A “Planetary Boundaries” Straw-Man

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.

20 thoughts on “A “Planetary Boundaries” Straw-Man”

  1. I appreciate Victor taking the time to put together a response to my post. Here are a few initial thoughts in response to his comments.

    1. Victor is the one who has invoked the notion of “world government” — it is not a term I have used or implied. I do identify a governance model that has been explicitly advocated by some of the scientists advancing planetary boundaries as a form of “trusteeship” in which representatives of planetary boundaries are somehow given governance authority. Schellnhuber has made this explicit with his suggestion of carving out places in a parliament for such trustees. I also quote Steffen et al. calling for a “global referee” above other governance bodies acting on behalf of all of humanity.

    Such views are explicitly authoritarian — one might defend them as benign authoritarianism or scientific authoritarianism (or both), but it does not seem plausible to explain such comments away, as Victor does, as simply “uncareful phrasing.”

    2. Victor calls my commentary “a straw man argument aspiring to create a heated, but essentially misdirected discussion” and proceeds to critique “researchers” at The Breakthrough Institute who are creating “polarization” which “might create a nice temporary buzz on Twitter, and drive loads of readers and comments to a blog.”

    In online debates such responses are all too common. I will generally let such statements stand as indications of an unwillingness to take on the substance of a debate head on.

    Debates and discussions of the political roles of scientists may be uncomfortable — especially for folks like those at the Stockholm Resilience Center that find themselves at the center of those discussions. Demand global power and people will ask some questions;-)

    As the commentaries by Leach and Stehr indicate, there is a long and respected tradition of discussing and debating the political legitimacy, authority and philosophies of experts in important settings of governance. For Victor to dismiss this discussion with a simple “there is no power grab” is to both evade and suggest illegitimate an important debate over the proper role of planetary boundaries advocates in settings in which they are demanding a formal role in politics.

    The issues are worth debating on their merits.

    Thanks again!

  2. Bierman sums it up nicely:
    “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.”

    Democracies are free to choose, but not to pass these boundaries.

  3. I disagree that a ‘global referee’ or even a carved space in parliament is necessarily authoritarian. It is globally recognised that an appointed judiciary — that is, unelected experts who decide on points of their expertise — is part of, if not essential to, democratic systems.

    If an otherwise ‘democratic’ system integrates power for experts into its constitution including checks and balances with elected bodies, how is this authoritarian?

    This could even extend to the international level, where this debate spreads into more interesting questions about global environmental governance. Are supranational bodies authoritarian? I think the answer is ‘it depends’, and that this contingency is so obvious that Roger’s argument about authoritarianism becomes nothing more than a straw man, which detracts from fruitful debates about global governance systems.

  4. @Roger: Thanks for your quick response. Let me follow up briefly based on your comments:

    1. I agree, you did not use the notion of “world government”. I do however maintain that this is what is implied by your reflection about the “power implications” of planetary boundaries, as well by your interpretation of the quote from the Solutions article by Steffen and colleagues. I might have misinterpreted your intention after reading your BTI colleague Linus Blomqvist’s tweet (https://twitter.com/linusblomqvist/status/320624069919784961)

    My intention is not to “explain the quote away”. There are many ways to create “an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected.” One model would of course be to put “Science” in the driver’s seat. That certainly would be a “power grab”. Another would be to upgrade the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), explore the possibilities of interaction management of international regimes, or any other of the seven “pillars” that I refer to. The devil is in the details of course, but I would hesitate to immediately jump into the conclusion that the authors prefer the first authoritarian model. Why not simply ask them to elaborate? As for Schellnhuber: I’m not sure what he means with the “10 percent” suggestion, nor do I find that to be a good idea. My point was to show that there is more than one political philosophy attached to notions of planetary boundaries, and that you are misrepresenting that diversity.

    2. I’m very willing to take on the substance of a debate (which I hope my blogpost and this comment shows). And I don’t think the discussion is illegitimate, I’m just questioning the underlying narrative, and the way a whole vibrant discussion is portrayed.

    Your comment still left me wondering what this “power grab” really means. I don’t understand what you mean by saying that “planetary boundaries […] are demanding a formal role in politics”. So, here is a question, by no means intended to be rhetorical: was the creation of the IPCC a “power grab” by climate scientists? Is the creation of an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a “power grab” by ecologists? Is Future Earth a “power grab” by global change scientists? Are the Aichi targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity a “power grab” by biodiversity researchers? My claim is that term is so vague yet polarizing, that it simply isn’t a useful starting point for a discussion.

    Again, I’m not dismissing this important discussion. I’m just hoping to contribute to it.

