Munira Raji and Iain Stewart discuss the history and importance of geoscience diplomacy as a tool for building international collaborations to address geo-environmental challenges
Our society today is faced with incredibly complex and interconnected global challenges that transcend political and geographical borders. Key issues, such as climate change, geological hazards, environmental pollution, resource management, and energy security, require continuous international collaboration to find solutions. Geoscience as a discipline provides holistic scientific knowledge of Earth’s systems across the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. By working with other disciplines,
geoscientists can help identify solutions that underpin global challenges.
Diplomacy builds international relationships through cooperation and negotiation, and by forming alliances between individuals, groups, and nations to achieve mutually beneficial goals. Geoscience diplomacy applies geoscientific knowledge to facilitate collaboration and shape policies that tackle shared geological and environmental challenges. We practise geoscience diplomacy when we partner with international colleagues and engage in cross-cultural knowledge exchange. Such engagement can enhance international relationships by building trust and create opportunities to address global challenges. These partnerships can also lead to the exchange of new technologies, data, and expertise that advances geoscience and benefits our society. Geoscience diplomacy is becoming increasingly important as we work together to build a more sustainable future.
Through the years
We can track the history of international geoscience collaboration and the concept of geoscience diplomacy back to at least 1878, when the first International Geological Congress (now www.iugs.org/igc) brought together geoscientists from around the world. This meeting marked a new era of international collaboration, with geoscientists sharing their research and establishing the framework for geological classification, nomenclature, and uniformity in geological cartography.
Another early example of geoscience diplomacy is the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The IGY brought together scientists from 66 nations to study Earth’s physical properties and processes, including the atmosphere, oceans, and polar regions. Even though the IGY took place at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, it helped to foster scientific cooperation between countries that were former Cold War rivals, with the Soviet Union and the US announcing plans to place satellites into Earth orbit during the IGY. These early efforts paved the way for a more formalised approach to solving global environmental challenges, such as the development of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch) in 1988, which brought together geoscientists and other scientists from around the world to assist policymakers with understanding the scientific basis for climate change, assessing its impacts, and planning for adaptation and mitigation. This informed the development and negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2015, a legally binding international treaty that set a framework for 196 parties to commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and supporting countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of sustainable development emerged as people became more aware of the interconnectivity between environmental, economic, and social issues and the importance of considering the needs of future generations by sustainably managing our natural resources. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s International Geoscience Programme (IGCP; www.unesco.org/en/iggp/igcp) has been instrumental in furthering geoscience diplomacy by advancing our understanding of Earth and its natural resources and building a global network of geoscientists. Other examples of geoscience collaborations include the Arctic Council (arctic-council.org/), a multidisciplinary, international body that promotes cooperation and sustainable development in the Arctic region, as well as the International Ocean Discovery Program (www.iodp.org), a partnership led by the United States National Science Foundation, the European Union, and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology that gives participants direct access to seafloor drilling technology, has brought together marine geoscientists from around the world and has raised awareness of our shared ocean resources.
Geoscience diplomacy has been instrumental in conflict resolution, transforming conflicts into opportunities for peace and effectively reducing tensions between nations divided over natural resources. In particular, geoscience diplomacy has been crucial in improving the management of water resources across the globe. The IGCP has supported projects that brought together Israeli and Palestinian geoscientists to study the Dead Sea, as well as Turkish and Greek scientists to study the Aegean Sea, thus building trust and cooperation between scientists from these conflicting countries and raising awareness of their shared natural resources. The United States Geological Survey’s Water Data Banks Project involved geoscientists from Israel, Jordan, and Palestine collaborating to develop new water resources through sea water desalination, thereby improving water security. Geoscientists also played a key role in developing joint management plans for the Guarani Aquifer in South America, one of the largest transboundary aquifers in the world, which is shared by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Technical collaboration between the four countries at every stage has been instrumental to the aquifer’s success. Finally, the Jordan River, which passes through Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Syria, is a vital source of fresh water for the region and plays a crucial role in the stability of the region, both in terms of water resources and political dynamics. Geoscientists in this region have been involved in mapping out the hydrology of the Jordan River, sharing data on hydrology, water quality and quantity, and developing water management plans.
