Update: I work at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, headed by Johan Rockström and Carl Folke. The opinions reflected here are my own, and not the organizations.
The notion of “planetary boundaries” and its potential policy implications, are without doubt worth discussing. But the last blogpost by Roger Pielke Jr. (professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute), left me wondering whether not the debate is becoming increasingly unproductive. I will not try to recap the argument, but recommend a thorough read of Pielke’s blogpost as well as Melissa Leach’s (from STEPS) article in the Huffington Post, on the Anthropocene, SDGs and democracy.
What really troubles me is the argument that “planetary boundaries” is associated with one (and only one) “political philosophy”: heavily centralized, top-down, “World Government-like” interventions where “issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science”. Hence, Pielke’s claim of a “power grab” by proponents of planetary boundaries.
This is either an unfortunate misunderstanding of what the academic discussions about “planetary boundaries” really looks like, or the creation of a straw man argument aspiring to create a heated, but essentially misdirected discussion. There is no such thing as one homogenous “political philosophy” for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab. Allow me to elaborate.
Yes, Frank Biermann’s observation that “scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors” seems relevant. But he also notes – in the very same paper that Pielke quotes in his blogpost to support his argument – that
“within this overall target corridor, the nine boundaries leave human societies ample space for different political choices and socio-economic development trajectories. These socio-economic development trajectories—within the safe operating space set by the planetary boundaries—are left open to the democratic political process and intergovernmental negotiation. […]. The planetary boundaries do not determine any “limits to growth”, but set limits to the total human impact on planetary systems.”
Needless to say, this is the complete opposite of what Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute argue. Another way to understand how so called “planetary boundaries proponents” (whatever that is) explore the political implications of the concept, is nicely summarized in the Earth System Governance Project synthesis piece, published in Science in 2012. In this paper, planetary boundaries are acknowledged as an important insight from the Earth system science community, and a trigger for fundamental and much-needed reforms in global environmental governance – in the article described as “seven building blocks”. The focus is on international institutional reform to create stronger coherence and integration, closing international regulatory gaps, mainstreaming of environmental goals into global trade, and novel financial mechanism with an emphasis on global equity and fairness. The details of these suggestions can be debated of course, but this is far from a “World Government/power grab” agenda.
Another example: in 2011, I coordinated a workshop where governance, politics and planetary boundaries were discussed with a group of international governance scholars. The end result (here in PDF) was again not the sort of “political philosophy” proposed by Pielke, but rather a more nuanced discussion of the role of scientific assessments in creating credibility, saliency, and legitimacy for the science of planetary boundaries; the politically contested role of “boundaries”; the role of international organizations as participants, coordinators and facilitators of polycentric governance initiatives; and the need to explore the institutional context of social-ecological innovation.
Another interesting and emerging stream of research of relevance here, explores the legal implications of planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. I think Davor Vidas discussion from (2011) on the need to reform legal principles embedded in the international law of the sea, is a nice example of the sort of nuanced discussion emerging between social scientists wishing to explore the implications of planetary boundaries.
Lastly, a very important research stream relevant for this discussion, attempts to explore the possible institutional and broader governance implications of planetary boundaries, by focusing on “Planetary stewardship” or “Earth system stewardship”. (See Folke and colleagues (2012) paper for an introduction). As a comment to Prof Leach’s observation, this stream with its roots in studies of adaptive co-management, acknowledges not only the role of uncertainty, participation, and diversity, but also has a very explicit multilevel-governance focus. Ideas of polycentric, participatory, and reflexive modes of governance of this sort, align just as neatly into the planetary boundaries discourse.
I fail to see how these vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries, are part of the “top-down”, “World Government”, “power grab” narrative depicted in the discussions.
That being said however: As a political scientist, I too find the formulation by Steffen, Rockström and Constanza (2011) that there is a need for a “global referee on the planetary playing field”, confusing. My personal interpretation after discussing these issues repeatedly with the authors on other occasions, is that this is likely to be the result of uncareful phrasing – pretty much in the same way that social scientists like myself, struggle to grasp and articulate the nuances of Earth system science in my papers. I do hope however, that they will be able to elaborate their argument somehow in the near future to avoid further misunderstandings, and to steer away from an artificial conflict between the social and Earth system sciences.
A final observation. Breakthrough Institute praises itself for being a paradigm shifting think-tank. I applaud that ambition, but also note that their framing of planetary boundaries research, and some of their researchers, is creating a really unhelpful polarization of the discussions. Polarization might create a nice temporary buzz on Twitter, and drive loads of readers and comments to a blog. But is it really creating an interesting and productive discussion? Most certainly not.
Planetary boundaries science is, and should be, an arena for continuous dialogue and constructive debate between actors with different perspectives, values and disciplinary backgrounds. It would be a pity to build the foundation for such a debate on straw man arguments, and polarized misconceptions.