Climate change is cultural change

Conference in Essen on The Great Transformation

By now it is obvious for most informed people that climate change is an extremely urgent issue that we need to address immediately to avoid irreversible changes to our climate system that will be devastating to many people living on our planet.  And we know that we have the technologies to transfer our energy system into a low-carbon system within this century. How come that we still don’t act effectively? How come we keep falling further and further behind, with climate change proceeding faster than expected? How come the solutions offered by politicians so far don’t even come close to the urgency of the matter?

One major problem is that we still do not have a clear idea how to implement the great transformation in our social systems. How can we move people to action? While we are debating the science and technology, there is very little discourse about the fact that climate change requires a massive social change in the order of the industrial revolution; but not in the time frame of a century – as Prof. Schellnhuber pointed out – but in the order of decades. For Prof. Dixon from the University of Waterloo it is clear that the solutions to climate change will reside largely on the level of social change.

It is this problem that is being discussed in Essen during the next 2 days by experts in climate science, social sciences, and economy. The Mercator Foundation invited to a conference, called The Great Transformation: Climate change as cultural change. In a series of presentations and panel discussions the ca 450 participants from all over the world will try to get a better grip on questions like: Which social changes are needed to be able to implement effective climate policies? How do we best foster behavioral changes? It is high time to break away from conceptual discussions and start practical changes. But how?

One point was clear on the first evening: Experts need to reach out more, and more understandably, to the general public. But I wonder how experts can increase their involvement in public education without losing their credibility by fellow peers? Public outreach takes time and energy away from publishing and writing grants – and those are the main parameters by which scientists are judged today. In order for social change to be enhanced by experts, we not only need to transform the society out there, but also the society within the group of experts – changing our value system, and promoting outreach even though it will reduce our publication record. It is time to not only talk about the world outside from us, but also within.

John Schellnhuber said: “We need a new contract between science and society.” How exactly that contract will look like, and how we can implement it, will hopefully get clearer during the conference.

Maiken Winter

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