A unique example of geoscience diplomacy is the establishment of the Mount Paektu Research Centre, a platform for scientific collaboration between geoscientists from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), UK, US, and China. The collaboration presented the first opportunity for cross-border volcanology research between the DPRK and western countries. Another example is the Liancourt Rocks, a small island group in the Sea of Japan, which have been a source of tension and conflict between Japan and South Korea for decades. Geoscientists from both countries are working together to understand the geological evolution of the islands, to promote peace and cooperation and help resolve the dispute.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is known for its vast mineral resources, including copper, cobalt, gold, and diamonds. Geoscientists have mapped the country’s mineral resources, thereby supporting the implementation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI; eiti.org/), a global standard for the governance of natural resources. The EITI enhances the sustainable management of natural resources and promotes transparency and accountability in the extractive sector, which is critical for building peace and stability in the DRC and other resource-rich countries.
The International Atomic Energy Agency uses satellite imagery and other geospatial data to support international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The data are used to monitor the construction of nuclear facilities and detect the movement of nuclear materials, which helps ensure that countries are complying with their obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
These examples illustrate how geoscience diplomacy can foster knowledge sharing and guide policy across continents, promoting economic growth and improved stability in many regions globally. However, it can lead to difficult situations, as geoscientists can sometimes find themselves involved in political disputes. One example is the case of US seismologist Roger Bilham, an expert on Himalayan earthquakes who was deported from India in 2012 and banned from entering the country until 2019. Roger was denied entry on the grounds that he had engaged in scientific activities while on a tourist visa, but some question whether his research highlighting the potential for an earthquake significantly larger in magnitude than advocated by Indian scientific authorities may have played a role
(e.g. Jayaraman, 2015).
Recently, there has been much discussion about how geoscience has been used to further colonial agendas, with geoscientists from high-income countries undertaking research in low-income countries, without working with local geoscientists and communities or using Indigenous knowledge systems. This has led to calls for decolonising geoscience, by acknowledging and addressing the historical damage that has been done and by making the geoscience discipline more equitable and inclusive. For geoscience diplomacy to work, local researchers, stakeholders and Indigenous communities must be engaged from the very beginning, and their knowledge and perspectives must be incorporated into a collaborative research process.
Geoscience diplomacy is a long-term effort and geoscientists must work with scientists outside their borders to address the most pressing global challenges. As geoscientists, we can advocate for geoscience diplomacy initiatives in our institutions and countries by first identifying and building transparent relationships with key stakeholders (from other geoscientists up to international bodies). We must also highlight the benefits that geoscience diplomacy can bring to all stakeholders and society. Geoscience education does not currently include training or skills development for geoscience diplomacy, which creates a knowledge gap for geoscientists interested in international relations. To address this gap, initiatives that build capacity, such as workshops and specialised courses, are needed to provide essential skills, such as communication, negotiation, conflict-resolution, cross-cultural awareness, and international project management. These initiatives will equip the next generation of geoscientists with an understanding of how geoscience can be used for diplomacy and how diplomacy can benefit geoscience.
Challenges and obstacles
Obstacles that can hinder geoscience diplomacy initiatives include:
• Geopolitics and diplomatic tensions: Historical disputes, conflicting political interests, and power imbalances can lead to mistrust and lack of transparency.
• Limited geoscientific capacity or resources: Some countries or regions may have funding constraints, limited technical expertise, technology, and infrastructure to support geoscience research, making it difficult to build partnerships.
• Language barriers and cross-cultural sensitivity: Language barriers, especially, and uncertainties in geoscientific methodology can create a lack of mutual understanding between collaborators. Cross-cultural and socioeconomic differences can impact the understanding and perception of geo-environmental challenges.
• Data sharing and intellectual property: Disparities in data availability and quality between countries and concerns related to intellectual property rights, data ownership, and access to sensitive information pose a challenge for collaborations.
• Limited public awareness and support: Geoscience diplomacy often operates in the background, away from the public eye. Lack of public awareness and support for such initiatives can undermine their effectiveness and hinder the allocation of necessary resources.
Overcoming these challenges requires an understanding of the shared benefits of geoscience diplomacy through proactive engagement from geoscientists, government agencies, and scientific organisations, advocacy for research funding, and the establishment of frameworks for data sharing and intellectual property rights.
Dr Munira Raji
Sustainable Geoscience and Geoscience Diplomat at the Sustainable Earth Institute, University of Plymouth, UK
Prof Iain Stewart
Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, UK, and Jordan-UK El Hassan bin Talal Research Chair in Sustainability at the Royal Scientific Society, Jordan
A full list of further reading is available at geoscientist.online
• Sztein, A.E. (2016) Science Diplomacy in the Geosciences. In: Drake, J. et al. (eds) Communicating Climate-Change and Natural Hazard Risk and Cultivating Resilience. Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards Research, vol 45. Springer, Cham.; https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20161-0_18
• Jayaraman, K.S. (2015) Nepal quake revives appeal to lift ban on US geoscientist. Nature India; doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/nindia.2015.76