Tiempo Climate Newswatch
Interview with Mickey Glantz
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Tiempo Climate Newswatch: What contribution can social scientists make to climate science and, at a broader level, to society’s response to the issues of climate variability and climate change?
Mickey Glantz: Humans are now an integral part of the physical global climate system. A thousand years ago that was not the case. Today, however, our industrial processes and our land use activities and impacts are influencing the atmospheric chemistry and processes at the regional to global levels. In a way, we are like sea ice, forests and deserts in that we can identify our influences on the atmosphere. Therefore, social scientists must be considered as an integral part of the climate research community and not apart from it. The social sciences’ contributions to climate research are no longer just to be tolerated. They must be embraced by the climate research community. They can also provide critical insights to the physical sciences about the kinds of research findings that are needed by decision makers in a wide range of socio-economic sectors of society.
Science has progressed since the 1960s. It used to be "science for the sake of science". From the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a shift to "science for the people". Today, I believe it has shifted to "science with the people". The physical sciences always needed the social sciences to further their research but now they need them more than ever. And there are many examples of successful collaboration, cooperation and integration among the physical and social sciences and the humanities, more so today than a couple of decades ago.
Tiempo Climate Newswatch: Much of your work has been in support of developing countries. What are the major challenges for scientists and policy makers right now in these countries?
Mickey Glantz: I believe that there is considerable expertise in developing countries on climate-society-environment interactions. I think that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process over the years has helped to improve climate knowledge and expertise throughout many parts of the so-called Third World. The problem lies with the North in that it continues to treat developing country scientists in general as junior partners always in need of more training. What the developing countries need is access to funds that they can use to foster in a major way South to South cooperation and interactions. They lack, in general, the needed resources to come together when they want to interact. Usually, the North is somehow involved and controlling the purse strings and, therefore, the agendas.
Tiempo Climate Newswatch: Have you any comment on the manner in which the IPCC is taking account of the insights of social science? Social scientists do seem to have had much more of a voice in the latest two assessments.
Mickey Glantz: Following the Fourth IPCC Assessment in April 2007 I believe that the climate research community won the proverbial battle. People, corporations and governments seem to have either accepted that human activities are affecting global climate or that it is no longer worth their efforts to fight the advocates who argue that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming at alarming rates and to dangerous levels for ecosystems and societies. However, by winning that battle, climate science has become now less urgent. The climate problem is now a mitigation and adaptation problem. IPCC Working Group 2 on impacts and adaptation deserves more attention and funding than has been the case in the past, and that would include more support for those involved in researching the interface between natural and social processes.
There is a call to use some of the IPCC Nobel Prize funds for fellowships for postgraduate and advanced students in developing countries. There does not seem to be any appreciable concern about providing such funding for those interested in social science and humanities-related aspects of climate change, just the physical, chemical and biological sciences. Moreover, there is no mention of support for undergraduates in developing countries. Yet, undergraduates are in the midst of selecting their lifelong careers. Exposing them to climate, water and weather issues gives them glimpses of alternative career possibilities. In addition, undergraduates are but a few years away from being in the workforce and involved in government, corporate or other decision-making processes. They provide considerable value for money invested in improving climate knowledge of potential leaders.
Tiempo Climate Newswatch: Is there a need for a greater degree of mutual understanding between physical and social scientists? Should we be training hybrid socio-physical scientists?
Mickey Glantz: While there are numerous efforts, official and unofficial, to train people in multidisciplinary, multifaceted and multinational studies, the problem is that there continues to be considerable pressure from physical, biological and social science disciplines to protect their own disciplines. The disciplinary purists look down on efforts to foster in a widespread way the integration of the disciplines. They consider inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary efforts as less robust and less reliable with regard to their research outputs. Actually, I believe that the disciplines are strengthened by multidisciplinary research interactions.
Tiempo Climate Newswatch: Over the past 35 years, Mickey, you’ve pioneered the incorporation of social science concerns into climate research. How much of a personal battle has it been, working in a stronghold of the physical sciences?
Mickey Glantz: It has been a struggle doing social science research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) ever since the early days. Social science efforts are clearly viewed as less important than physical science activities. They have been second-class citizens, despite words to the contrary. Social science efforts at NCAR never received significant funding. We had to do the best we could with what we were given.
I went to NCAR in July 1974 as a postdoctoral fellow and political scientist, but soon reverted to the more general label of social scientist as I began to research multifaceted environmental issues related to the climate system: drought, flood, fire, deforestation, desertification, El Niño and famines. At first I got to work for, and with, Dr Walter Orr Roberts, the founder of NCAR. He was great, the best mentor and boss I have had in 34 years there. It was exciting in that it was a new focus for me. Walt Roberts gave me part of his climate grant to look at the value of a long-range forecast for the West African Sahel and for the spring wheat region in the Prairie Provinces of Canada. It was good timing for me. In the early 1970s, there was a renewed interest in climate impacts because of the global food crisis then. It was also a couple of years after the United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Before shifting to climate impacts research, I had studied and researched violent political revolutions and specifically focused on the Portuguese colonial wars. Those wars were drawing to a close by the middle of the 1970s.