  5. Victor-

    Thanks, let me focus on where we clearly agree. You write:

    “There are many ways to create “an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected.” One model would of course be to put “Science” in the driver’s seat. That certainly would be a “power grab”.”

    I am glad we can agree on this point.

    Next question to ask is if there is evidence of claims that science is or should be in the “driver’s seat” — I’d answer that by saying yes, and don’t take my word for it, evidence is found in the words spoken by some of the most visible and leading voices advocating planetary boundaries. Would you claim that there is no evidence of such claims?

    Other questions might be raised about whether the PB approach is intrinsically authoritarian or whether authoritarian approaches are justified.

    The underlying question that I am raising of course, as I often do, is what is the proper role of experts in decision making?

    Such questions are not just for natural scientists in environmental programs, but others as well:



  6. @Roger:
    You ask: “Next question to ask is if there is evidence of claims that science is or should be in the “driver’s seat” — I’d answer that by saying yes, and don’t take my word for it, evidence is found in the words spoken by some of the most visible and leading voices advocating planetary boundaries. Would you claim that there is no evidence of such claims?”

    I would say that the evidence presented so far is poor, cherry-picked and ignores alternative voices.

    The question of the proper role of experts in decision-making is quite broad obviously. Still curios on your take on the “power grab” questions I posed about the IPBES, Future Earth, CBD etc.

  7. Thanks Victor …

    I am confused by your claim that my examples are “cherry picked.” I am not making a statistical argument about general tendencies, but a specific argument based on specific claims that have been made by leading proponents of planetary boundaries.

    More such examples:

    Schellnhuber discussing “world government” (his term, not mine;-) including his “ombudspeople”:

    Here is Rockström et al. just a few eeks ago discussing how global governance must be remade consistent with PBs:

    Do such examples show quite clearly leading proponents of PBs using the concept as a basis for authority in advancing their visions of how to change the world? The answer seems obvious. We might debate the legitimacy of such authority or the efficacy of PBs as a concept in decision making, but the reality of PB advocates staking out a power position does not seem worth debating. Are leading proponents of PBs placing science (and thus themselves) in the “driver’s seat”? Yes, clearly.

    If you disagree, then I’d welcome your characterization of what Scheelnhuber and Rockström et al. are actually doing in the two examples above.

    Are there similar examples of power dynamics at work in IPBES, Future Earth, CBD, IPCC etc.? Of course!


  8. The very idea of a power grab seems rather ludicrous when you consider the scale of the science enterprise in comparison to, say, the carbon intensive portion of the economy. Exxon alone is more than 100x the size of the US Global Change Research Program, for example. The chance that we will err on the side of excessive avoidance of boundaries is more or less nil.

  9. It seems that there’s a difference in perception of the boundaries that underlies this disagreement.

    For example, Pielke says, “Future global development, at least in the short term, necessarily will involve trade offs between expanded use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels and the expansion of energy access to the world’s poorest.” This would be stupid, or at least myopic, if you think that expanded emissions will cross boundaries that are truly proximate tipping points with nasty consequences on the other side, because the poor would ultimately be worse off. But if you think the boundary is far off, or gradual, or has mild consequences, there’s room for a tradeoff. (Of course, this example is a false dilemma, because the rich can reduce to make room for the poor in the short run.)

    Similarly, when Tol says, “Democracies are free to choose, but not to pass these boundaries” the implication is that it would be authoritarian to impose them. But if boundaries are as their proponents conceive them, the choice is between observing the boundaries, or having nature observe them for us, which might result in some much nastier apocalyptic flavor of authoritarianism. So, either he’s willing to take that risk, or his conception of boundaries differs.

    I’m wary of some of the more autocratic-sounding proposals, as much because they have little chance of being adopted as because they are susceptible to a totalitarian spiral. But I’m also wary of non-constructive critiques, that don’t suggest any alternatives that would result in boundaries being respected, except by luck.

  10. @Tom
    These boundaries are not like “thou shalt not travel faster than the speed of light” but rather like “thou shalt not emit more than X” with X decided by a Council of Guardians populated by people like Rockstrom and Schellnhuber who believe in their own infallibility.

  11. Hi Richard – The boundaries aren’t an exclusively social construct. They’re unknown and buffered by stocks, so the consequences of breaking them aren’t the same as the consequences of acting as if pi=3, but they still have some degree of physical inevitability. I think the implication that appointing James Hansen supreme dictator of the planet is the goal of all boundaries proponents is exactly the strawdog to which Victor refers.

  12. @Tom
    Exactly. Boundaries are part value-based. Boundaries should therefore be set by referendum or parliament, until such time we discover a form of government that is less bad than democracy.

