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Expert views - Martin PRICE (Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies) and Gregory GREENWOOD (MRI Executive Director)

2012-03-12

 
Martin PRICE (Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies)  Gregory GREENWOOD (MRI Executive Director)

Research needs for developing adaptation strategies in the face of global environmental change.

Global sustainability research needs to focus its efforts on five Grand Challenges in the coming decade (ICSU, 2010) in order to enable society to cope with, and manage, global change and its impact in the near future:

• Forecasting: Improve the usefulness of forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.

• Observations: Develop the observation systems needed to manage global and regional environmental change.

• Thresholds: Determine how to anticipate, recognize, avoid and adapt to abrupt global environmental change.

• Responses: Determine what institutional, economic and behavioral changes can enable effective steps toward global sustainability.

• Innovation: Encourage innovation (coupled with sound mechanisms for evaluation) in developing technological, policy, and social responses to achieve global sustainability.

Adaptation involves the final two ICSU challenges of response and innovation, and is based on a systems understanding arising from the first three ICSU challenges.

Current global change research in mountains focuses predominantly on climate change and its impact on mountain ecosystems. However, to understand the full scope of change to which mountain communities must adapt, research must also examine drivers other than climate change, and particularly their interactions with climate change to generate potential future scenarios for mountain regions. Socio-cultural drivers in particularly are not well understood. Uncertainties and disagreements remain on how interests and values guide individuals and how individual motivations translate into collective behavior. Future research needs to take a system approach to understand the dynamics and processes both within and between ecological and social systems. Beyond characterizing and monitoring causes and effects, increased understanding of linkages and feedbacks will help to identify non-linearities and thresholds (tipping points) in both ecological and social systems services.

Similarly, the mechanisms of policy- and decision-making, so central to the notion of adaptation, are not adequately understood. Mountain regions, already highly vulnerable to degradation, are shaped not only by local uses, but also increasingly by national, regional and international policies and markets for resources. Integrated research into how decisions are made at different levels of society and how they affect coupled mountain socio-environmental systems is urgently needed. A major challenge remains how to mobilize and, at the same time, better understand decision-makers, whose time horizons typically correspond to electoral cycles and whose concerns are directed toward economic change and financial turbulence rather than climate change.

­- KEY POINTS

  • Current global change research in mountains focuses mainly on climate change and its impacts on mountain ecosystems. Long-term monitoring needs to be strengthened.
  • To understand the full scope of change to which mountain communities must adapt, research must examine drivers other than climate change.
  • Key needs for research, taking a system approach to understand dynamics and processes both within and between ecological and social systems, are:

o on socio-cultural drivers to understand how interests and values guide individuals and how individual motivations translate into collective behavior.

o on linkages and feedbacks, to identify non-linearities and thresholds (tipping points) in both ecological and social systems services

o on interactions of drivers with climate change to generate potential future scenarios on how decisions are made at different levels of society and how they affect coupled mountain socio-environmental systems.