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Global environmental problems cannot be solved without taking social justice and distribution of resources into account, according to Sverker Sörlin. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

Climate problems – a question of justice

Published Jan 30, 2015

Researchers are warning that humanity has overstepped four out of nine boundaries for how much the earth can tolerate before we face dramatic climate change. Technical solutions alone are insufficient to save planet earth, according to the new research.

The study   is published in the academic journal Science and follows up the much publicised article from the year 2009 in the journal Nature concerning planetary boundaries. That article shows how far the environmental impact of human activities can go before the stability of the entire planet is put in jeopardy.

For the first time, the research is given the social context required to identify solutions to the problems associated with climate change, according to Sverker Sörlin, Professor of Environmental History at KTH, and one of the co-authors.

“This set of problems can no longer be kept confined within the knowledge limits of science but must be seen in relation to society and the policies adopted.” For this reason, Sörlin, who was also involved in introducing the concept of planetary boundaries, back in 2009, says that it is no coincidence that this scientific article is being presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Double injustice

The article in Science offers no concrete advice or action plans for building a sustainable society but rather points to the underlying causal connections.

For example, it is claimed that different parts of the world population have contributed, in different degrees, to the destruction of the environment. Sörlin describes this as a double injustice:

“In the first place, many of these people have not even been present at the party. When the hangover arrives it is they who pay the heaviest price.”

Through raising issues such as justice and distribution in relation to how the planet’s limits have been overstepped, a helping hand is given in setting priorities for society and the world of politics, says Sörlin.

“There are ideas circulating about how technical progress will solve this problem, whereas others wish to see a more far-reaching transformation of our society. We are saying indirectly, by pointing out the limits, that it doesn’t work to seek solutions that are only technical or organisational ones.”  Inherent in the very concepts of justice and distribution, Sörlin thinks, is the fact that it isn’t possible to solve this without dealing with major societal issues.

Rapid changes can be implemented, says Sverker Sörlin.

The message to those who seek more concrete action plans is as follows: read the report that the Environmental Research Council presented during the autumn. The Council, of which Sörlin is a member, was established by the previous government but the conclusions transcend political affiliation.

"Let’s not be pessimists!"

In the report, he develops four lines of action that emerge from the need for a broader knowledge base than solely the scientific one.

“The obstacles to a breakthrough today are not found primarily in our lack of scientific understanding, but rather in sufficient knowledge about how to implement change in societies, within areas such as the economy, behaviour patterns, culture, consumption and our own values – across the whole field.”

Sörlin seeks a broader approach to the environment where justice and distribution take centre stage.

“We see now how disciplines within the humanities and social sciences start to merge in the face of global challenges. This makes it easier for scientific researchers to find partners that have taken steps down this road,” he says. Here he cites the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory as an example (see Facts in brief).

Even if it is becoming ever more urgent to find our way to making the changeover, it is essential not to become a pessimist, he believes.

“It’s possible to bring about rapid change if only we succeed in reversing this trend. We have seen many examples of this in history,” Sörlin points out. Examples are the advance of democracy, improvements in public health and the rights of women and of sexual minorities. “It’s true that this type of process seems infuriatingly slow when seen from our standpoint of the present moment, yet many of these have occurred over a few decades.”

Magnus Pahlén Trogen

Where humanity and environment meet

The launch of KTH's Environmental Humanities Lab in 2012 can be viewed in light of the need to solve global environmental problems through collaboration between scientific disciplines. The research center was off to a big start, thanks to a donation from industrialist Carl Bennet, and it focuses on the study of society and history in relation to environmental and climatic development.

"Today we have an economic system that produces these types of problems," Sverker Sörlin says. "It is good at things like creating wealth, but for example we have not managed to build a green economy. It is obvious that today's economic theory is not enough; we need more, and above all we need different types of knowledge in order to find the way forward to something new. In the same way, we need social institutions that are effective in relation to the planetary boundaries."

The area of Environmental Humanities is growing rapidly worldwide, not least because of the demand that emerged from the knowledge of human behavior and social development. But it also is regarded as a way to modernize these disciplines, he says.

"I see this as a powerful movement to develop humanistic research, and extremely important to create more partnerships with scientific researchers who share the basic visions.