Toward Rigorous Telecoupling Causal Attribution: A Systematic Review and Typology

Tra Que Village, Vietnam. Photo by Rod Long via Unsplash.

The scope and intensity of human-environment interactions have increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution, so much so that scientists now recognize the existence of coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) wherein people interact with natural components. 

To successfully study the complex ecological, economic, political, social and cultural interactions among CHANS, scientists have developed a telecoupling framework to better understand the magnitude and direction of processes linking human and natural systems so they can be sustainably managed and governed. By facilitating simultaneous assessment of reciprocal socioeconomic and environmental interactions among distant CHANS, the telecoupling framework advances related paradigms, such as globalization and teleconnections.

In a journal article by Rachael Garrett and coauthors featured in Sustainability, the authors put forth a framework for evaluating causality factors in telecoupling. The framework aims to develop a structured, standardized approach for causal attribution in telecoupling research to better triangulate, broaden, and deepen evidence for causes and causal mechanisms and effects. This framework describes best practices for causal attribution in telecoupling research, assesses the nature of causality assessment in prior telecoupling studies in terms of qualitative and quantitative methods and generates a standardized causal terminology and typology for use in the research, management and governance of telecoupled systems.

To facilitate causal attribution through multiple lenses, the authors proposed a typology of telecoupling causes based on six criteria: sector, system of origin, agent, distance, response time and direction (i.e., producing positive or negative effects). The authors suggested some best practices in telecoupling research for causal attribution, namely counterfactual analysis, process-tracing, root-cause analysis and comparative case studies and developed a standardized casual terminology. 

Maximizing the accuracy and precision of telecoupling causal attribution will help optimize subsequent approaches for sustainable development and promote global initiatives such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Targets. In order to properly embrace these goals, rigorous qualitative-quantitative methods for telecoupling causal attribution are available and need to be embraced by telecoupling researchers.

Read the Journal Article