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Turning points in debating the human environment: Interactions between science and society

This panel proposes to examine turning points in the debate on the human environment since the 1960s by mobilizing the concept of «epistemic communities» as defined by Peter M. Haas. More precisely, it analyses the interactions between society, politics, and epistemic communities in a bi-directional way with a view to examining the role of the latter in bringing about fundamental social and political change in the «era of ecology» (Joachim Radkau). Besides providing insights into new fields of research, the novelty here is that the panel proposes to single out epistemic communities grounded in different sciences, the natural sciences (physics/geography), and law (especially human rights law), with a view to comparing their interactions with society and politics. This includes analysing societal and political input and evaluating its influence on scientific research, the modes of self-organization and action of scientific (and larger epistemic) communities, and their relative capacity to influence societal debates and policies on the human environment. What is the relative power of science (and larger epistemic) communities in reshaping environmental debates in a national and transnational framework?

The panelists can provide crucial input concerning these questions, based upon new research. Dania Achermann (University of Berne) will present new research on how national politics in Switzerland and Denmark interacted with ice-core science with a view to measuring the human impact on the climate, and how ice-core science has eventually reshaped the debate on the earth’s climate. Richard Schweizer (Université de Genève/ENS Paris), on the other hand, will examine how human rights discourse has entered and changed the debate on the human environment since the 1970s.

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