There were a few breakthroughs from a personal standpoint. I was allowed to organize a conference in 1977 on "Multidisciplinary Aspects related to the Atmospheric Sciences". I was appointed the head of the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group in 1979. That allowed me to invite social scientists to NCAR and to develop an advisory committee that was involved in the social aspects of climate and weather issues. With support from various United Nations agencies, especially the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we were able to develop the Network Newsletter to identify a community of people, at first in North America and then internationally, interested in climate-related impacts research, application and outreach.
Another breakthrough in the 1970s was to help to focus attention on the politics of so-called natural disasters such as droughts. To the mid-1970s, it seemed that most blame for impacts of climate anomalies was focused on the physical effects of a drought or tropical storm, for example, neglecting the human dimension. The need to study more closely the interactions among climate, human activities and environment was elevated to a new heightened level of visibility, showing that a situation like the Bengal famine of 1943 was really not unique in its occurrence.
After the 1970s, it became fairly lonely as a social scientist at NCAR. I had to rely on meetings and discussions with social scientists off-site at universities and in government agencies. The computer, though, eventually made it a lot easier to network and be more interactive with others around the globe in real time. I should add that I could not have completed so many projects if it had not been for the great support that I had from my close co-workers and assistants at NCAR, such as D Jan Stewart, editor of the Network Newsletter.
The bottom line, though, is that there are only a few social scientists at NCAR at present out of a few hundred other scientists. There is only one, myself, who made it to the highest rank of senior scientist. In 2009, after I have left, there will be no senior scientist from the social sciences left in the place. This situation is why I wrote a recent editorial pleading with NCAR and the management at the National Science Foundation to tear down the invisible wall between the physical and social sciences.
Tiempo Climate Newswatch: How much support have you had over the years from NCAR?
Mickey Glantz: Overall, I have to say that it is unlikely that I could have done all of the research and outreach activities I set out to do in any other place. NCAR’s base funding for salary and travel, for example, allowed me to address controversial, unpopular or neglected physical, biological and social science issues related to climate, water and weather. I was able to supplement the base funding for myself and a few other social science colleagues with funds from various United Nations agencies (especially UNEP, the World Meteorological Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization) and agencies in the United States for workshops, conferences and field trips on a wide range of climate-related topics.
However, life at NCAR has not been perfect. For example, for some time I have been thinking about whether I am "of" NCAR or "from" NCAR. Most of the intellectual stimulus really comes from outside the organization even though I wanted to be an integral part of it. Throughout the years, especially since the mid-1980s, I have felt there was no leadership at NCAR that appreciated the societal side of atmospheric science. My network of support was outside the institution. Inside the institution, however, I was able to receive valuable education and training through various science mentors about the physical-climate system.
The most support I have had came in the 1970s, and again in the past few years with the creation and elevation of social science efforts to the laboratory level, equal to a science laboratory. That only lasted a few years as the social science lab was disbanded in May 2008 for alleged budgetary reasons, though I suspect anti-social science bias played a part. About three months later, my Center for Capacity Building was dissolved, yet another blow to NCAR’s social science activities. These actions suggest that NCAR does not now see societal aspects of its physical science research as an integral part of its "core" activities, that is, the modeling of the Earth’s atmosphere, a computing facility and an aircraft facility. If what the managers are now saying is valid, all other activities at NCAR are susceptible to budget cuts.
A couple of years ago I started to jot down notes about my observations about social science in the midst of a physical science institution. I gave it a working title of "A Perfect Job in an Imperfect Place", the point being I was able to accomplish more than a career’s worth of work in an organization that was not as supportive as it should or could have been. My job was perfect in that I had considerable autonomy to identify and pursue research and outreach issues of my choosing. I was able to work within the rules without breaking them. Sometimes, I stretched the rules to their outer limits though I never broke them! But a mismatch developed between the goals of the organization after the mid-1980s or so. Now, at a time when the mantra of society has become "science with the people", it seems that the mantra of NCAR is still focused on science for the sake of science, the institution’s written statements to the contrary notwithstanding.
Tiempo Climate Newswatch: Thank you for your time, Mickey. We’d like, on behalf of our readers, to wish you all the best in your future activities.
Michael H Glantz, Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Campus Box 450, 1560 30th St, Boulder, Colorado 80309 0450, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Web: www.fragilecologies.com and ccb.colorado.edu.
On the Web
Mickey Glantz has published a number of commentaries on his Fragile Ecologies website.
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Tiempo Climate Newswatch