Letter: Insights from the social sciences are needed to protect the environment

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Sir: In his article about environmental threats ('Forgive us our eco-trespasses', 2 February), Bryan Appleyard quite rightly looks behind the uncertainties surrounding global warming and other global changes to the underlying sense of frustration that many people feel in the face of these uncertainties.

Environmentalism, in its various different forms, is a response to human needs and our apparent powerlessness. This is why environmental change must be a global concern of the social sciences, whose insights and understanding are needed before we can frame relevant and effective policies.

The centrality of human behaviour and purposes in the face of uncertainties over the global environment prompted the Economic and Social Research Council to initiate an ambitious research programme, costing in excess of pounds 20m. This is much the biggest research programme of its kind in Europe. We are still well ahead of many of our European partners in focusing on both the causes and effects of global changes.

Mr Appleyard might have added that many, if not most, of the measures we need to take to avert global environmental changes are beneficial in the short and medium term (anti-pollution measures and cleaner technologies are examples). In dealing with uncertainty, the precautionary principle is important, together with a citizenry aware that we can act decisively to prevent environmental catastrophes.

The only way of tackling the anxieties that environmentalism reflects is to be more aware of the dangers of doing nothing and the utility of taking preventive action. Bryan Appleyard's short piece has helped place the real agenda before the public. This has to be warmly welcomed.

Yours sincerely,

MICHAEL REDCLIFT

Wye College

University of London

Wye,

Kent

2 February

The writer is Research Co-ordinator, Global Environmental Change, Economic and Social Research Council.

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