Working Group III: Mitigation

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10.3.4 Decision-making Frameworks for Sustainable Development and Climate Change

Decision making related to climate change is a crucial part of making decisions about sustainable development simply because climate change is one the most important symptoms of “unsustainability”. Indeed, global warming poses a significant potential threat to future development activities and the economic well being of a large number of human beings. Climate change could also undermine social welfare and equity in an unprecedented manner. In particular, both intra- and intergenerational equities are likely to be worsened. Lastly, increasing anthropogenic emissions and accumulations of GHGs might significantly perturb a critical global subsystem—the atmosphere. Policymakers routinely make macro-level decisions that influence both climate change mitigation and adaptation, but are of a broader scope than strategies specifically related to climate change. These decisions relate to economic development, environmental sustainability, and social equity issues—which invariably have a much higher priority in national agendas than does climate change (Munasinghe, 2000). In this context, economic–environmental–social interactions could be identified and analyzed and effective sustainable development policies formulated by linking and articulating them explicitly with climate change policies. Forms of Decision-making

Despite the close links, climate change and sustainable development have been pursued as largely separate discourses. “The sustainable development research community has not generally considered how the impacts of a changing climate may affect efforts to develop more sustainable societies. Global warming is acknowledged as a problem, but is typically leaped over in an effort to push governments towards specific policy responses. Conversely, the concept of sustainable development and the methodological and substantive arguments associated with it are notably absent in the climate change literature” (Cohen et al., 1998). Despite the strong synergies between policies oriented to climate change and national development objectives, different ways of thinking in approaching the two problems lead to different social practices and decision-making procedures, which makes it difficult to establish strong working linkages between them.

The main point here is that climate change and sustainable development are rooted in very different disciplines, which results in distinct conceptual frameworks and policy assessments. The dominant natural science approach to climate change has constructed it as an environmental problem, which can be identified and managed objectively by means of scientific rationality. This formulation has resulted in a number of “value neutral” decision-making approaches and methods that represent only the technical dimension of a much more complex set of decision-making problems (Jaeger et al., 1998). These are not especially helpful in deciding how to respond politically, because they ignore the human dimensions of the problem and the difficult and locally differentiated politics of responding to it. In contrast, the human-centred sustainable development approach to environmental problems is more politically and geographically sensitive, but it is analytically vague. This makes it difficult to define or implement in practice (Cohen et al., 1998).

This distinction does not simply apply to the formalities, but has rather practical consequences on the systems of rules, decision-making procedures, social practices, and role of stakeholders—the institutional arrangements that determine the processes of problem solving and decision making. Different disciplinary perspectives of climate change and sustainable development can be associated with two major streams of institutional arrangements models, characterized as collective-action and social-practice models (Clark, 1998). A collective-action model, which reflects the mainstream thinking of climate policy literature, embodies the rational actor paradigm. Social actors are coherent identities that possess well-defined preference structures and seek to maximize payoffs through a process of weighting the benefits and costs associated with alternative choices in situations that involve strategic interaction. According to this view, “climate change can be decomposed into a conceptually simple (if still practically challenging) problem, for which a rational solution can be constructed and implemented within the existing framework of political power and technical expertise” (Jaeger et al., 1998). The role of government institutions, as the relevant actors in the decision-making process, is to co-ordinate regulation through policy instruments to prevent individualistic behaviour from producing outcomes that are worse for all participants than the feasible alternatives under optimal, rational choices (Clark, 1998; Young, 1998).

By contrast, sustainable development is closer to the idea of institutions as arrangements that engender patterned practices, which play a role in shaping the identity of participants and feature the articulation of normative discourses, the emergence of informal communities, and the encouragement of social learning. This category of social-practice institutional arrangements (Young, 1998) directs attention to processes through which actors become enmeshed in complex social practices. These subsequently influence their behaviour through the de facto engagement in belief systems and normative preferences, rather than through conscious decisions about compliance with regulatory rules. From this point of view, control, legitimacy, credibility, and appropriate decision-making processes become crucial issues in the construction of sustainable development practices.

With such dissimilar discourses it is not surprising that climate change and sustainable development have been pursued as two separate agendas for the purposes of policy formulation and action. Moreover, while these issues have achieved a high level of public interest and visibility, climate change is the issue that so far has formally been accepted for serious consideration in government agendas. Sustainable development has not yet been able to translate its ideals into concrete objectives for problem solving and decision making. In this context, scientists are confronted with the urgent task of “reforming the relationship between science research and policymaking” (Rayner and Malone, 1998b). This task implies a twofold effort. First, the sustainable development discourse needs greater analytical and intellectual rigor (methods, indicators, etc.) to make the concept advance from theory to practice. Second, the climate change discourse needs to be aware of both the restrictive set of assumptions that underlie the tools and methods applied in the analysis, and the social and political implications of the scientific constructions of climate change (Cohen et al., 1998).

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