The future of global environmental assessments: Making a case for fundamental change

SAGE Publications
Publication Type:
Journal Article
The Anthropocene Review, pp. 205301962097166-205301962097166
Full metadata record
Since the late 1970s, over 140 global environmental assessments (GEAs) have been completed. But are they any longer fit for purpose? Some believe not. Compelling arguments have been advanced for a new assessment paradigm, one more focussed on problem-solving than problem-identification. If translated into new assessment practices, this envisaged paradigm could prevail for the next several decades, just as the current one has since the late 1970s. In this paper, it is contended that the arguments for GEAs 2.0 are, in fact, insufficiently bold. Solutions-orientated assessments, often associated with a ‘policy turn’ by their advocates, are undoubtedly necessary. But without a ‘politics turn’ they will be profoundly insufficient: policy options would be detached from the diverse socio-economic explanations and ‘deep hermeneutics’ of value that ultimately give them meaning, especially given the very high stakes now attached to managing human impacts on a fast-changing planet. Here we make the case for GEAs 3.0, where two paradigmatic steps forward are taken at once rather than just one. The second step involves the introduction of political reasoning and structured normative debate about existential alternatives, a pre-requisite to strategic decision-making and its operational expression. Possible objections to this second step are addressed and rebutted. Even so, the case for politically-overt GEAs faces formidable difficulties of implementation. However, we consider these challenges less a sign of our undue idealism and more an indication of the urgent need to mitigate, if not overcome them. In a world of ‘wicked problems’ we need ‘wicked assessments’ adequate to them, preparatory to so-called ‘clumsy solutions’. This paper is intended to inspire more far-reaching debate about the future of GEAs and, by implication, about the roles social science and the humanities might usefully play in addressing global environmental change.
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