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Exclusively online: Series "12 Questions to ..."

GAIA 2/2019: 12 Questions to Peter Messerli

Peter Messerli, professor of sustainable development, Centre for Development and Environment(CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland.

Born 1967. Studies in geography. Professor of sustainable development, since 2009 Director of CDE, University of Bern. Co-chair of the scientific steering committee of the Global Land Programme. Co-chair of the Independent Group of Scientists authoring the UN Global Sustainable Development Report 2019.

1. From your point of view, what are today's most pressing sustainability problems?

One of the biggest challenges is the question of justice and, with it, distribution. In many areas, we know what we need to do for sustainable development. But what this means in terms of distributing the related costs and benefits  that's where we often lack answers. Take climate change, for example: we know approximately how much more carbon we can afford to emit worldwide, but not by whom, what countries, what population groups, whether rich or poor.

2. When looking at potential improvements in our world, what gives you hope?

The 2030 Agenda is a major success – both in what it represents and in terms of the process behind it. In addition to the usual participants, it included new stakeholders who hadn't been involved in such processes in the past – everyone from researchers to young people and indigenous communities. So the 2030 Agenda was to some degree built from the bottom up. The result is a value-oriented vision for humanity. It acknowledges and clarifies the interconnections between various goals. And it is precisely this focus on the interrelationship between goals – and between North and South, local and global – that attests to a new understanding of sustainability, one which goes far beyond discussing the lowest common denominator of three dimensions. I think it's a real breakthrough in the sustainability debate.

3. Is there a particular sustainability reform you admire the most?

Yes, the transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It has significantly altered the orientation of accountability: with the MDGs, states were accountable to the UN; with the SDGs, they are accountable to their own populations. This enables young people who are striking for climate action to hold policymakers to the agreed goals. It offers hope and can unleash new energy.

4. Which trend in sustainability policy and politics do you consider an aberration?

The renewed tendency to overlook what David Hume pointed out long ago – namely, what "should be" cannot simply be derived from what "is". Or, to illustrate it with an example: based on scientific findings on the risks of global warming, temperature targets were politically established. That was a major success. In my view, however, ongoing efforts to set planetary limits based solely on science are misguided. Society can't avoid negotiating, politically, what sort of planet we want.

5. Why research for sustainable development?

"Transforming" our world is the stated ambition of the 2030 Agenda. What's meant is fundamental change that is deliberate and carried out within a specific window of time. It requires political will, but also evidence. Over the last thousand years, science has proved to be a driving force for change, for better or for worse. What matters now is how we better engage science on behalf of a transformation to sustainable development. For this, science must learn to use the 2030 Agenda as a normative compass for synthesizing existing knowledge and as a guide for future research, without compromising its core principles of independence, transparency, and falsifiability.

6. What has your experience been when it comes to transferring scientific insights into practice?

There are three ways in which knowledge is fed into decisionmaking processes. The first approach describes the world and relates it to societal values or human well-being. In this case, sustainability is used as a point of reference. In the second approach, researchers generate knowledge about how specific societal goals can be achieved. Finally, the third approach concerns issues where consensus is lacking about both the object and the goal. These socalled wicked problems are omnipresent when it comes to sustainability. For example: yes, we want an energy transition – but at what price, at whose cost? Or, nature protection, yes – but implemented with or in opposition to local populations? Here it's important for researchers to work very closely with policymakers and practitioners, jointly defining goals and recursively formulating research questions. The bottom line: we need all three approaches to tackle the challenges at hand.

7. Besides the one you're working in, what field of research in the sustainability sciences do you find most exciting?

It's not a research field per se, but rather a scientific role that I find increasingly important: that of scientists working in investigative nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They work according to scientific principles, but do it in the service of the NGO's mission instead of the h-index. We need to learn how we can improve our collaboration with them on behalf of common goals.

8. Can you name any person or event that has had a particular influence on your commitment to sustainability issues?

When I wrote my dissertation, I spent four years in Madagascar. There we worked together with farmers who sought livelihoods other than slash-and-burn agriculture. Some of them were extremely innovative, conducted their own experiments, and displayed a huge thirst for knowledge – even though they knew their room for manoeuvre was very limited. Their will, engagement, practical knowledge, and desire for knowledge-based change inspired me to work in partnership with them.

9. What knowledge about sustainable development would you like to pass on to young people?

In our course of studies on sustainable development at the University of Bern, I see many young, creative people who are passionate about designing a new world, one in which we recon – figure the relationship between humankind and the planet – and this fuels their interest in sustainable development. It's this kind of motivation that I think we should increasingly strive to foster.

10. As a scientist concerned with sustainability, what contradictions do you face in everyday life?

If we look at the challenges of sustainable development, it's clear that we scientists must radically rethink our partnerships with politics, business, and civil society. We can really only change things by working together. This requires us to devote time for dialogue. But that often clashes with our day-to-day work, with the existing incentive system in science, etc. Finding a balance is tricky.

11. What are you reading at the moment?

"Factfulness" by Hans Rosling – a great book! Using striking examples, Rosling shows how we often come to see the world other than how it actually is. The book highlights the importance of making decisions based on solid facts rather than preconceived opinions.

12. Apart from what we've raised here, what is one of the most important issues of our day?

We live in a world that is so globalized that it's increasingly difficult to solve problems within territorial boundaries. We have to adjust our decision-making accordingly, emphasizing multilateralism and better governance of flows of goods, capital, and information. Yet now, of all times, people are supporting politicians like Trump who are promising unrealistic, nationally oriented solutions. The consequence for sustainable development: not only must we tackle the challenge of transforming the world in the spirit of the 2030 Agenda, we must also overcome the countertransformation that is underway. And this, too, demands engaged science.

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