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Global warming: Informal networking is the key to a swift response


A recent report on an unexpected sharp rise in atmospheric CO2 levels has raised the possibility of rapid global warming, but researchers at King’s College London warn that some UK businesses, government departments and voluntary sector organisations are better equipped than others to respond to an increased risk of flooding, storms and extreme temperatures.

According to the research, which was funded by ESRC, the key to an effective response to environmental crises lies in social and relationship factors, as much as in technical efficiency and strong leadership. The researchers found that organisations that make use of informal contact networks to build mutual trust are more flexible and are better equipped to deal with surprise shocks than those that rely on a rigid and more formal communications system. "If we take the risk of rapid climate change seriously we must be sure that organisations are able to change and adapt," says Dr Mark Pelling, who led the research. "For example, a small investment in developing informal communications networks – and valuing individuals with these skills – could significantly improve their effectiveness," he said. "Perhaps it is time to rethink job descriptions."

The findings of the project, which was part of the ESRC Environment and Human Behaviour Programme, were based on the response of three stakeholder groups in the UK agricultural sector to the BSE and foot and mouth crises and examined how they might deal with possible future abrupt climate change. The groups included scientific officers at DEFRA, representatives of the Environment Agency and the Welsh Assembly and members of a dairy farmers’ cooperative. The data collected from interviews, focus groups and workshops suggested that informal networking between people in different organisations broadened their knowledge and understanding, as well as establishing trust which could enable decisions to be taken more quickly in emergencies.

One case study demonstrated the enhanced understanding and effectiveness of a government scientific adviser who spent his spare time working for voluntary conservation groups and had a better understanding of local problems as a result. "The so-called ’shadow system’ provides a vital element in contact networks across the boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors," says Mark Pelling. "It’s a resource that is being missed, although there are tensions between the need for transparency in public life to reduce corruption and nepotism and the need for an effective informal system to provide the flexibility that is essential in a crisis."

The study brought together theoretical research from a range of academic disciplines and empirical data from interviews and workshops conducted across the UK. The results showed that there was good awareness of the need to adapt policies and practice in the light of climate change, but respondents were concerned about the uncertainty that surrounds climate trends.

At the national level, some participants felt that the culture of public sector agencies had so far not learnt from past crises the importance of supporting individuals who could work across different disciplines and professional areas. The work of the ’Horizon Scanning’ advanced warning unit at DEFRA, which uses a network of sources to monitor possible problems provided one example of the formalisation of networking flexibility in the public sector. "This is an example of a resource that builds on social relationships to identify potential future threats, its approach could be more widely used to make government agencies and other organisations more able to recognise and adapt to the unexpected shocks that are accompanying climate change," says Mark Pelling.

Becky Gammon | EurekAlert!
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