    Boundaries should not be set by unelected experts.

  13. @Roger. Sorry for delayed response. Having read through the links you added (thanks!), I still don’t see how these support you claim of PBs “closing down debates over policy”, or contributing to a case where “issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science”. (Also: these are two individuals in a much bigger landscape of actors, institutions and perspectives working with planetary boundaries. But never mind, here are my reflections on the links).

    For example, in the paper by Rockström, Sachs et al you refer to (http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/03/130316-Sustainable-Development-and-Planetary-Boundaries.pdf), I agree with you that science is an aspect in the Sustainable Development Trajectory they explore (very clear in the beginning as a foundation for the argument, I agree). But there really are loads of other issues and suggestions that I would say appear much more prominent in the paper – e.g. the need for increased transparency/”good” governance, elimination of extreme poverty, transitions in socio-technological systems, technology, the role of multilateral institutions, multinational businesses, and more. The role of experts and science is hardly mentioned in those sections.

    There is one argument where your “power grab” should have been visible (assuming that this paper is an illustration of PB-scientists trying to grab hold of formal power): that’s the section on Governance Transformations (pp. 8-9). But the section does not include e.g. a suggestion to create an overarching scientific body with authoritative (advisory/decision-making/conflict-resolving/agenda-setting) powers. Instead, the section is an elaboration of existing institutional architectures, and a call for changes in business models. In all, the words “science” and “scientific evidence” appears only 4 times in the whole report (main text). So where is the “power grab” here? Clearly I must be missing something.

    Now, Shellnhuber’s piece http://www.humansandnature.org/democracy—hans-joachim-schellnhuber-response-61.php
    I note that he does not use the term “world government” in the way you imply, he talks about a “global democratic society”. He uses the first term as a contrast to his vision – global democratic society as (quote): “a sophisticated—and therefore more appropriate—version of the conventional “world government” notion”.

    In terms of his specific suggestions about an Earth Constitution, Global Council and Planetary Court it is (again) all about the details. Who should decide on what to include in such a constitution? What is the mandate of this Council? What sort of powers should be assigned to this imaginary Court? Highly unrealistic proposals obviously, and I would probably look at the body of literature on transnational democracy for inspiring in-depth debates about this, rather than on a really short and vague think-piece like this.

    But still: I can’t find evidence that indicates the sort of “power grab” you suggest. Where is the suggestion to create an institution, or governance mechanisms which puts scientific/expert advice at the driver’s seat in the creation of these imaginary global institutions?

    I’m starting to think that we are looking at these issues from two very different social science angles, which creates some communication problems and different interpretations of the evidence. But a clearer definition of what a “power grab” really means, and the way in which such claims can be validated or refuted, would have been really useful.

  14. balance between bottom-up and top-down

    If it is too complex for majority to understand (and hence manage), reduce the interconnections.

    The outcome may not be ideal, but it is part of the evolution process.

    It’s fine as long as not over. • Moderation • balance

  15. @Richard

    I agree.

    I still don’t see the practical threat in the claimed “power grab” because there is no mechanism or likelihood for it to occur. Anyone who’s proposing a truly authoritarian global EPA is simply naive, and probably also pursuing a course that’s counterproductive to the goal of respecting boundaries.

  16. I think it’s not only social science perspectives that differ. I think there’s an underlying difference in the perception of the physics.

    Theory X is that boundaries are remote, at least gradual if not benign, and that most are local, so diversity ensures that their aggregate effect is smooth even if individual effects are not. Examples are the Breakthrough critique of boundaries and the Brooks challenge, discussed here recently (“Planet without humans”).

    Theory Y, more in the spirit of the nonlinear dynamics/CAS world, is that there’s a lot of positive feedback, intrinsic to ecosystems and their interactions with humans, and a lot of coupling both among boundaries or the variables they affect and among regions due to trade and migration. This makes the system prone to surprises and catastrophes, irrespective of any individual boundary.

    If you’re content to talk about tradeoffs and let the political sausage machine grind along with no real chance of observing boundaries, you either need a hefty dose of Theory X, or have a low estimation of our ability to solve any of our problems, or both.

    I find the parallel with the financial crisis a bit disturbing. The analog of Theory X in 2007 was the idea that micro prudential regulation of institutions was sufficient to provide stability and that growth was robust. Theory Y is systemic risk. We know how that worked out. I suppose that a political scientist could have argued from a Theory Y perspective that things were not OK, but nothing could be done about it due to the power structure at the time, and been right. But it’s not very comforting to repeat that experiment on a larger scale.

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