Knowledge for Multilayered Environmental Governance

Submitted by admin on 28. May 2011 - 17:54
Karlsson, Sylvia

Knowledge for Multilayered Environmental Governance

(Abstract for panel presentation)

Sylvia Karlsson

Paper presented at the
5th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
19-21 October 2001, Hluboka nad Vltavou, Czech Republic

[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]

It is increasingly needed to have active governance from the local to the global level in order to address both the various types of global environmental change, as well as more locally confined environmental degradation. To be effective, these efforts of governance need to be mutually supportive, building on co-operation and co-ordination not only within one governance level but across all governance levels, resulting in a system of 'multilayered environmental governance'.

Some degree of common understanding of the problem is required as foundation for multilayered governance. Knowledge is one factor that is often claimed to contribute to consensus building for environmental governance, specifically the type of knowledge that is termed 'scientific'. Natural science, that is experts who base their authority on it, in general has substantial influence on decision-making in environmental issues. The importance that information and knowledge has for natural resource management is generally acknowledged. There is, for example, a need for knowledge of the characteristics of natural resources, and the factors that cause their degradation vs. sustainability in many decision-making processes for governance. However, it is only if that information and knowledge is shared among stakeholders that it contributes to the common understanding of the problem and the alternatives for action.

Environmental problems with a global dimension have special implications on how science, and knowledge in general, are used in the policy making process. Scientists and experts are often influential in bringing global environmental threats as 'problems' to the attention of policy makers and the public. For the large global environmental change issues, the gathering of scientists from around the world to reach consensus in assessments of the threats have become conspicuous, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process the largest and most ambitious. At the global governance level this is illustrated by the fact that scientists represent the only members of civil society to be consistently asked to advice government representatives at global level.

However, the possibility of achieving scientific consensus for international co-operation on environmental issues is contested. In many cases, the scientific consensus is very limited. The nature of the systems may be so complex that it is difficult to agree on detailed aspects. It may be possible to agree on the existence of a problem but more difficult to know enough to establish a scientific consensus on its size and magnitude. Furthermore, there are other cases where the uncertainties surrounding environmental issues border on ignorance. Similarly, the uncertainties relate as much to the human system as the bio-geophysical system. This is even more the case because it is the natural scientists that dominate the scientific advisory bodies for environmental issues at the global level and it is likely to be a similar case at the national level. This situation may explain why the diversities and uncertainties relating to the human system are often ignored. Scientists may not have the necessary perspectives and knowledge of the human system to play a major role in policy-making.

Many natural scientists would claim that the degree of understanding of any ecosystem, biome and particularly the Earth System as a whole, and how these are changed under human influence, is very limited. However, this understanding is much more limited for systems in (sub)-tropical regions which mostly correspond with the region called the South. The lack of place-based scientific knowledge in the South on manifestations of global environmental change and more locally confined environmental change is significantly larger than in the North. The result is a substantial North/South knowledge divide. The knowledge divide can be traced all through from basic environmental and social data, to monitoring of change, assessments and more comprehensive research of the natural and human systems.

I argue that there are three types of consequences of this divide on governance at different governance levels as well as across levels. The first consequence is the risk of issues of the South being invisible on governance agendas. When there is limited or 'not enough' science to back an issue up, it will face substantial obstacles to enter agendas at the national and global level. The second consequence is that the scientific knowledge that feeds into governance of environmental concerns of the South is inappropriate because it assumes that scientific knowledge generated in other climatic zones, in other socio-economic settings, is applicable for conditions in the South. The third consequence links to a discussion on lack of inclusion in governance. With science being such a strong legitimiser for contributing to decision-making for governance, the knowledge divide precludes the participation of stakeholders of the South on equal terms with those of the North. Together these consequences of the North/South knowledge divide pose significant obstacles towards creating a more common understanding of the problems across governance levels, and thus for establishing more multilayered governance.

For globalised environmental issues, it is not only at the international level that consensus needs to be achieved on the problems and the best solution strategies, but among stakeholders across governance levels. Yet the situation is one where the flow of information is from higher levels to lower, particularly in the South as discussed above. The complementary roles of knowledge generation at the local and global levels for management of global environmental problems should be evident from this discussion. If more knowledge is going to contribute to multilayered governance it is not viable to rely on the current patterns of knowledge generation, engaging only a small minority of scientists and the rest being mere receivers of information. In the environmental governance discussions, knowledge has implicitly been equated with scientific knowledge. This definition is decidedly too limited; knowledge is also produced and acquired outside the universities. Terms like such as experience-based knowledge, traditional knowledge, indigenous knowledge, and local knowledge are increasingly entering the discussions on sustainable development and are increasingly admitted into policy-making arenas through NGOs etc.

Undoubtedly knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, has a significant role in the present decision-making processes on environmental issues, and even more so if the scientists can reach some degree of consensus. However, the mere awareness of the existence of global environmental or health threats is not a sufficient criterion for issues being addressed at the global level. The same conclusion is also valid for governance at any other level. The activities that create global environmental change produce benefits that satisfy a variety of human interests. In the case of climate change, they (the release of carbon dioxide from cars) give people the freedom of transportation, etc. These benefits are perceived to exceed the costs by stakeholders, especially when no alternatives are available, and especially for those who have an economic interest in them. It is in these situations that the limits of science in contributing to a common understanding of environmental problems become most obvious. Science can never reconcile issues in the value sphere, such as conflicting interests and priorities.

There is a need for the local actors to be aware and consider the global context, as well as for the global actors to be aware of and consider the multiple local contexts in their decision-making. Common understanding cannot be achieved by more science alone, rather it is dependent on the adoption of more inclusive values on the part of stakeholders across governance levels. Nevertheless, knowledge plays an extremely important role. If there is a veil of ignorance between actors and the effects of their actions on the environment and other people, it precludes even the most altruistic people from making rational decisions.

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Last updated 17 October 2001