Apr 4, 2012
Planet – and scientists – under pressure?
Visitors to March's Planet Under Pressure conference who did not venture outside London's docklands area could be forgiven for thinking that the city is not what they had been led to believe. There was a lack of royal palaces, crowds of tourists and ancient landmarks near the conference, unless you include the Millennium Dome. This "expectation gap" is analogous to the difference between the current state of international environment policy and action, and where environmental and climate science need to be.
As Anthony Giddens, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, said in his plenary lecture: "The film 'The Matrix' is about the intersection of two worlds – a computer-generated world where everyone is happy and a real world where humanity is in a mess. To me this is a metaphor for international negotiations and Rio … the virtual world of conferences and the real world, where things look bleak."
Giddens feels that there is a huge disparity between the reality of climate change and the political and economic response. As well as system-level change, the situation needs action below the level of the nation state, he explained, with activists and civil society taking steps worldwide to obtain change on the ground, as the Transition Towns movement tried, for example. "The United Nations (UN) has lost a lot of influence, so we will need to look to states and groups of states," he said.
The final statement issued by Planet Under Pressure included a call for a UN sustainable development council, as well as regular assessments of sustainability and specific sustainable development goals. Planet Under Pressure had two aims, according to conference co-chair Mark Stafford Smith of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia: making a significant contribution in the lead-up to the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development in June, and setting the agenda for global change science over the next 10 years, including building better partnerships with society and industry.
"The sense that there is an urgent need has been around for a long time," said Stafford Smith. "We need to focus on the solutions now and they are also in the social science space."
Natural and social
Continuing this interdisciplinary theme, the conference saw a number of sessions about the Future Earth project. Due for official launch in Rio, Future Earth is a 10-year initiative that aims to engage natural scientists and social scientists in research to "support the transition of society towards sustainability" and to "link global environmental change and fundamental human development questions". Operations are due to begin in 2013.
Co-chair of the Future Earth development team, Diana Liverman of the University of Arizona, US, spoke relatively optimistically at the conference. Population, economic growth, fertilizer use and land-use change all took off around 1950 and saw steep increases until 2000, she explained. But her updates of the data to 2010 showed "signs of hope". These include a dramatic drop in fertility, which has halved in the last few decades, and some signs of turnaround in other variables such as energy intensity and climate intensity, with less consumption per unit of growth. Poverty is also declining but inequality is increasing.
Will Steffen of Australian National University stressed, however, that we cannot yet see the effect of the trends that are turning around. For example, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen faster since 2000, even though we are becoming more efficient at economic growth. Global average temperature and sea level are continuing to rise and Arctic sea ice is decreasing. Tropical forest and woodland is still being lost at roughly the same rate and coastal ecosystems are in trouble. "We have a race here that we are losing," Steffen said. The stabilization of the ozone hole since the 1990s is the exception – "a bright spot that shows good global governance can turn it around fairly quickly".
Steffen added that there is "no economic analysis that considers [what happens if] we move Earth into another state that is much harder to live in". He believes that the intersection of science, economics and policy can help us reframe the issue. "We have not got time to do blue-sky research when it comes to the planet. We have to deliver answers," he said.
Rowan Douglas of reinsurance broker Willis Re, UK, also thinks economics could be crucial. He said that man has become disconnected from nature. "I think that is about to change … as environmental change and environmental risk begin to be seen to affect our fiduciary institutions, then environmental systems will be seen to affect capital," he said. "That will have the most profound effect. It will become fundamental to how we respond, adapt and behave."
Such a profound effect could be exactly what is needed to kick-start action. Sociologist Kari Norgaard of the University of Oregon, US, has been studying inertia to action on climate change and it is not great news. Norgaard believes that there is "a paradox between the increasing scientific knowledge and virtual invisibility of climate change in the public sphere," and that climate change appears to be "such a threat that it becomes unthinkable".
Norgaard's cultural inertia model looks at resistance on three levels – individual, social and institutional – and indicates that changing just one level is not enough. "It paints a grimmer picture of why we have not been able to change," she said. "We know societal change does happen, for example when forced by cataclysmic events or crises, but I do not know the recipe to start this."
That said, bringing people together to work in groups to make their city sustainable could be effective because it increases the visibility of the issue and could make it feel safe enough to take action. According to Norgaard, the solution "probably will need social movement activity and a sense of outrage that will lead to policy moves".
Steffen believes there is also institutional inertia inside science because researchers are rewarded for remaining within their narrow specialisms – reaching out to policymakers or the public must be done in their own time.
Talking of action, what was the outcome of 2,800 delegates gathered together? Only time will tell. But there are at least some concrete outputs in the form of the final statement and the launch of the last four in a series of nine policy briefs prepared by the scientific community. The negotiations at Rio+20 in June will be crucial; it is clear that scientists alone cannot reduce the pressure on the planet.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.