combat actual and predicted risks related to crop yields, raw materials, supply chains and customer demands.

Investment in low-carbon technologies, resource-efficient operations and energy efficiency is rising year-on-year and 2014 will see this trend continue. This provides a great opportunity for innovation and excellence by environment professionals in meeting and exceeding businesses’ demands.

While these private sector leaders are, at heart, driven by self preservation, competitiveness and profit, their experiences of shifting to a more sustainable footing must be communicated to those who seek to govern us and to international institutions to empower them to act boldly. Who else can design the long-term and strategic visions for our tax, infrastructure and social services that are consistent with a sustainable future?

Of course, it is important to maintain rigour in accumulating evidence of environmental change, both losses and gains, so we know how to improve the health of the planet, as well as the wealth of its population.

To gain an unchallenged commitment to start enhancing the wellbeing of our planet, rather than being satisfied by occasionally slowing its long-term decline, requires a new approach. We can only turn this corner in 2014 if we recognise that logic and science alone will not win the argument.

The biggest challenge of the coming months is to not to be satisfied with delivering more environmentally excellent projects, while still living in a society that is ecologically unsustainable.

We need to develop the skills in communication, persuasion and emotional intelligence in 2014 to make responsibility for the environment everyone’s burden. To ensure that responsibility becomes a human instinct integral to any leader’s authority and not just contemplated when presented with unarguable scientific proof.

The gap between where we are now and where we need to be is not going to be closed in one year, but every minute of procrastination makes it wider and more difficult to bridge.

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