Climate Change Transformation Requires a New Research Approach


Ioan Fazey, Councillor – SDG Transformations Forum; Professor Social Dimensions of Environmental Change – University of Dundee

The world is becoming a confusing place, with change all around us. Issues are ever more complex and interconnected and humanity is racing through an era of major technological, social and environmental change. Not all of this change is good. Catastrophic climate change and collapse of the ecological systems needed to support humanity is, for example, a real possibility. Yet finding ways to work with such challenges requires transformative ways of thinking and acting that are fundamentally different to the kinds of thinking that created the problems in the first place.

This also applies to re-thinking the ways in which knowledge is produced and used. The issues was explored in a recent freely accessible research paper called “Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research written by 40 researchers and professionals. The work has brought together different insights from the rich and diverse traditions of action-oriented research to help explain how we can more effectively understand and navigate our way through a world of change and ensure knowledge production contributes more directly to societal needs.

In this work, we highlight that science is dominated by approaches that do not sufficiently focus on, and contribute to, learning and understanding about how to achieve the transformative change.
For example, much of current research focuses on understanding problems rather than identifying solutions or their implementation. This occurs in part because science and research tends to focus on abstract knowledge that is teachable, rather than on practical know how or wisdom types of knowledge. Formal institutions for producing knowledge (e.g. Universities) have then developed separately from knowledge produced in more practical domains, with activities in both being driven by different kinds of needs and expectations, making it difficult to work in integrated ways with the different kinds of knowledge produced.

For issues like climate change, we already know a lot about the problems. The critical question now, however, is about how to develop innovative, transformative solutions and knowledge about how to implement them. Addressing these questions requires much more engagement with more practical forms of knowledge and learning from action and change in much more direct ways than currently occurs in academia. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, which can’t be done just by watching a powerpoint presentation, and which requires learning by getting hands dirty and by falling off and starting again.  Learning about how to achieve transformative kinds of change requires such learning by doing in the real world of practice where researchers acknowledge they are part of the systems (and problems) that need changing. Approaches that recognise that learners and researchers are part of, and not separate from, the systems that need changing allows for inclusion of a much wider diversity of kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing, frees researchers up to more directly learn from actions seeking to promote change, and facilitates thinking about wider systemic issues that may be constraining possibilities for transformations.

In our research paper, we highlight ten essentials that need to be considered for research and science to have greater impact towards achieving change and sustainability. These include the need to: (1) Focus on transformations to low-carbon, resilient living; (2) Focus on solution processes; (3) Focus on ‘how to’ practical knowledge; (4) Approach research as occurring from within the system being intervened; (5) Work with normative aspects; (6) Seek to transcend current thinking; (7) Take a multi-faceted approach to understand and shape change; (8) Acknowledge the value of alternative roles of researchers; (9) Encourage second-order experimentation; and (10) Be reflexive (Table 1, Figure 1).

While applying any of these essentials will help improve possibilities for learning about sustainability and transformative change, the greatest impacts will be achieved when the essentials are applied together. This will create a much more adaptive, reflexive, collaborative and impact-oriented form of research, as well as intellectual depth that enables integration of knowledge with normative considerations of what is considered to be good (ethics) and beautiful (aesthetics).

Clearly, there are many benefits from existing forms of science. Nevertheless, to be able to more rapidly and extensively contribute to learning about sustainability, and transformative change, a rapid upscaling of more action-oriented approaches is required. To facilitate such upscaling, major changes in the wider systems in which knowledge is produced and used will also be needed, such as re-shaping incentives for research, encouraging greater integration of research and practice, developing new forms of training, reconfiguring institutions, overcoming entrenched disciplines, and ensuring inclusion of a much greater diversity of different kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing. This needs to occur at all levels, including within research communities and in wider institutional and political systems and societal structures that influence the way knowledge is produced and used. Ultimately, to accelerate the kinds of learning needed to enhance transformations for sustainability in society, transformations will therefore also be needed in the way in which knowledge is produced and used.

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This Blog is based on the following free access research paper: Fazey, I., Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J., Hultman, J., van Mierlo, B., Säwe, F., Wiek, A., Wittmayer, J., Aldunce, P., Al Waer, H., Battacharya, N., Bradbury, H., Carmen, E., Colvin, J., Cvitanovic, C., D’Souza, M., Gopel, M., Goldstein, B., Hämäläinen, T., Harper, G., Henfry, T., Hodgson, A., Howden, M.S., Kerr, A., Klaes, M., Lyon, C., Midgley, G., Moser, S., Mukherjee, N., Müller, K., O’Brien, K., O’Connell, D.A., Olsson, P., Page, G., Reed, M.S., Searle, B., Silvestri, G., Spaiser, V., Strasser, T., Tschakert, P., Uribe-Calvo, N., Waddell, S., Rao-Williams, J., Wise, R., Wolstenholme, R., Woods, M., Wyborn, C. (2018) Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research and Social Science 40, 54-70.

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