Report on the 2007 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change

Frank Biermann, chair, 2007 Amsterdam Conference

22 August 2007

The mission statement of the Earth System Science Partnership calls upon social scientists to develop ‘strategies for Earth System management’. Yet what such strategies might be, and how such strategies can be developed, remains poorly understood in the social sciences. Moreover, social scientists tend to disagree with the notion of ‘management’, and rather prefer the term ‘governance’, which is, in social science terms, rather non-hierarchical, decentralised, less government-driven and open for multiple perspectives and stakeholders. What are then the appropriate theories and strategies for sustainable earth system governance? This question stood at the centre of the 2007 Amsterdam Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, held 24-26 May 2007 at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The conference was the seventh event in the series of annual European Conferences on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, begun in Berlin in 2001. With more than 350 participants, it was the so far largest congress in the series of European conferences on HDGEC. The selection procedure for presentations was demanding: all presentations were selected in a double-blind review through an international review panel of about 70 experts, and every paper proposal had been reviewed by 5 international reviewers, with a rejection rate above 50%.

The eventual 175 presentations in parallel sessions and 24 keynote presentations in ten plenary and semi-plenary sessions showed the breadth of ‘earth system governance’ as a crosscutting field of global change research. The organisers defined earth system governance as the sum of the formal and informal rule systems and actor-networks at all levels of human society (from local to global) that are set up to influence the co-evolution of human and natural systems in a way that secures the sustainable development of human society - that is, a development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The organisers proposed this notion of earth system governance as both a description of an emerging social phenomenon expressed in hundreds of international and national institutions and actor-networks, and a political project that engages more and more people around the globe. Not the least, as evidenced by the large response to the call for papers as well as the lively discussions in Amsterdam, earth system governance is developing into a demanding and vital subject of research in the social sciences.

All presentations at the conference addressed one or several of the following seven themes:

  1. Theories and Methods for Analysing Earth System Governance: papers that addressed new theoretical advances and methodological tools to better analyse earth system governance, including new methods and tools that combine quantitative and modelling approaches - also from the natural sciences - with qualitative, case-based methods and participatory, stakeholder-oriented methods;

  2. Architectures of Earth System Governance: papers that addressed the effectiveness of the overall governance system including problems of institutional fragmentation, interlinkages, and change;

  3. Adaptiveness in Earth System Governance: papers that addressed the ways in which institutions at all levels - ranging from local to global - can adapt to large-scale changes in their natural environment;

  4. Agency Beyond the State: papers that addressed the influence of non-state actors in earth system governance, including the effectiveness of private governance and stakeholder involvement at all levels;

  5. Accountability and Legitimacy of Earth System Governance: papers that addressed the democratic foundations of earth system governance at the local, national, and global levels;

  6. Allocation Mechanisms in Environmental Governance: papers that addressed distributive effects of global and national environmental institutions and governance mechanisms; and

  7. The Reflexive Governance of Global Public Goods: papers that addressed the institutional analysis of participatory decision-making, deliberative policy-making and capacity building in the governance of global public goods.

The conference has been endorsed by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and by the World Academy of Art and Science. The IHDP has meanwhile mandated a Scientific Planning Committee to develop a longterm research project in this field under the IHDP umbrella. This new research initiative will follow up on the IHDP long-term core project Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC), which ended in December 2006 (on the manifold results, see IHDP Update 1/2007). The Earth System Governance Scientific Planning Committee met for the first time back-to-back with the 2007 Amsterdam Conference and held several consultations on the new research intiative during the conference, including with participants from developing countries and Eastern European countries and with keynote speakers and younger conference participants. The Committee’s interim secretariat will be hosted by the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis of the Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam.

Back-to-back with the 2007 Amsterdam Conference, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the University of Maastricht jointly offered an International Summer School on Earth System Governance for PhD students and other researchers in their early career stages. This international summer school was supported by the Netherlands Research School for Socio-Economic and Natural Sciences of the Environment (SENSE) in co-operation with the Dutch national research programme Climate for Space—Space for Climate. A similar summer school will be held in early 2008 at the Freie Universität Berlin, back-to-back with the 2008 Berlin Conference.

The conference organisers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam could rely on generous support from a number of Conference Co-hosts, without which the congress would not have been possible: AIRD - Environment Canada and IRES - University of British Columbia, Canada; the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP); the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Global Change Committee); the Netherlands Research School for Socio-Economic and Natural Sciences of the Environment (SENSE); the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, United Kingdom; and the European research projects ADAM—Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies: Supporting European Climate Policy; Glogov.org—The Global Governance Project; NeWater—New Approaches to Adaptive Water Management under Uncertainty; and REFGOV—Reflexive Governance in the Public Interest.

All in all, as expressed by many participants, the 2007 Amsterdam Conference was a major success in charting a new and demanding research field—earth system governance. The scientific planning committee for the IHDP Earth System Governance project initiative, constituted in Amsterdam, will now take the initiative further.

Further reading: Frank Biermann, ‘Earth system governance as a cross-cutting theme of global change research’, in: Global Environmental Change, 2007, in press (online available with Elsevier)

Upcoming: 2008 Berlin Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change to be held in Berlin on 22-23 February 2008.