Knowledge as a power factor in global environmental research policy

For decades, researchers have been developing ever more complex models that predict and illustrate the consequences of global environmental changes, models that form the foundation of decisions about environmental policy. In the first thesis from the new Unit of Environmental Change Ola Uhrqvist shows how the models grew, took form and were shaped by contemporary thinking.

In his thesis “Seeing and knowing the Earth as a system”, he tracks scientific debate in global environmental research and shows the links between production of knowledge in various research programmes on the one hand, and on the other hand discussion of what can and should be done to create sustainable living environments within the boundaries of our planet.

Opinions have changed over time.

Interlinked system

Mr Uhrqvist tracks the development of the present day view of the earth as a complex and interlinked system: the Earth System.

“Around the turn of the century, in 2000, it became clear that the earth is increasingly seen as an organic system where every part that is affected has consequences for the whole. Ecological and social processes have even greater importance which makes reliable predictions and control a utopia. The scientific models have become increasingly advanced by including the interaction between more and more natural and social processes, planetary limits and tipping points that, if they are exceeded, show that the predictability of the Earth System’s behaviour will be thrown off.


Now Paris 2015, and yet another global climate summit, awaits. There is an inherent risk with the possibilities of building models that cover ever more parameters, Mr Uhrqvist points out:

“For a long time we have had sufficient knowledge about the climate to take the next step in arresting global warming. But the decisions are becoming uncomfortable; in that situation, politicians can choose to hide by waiting for more precise knowledge based on more advanced models.”

Knowledge makes problems visible

Or lean on uncertainty, which is always talked about when research groups put their knowledge and their models up against each other.

“How we eventually view problems and alternative plans of action is very important for what decisions are seen as necessary. Knowledge makes problems visible in a specific way and creates interest that then influences political agendas. Thus knowledge becomes power.”

Mr Uhrqvist bases his research primarily on archive material from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions Programme of Global Environmental Change (IHDP). Together they represent a broad network of researchers who, for 30 years, have studied the earth system as an entity, linked to global environmental changes in need of political control.


Thesis: Seeing and knowing the Earth as a System. An effective history of global environmental change research as scientific and political practice. Linköping Studies in Arts and Sciences No. 631. The department of Thematic Studies - Environmental Change.

2014-10-20