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What are we really doing about climate change? And if we do nothing - why?

News: Oct 22, 2010

The project Knowledge, Learning, and Societal Change in Transitioning to a Sustainable Future is based on the assumption that we already possess most of the knowledge and technology needed to eliminate the threat of climate change and that the question at hand is what to do next.

’To achieve a sustainable society, humanity is dependent on its ability to learn and adapt,’ says Professor Ilan Chabay, Center for Public Learning and Understanding of Science.

Knowledge, learning and societal change in the transition to a sustainable society

Professor Chabay, whose research group is part of the Department of Applied Information Technology, and six other international researchers have together developed a research plan for a ten-year project that will be part of The International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). The aim of the project, named Knowledge, Learning, and Societal Change in Transitioning to a Sustainable Future (KLSC), is to create a new and practically oriented knowledge base concerning the interactions among knowledge, learning and societal change.

’We simply need to know more about the causes of societal change,’ says Chabay. ‘We are seeing more and more signs that our planet’s ecosystem is headed for a collapse. In most societies we live our lives as if we had two planets to consume. There is no doubt that we need to change society, but how do we go about it?’

Focus on social and collective learning

In this day and age, we have enough technical and environmental knowledge to reduce our environmental influence to a minimum. Yet, turning the knowledge into practical use on a large scale seems very difficult. It is apparent that habits, social norms and attitudes often weigh heavier than knowledge when it comes down to action. The project therefore has a strong focus on individual and collective learning. KLSC is searching for knowledge on how to ’upscale’ individual initiatives and eventually reach the tipping point where sustainable behaviour becomes widespread. The reason for this focus is that we do not have much time to avoid irreversible and very negative consequences for life on Earth.

Which factors affect our habits?

In the project, researchers will for example explore which type of knowledge is the most relevant for various groups and how to make the knowledge understandable and useful to individuals in their everyday life in very diverse cultures and conditions. Many questions remain. Which factors of knowledge production and exchange determine whether the knowledge will lead to new patterns of behavior? How and through which channels do different groups access new knowledge and how do the channel and source affect decisions to act or not on the knowledge? Chabay and his colleagues will also look at the research on social media and on how the media influence scaling from individual to collective attitudes and actions? What kind of process of knowledge co-production between scientists, public, and political decision makers is most effective at leading to positive societal changes?

Interdisciplinary study

The KLSC group counts on including a wide range of practitioners and researchers in the study, which extends across a wide range of research areas such as social psychology, sociology, the natural sciences, management science, media and communication science, and learning. The project team will invite individuals from different occupations to participate, along with politicians and other stakeholders. The researchers are hopeful that the total competence base available in the project will help shed light on what the interplay between knowledge – learning – behaviour really looks like.

’Recruitment of all the different competences essential to address complex issues locally and globally to diminish climate change, reduce biodiversity loss, and decrease inequity in resource allocation,’ says Chabay. ‘It is also important that higher education institutions make efforts and collaborate to stimulate sustainable development. The benefits are twofold in this respect – higher education institutions are important as the research base for the kind of development we want, and they by building new competences that attract students and faculty and from the outcomes that benefit all.’

Collective learning has worked well before

There are several examples of how knowledge and collective learning have led to necessary change. Mankind has for example managed to stop the spread of epidemics such as cholera and smallpox by learning how it is spread and then changing certain types of behaviour. There are also examples of times when a deeply rooted behaviour has been changed in a relatively short time, such as change in civil rights for African-Americans in last half of the 20th century in the United States.

Difficult to change behaviour without clear facts

So it is possible to change a behaviour – yet the research on sustainable development keeps struggling with the fact that links and correlations are immensely complex. It is very difficult to conclude exactly what will happen if mankind ignores the warnings and continues as today, and this uncertainty may affect people’s willingness to act. The ecosystems are for example affected by the economic development in various parts of the world and both economics and the forces of nature can be quite unpredictable. Even very small changes occurring simultaneously may cause entire systems to tip over much faster than expected. There is a level of uncertainty inherent in the evolving scientific understanding of the complex systems of humans interacting with the ecosystems in which they live and on which they are dependent. These are the kinds of uncertainties the researchers have to struggle with when trying to motivate people to change their deeply rooted lifestyles.

About Professor Ilan Chabay:

Professor Ilan Chabay is from the United States and has extensive experience in natural science and the communication of science. He has for example served as a researcher in chemical physics at the U. S. National Institute on Standards and Technology and has worked with learning issues in several cooperation projects in China. In 2006, Chabay became the first Hasselblad Professor in Public Learning and Understanding of Science, a professorship shared between Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg. Since 2009, Ilan Chabay and his research team in the Gothenburg Center for Public Learning and Understanding of Science gcPLUS) belongs to the Department of Applied Information Technology.

Contact information:

Professor Ilan Chabay

Department of Applied Information Technology
Chalmers University of Technology and University of Gothenburg


Contact Information

Catharina Jerkbrant, kommunikatör

IT Faculty, SE-412 96 Göteborg, SWEDEN

Visiting Address:
Lindholmsplatsen 1

+46 (0)31 772 4898, +46 (0)766 18 27 48

Page Manager: Catharina Jerkbrant|Last update: 10/25/2010

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