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IHDP: the Bonn Declaration that wasn’t

Some of my fellow Open Meeting attendees were musing at dinner about how many Bonn Declarations exist. The top ten Google results point to six different texts named after the eminent city. The organizers of this conference originally proposed to add yet another Bonn Declaration to the list, one laying out the way forward for research on human dimensions of global change. But it turned out not to be easy to articulate a common vision that the motley group gathered here – who work on everything from emissions scenarios to development policy to the sociology of knowledge – could accept.

IHDP Scientific Committee chair Oran Young had circulated a draft declaration prepared by senior staff at IHDP. Starting with the principle that current environmental crises are “essentially social”, it asserted the complexity of these problems and the need to cross disciplines while working on them; it also struck philosophical and political notes like “We must take the initiative in defining what sustainability means to us”. Attendees were invited to suggest edits via email, corridor conversations, and a scheduled discussion, so that the authors could get what Quakers call ‘the sense of the meeting’ – a feeling for whether most people were ready to get behind a final version.

As I went to talk after talk on ‘reframing the dominant discourse’ and ‘bottom-up stakeholder interactions’ I wondered if this could possibly work. And in the final discussion, the declaration suffered a near-fatal barrage of reframings. Some participants felt it needed to be clearer who they were declaring to – their own community and its funders? Natural scientists? Policymakers? Society at large? Others suggested the text change its focus significantly: UC Santa Cruz’s Susanne Moser, for example, got some nods with the idea of describing “how we’ve not played well” with these target groups and how to do better.

The declaration and the disagreements now head back to the scientific committee, who will decide this weekend what if anything to do next. Young says the declaration was conceived as a community-building exercise. As such, it may already have succeeded to some extent: committee member Sander van der Leeuw says, “What we wanted to do was to plant an idea that something like this might be useful, and I think that was accepted.”

In any case, the work presented here can speak for itself about the need to reach across disciplines. For example, I saw a great talk by Imme Scholz of the German Development Institute in Bonn on adaptation planning in the face of uncertainty. Having worked with both climate researchers and development experts, Scholz says they tend to have quite different ideas about spending adaptation dollars. Climate people think about the distribution of impacts (highly uncertain in some data-poor places such as Africa) and who is most vulnerable, whereas development people think about ‘aid effectiveness’ and who they can trust with the cash. I don’t know if we’re going to see a declaration on resolving this difference, but getting the the two perspectives to work together certainly seems like the way forward.

Anna Barnett


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