Tag Archives: global change

Planet Under Pressure: Understanding the Anthropocene

The above video on the Anthropocene was created for the Planet Under Pressure global change and sustainability conference in London, UK, which starts today, March 26th, and continues to the 29th. The movie is:

A 3-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit. The film charts the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.

It presents a contemporary picture of the world in which we live in, and how dynamics of the biosphere and the ways it supports human wellbeing. The shifting anthropocene provides the basis for how people can act to improve their lives in this decade and that provides the background for the conference.

The conference, which is attempting to better integrate the community of researchers working on sustainability and global change (importantly not just climate change), and to focus more on how to solve rather than only document problem. There are lots of resilience researchers at the conference. A partial list of Stockholm Resilience Centre participation is on our website.

The conference website is live streaming on the web, the conference programme is here, the conference has the tag #planet2012 on twitter, and also has a blog.

The conference organizers are also experimenting with a variety of atypical scientific conference activities (e.g. a debategraph, globally distributed events ) to try and improve innovation and connect the conference to the world. And that is helping me watch a bit of the conference while I am on parental leave in Stockholm.

Peatlands as complex adaptive systems

Shifting states. (Left) Hummock-hollow pattern at Rygmossen, a small raised bog near Uppsala, Sweden. (Right) "Ladder" system of ridges and pools, Inverewe Bogs, Scotland. Persistent environmental change, such as a long-term increase in climate wetness, can trigger a shift from one such peatland type to another.

Shifting states. (Left) Hummock-hollow pattern at Rygmossen, a small raised bog near Uppsala, Sweden. (Right) "Ladder" system of ridges and pools, Inverewe Bogs, Scotland. Persistent environmental change, such as a long-term increase in climate wetness, can trigger a shift from one such peatland type to another.

In a Perspective in Science, Nancy Dise reviews how the response of peatlands to global change will be complex (doi:10.1126/science.1174268). She writes:

Research from a variety of areas and approaches is converging upon the concept of peatlands as complex adaptive systems: self-regulating to some degree, but capable of rapid change and reorganization in response to internal developmental changes or to external forcing (4). It has long been known, for instance, that the surface of a peatland can rise and fall, sometimes dramatically, in response to rainfall or mild drought, while maintaining a fairly constant water level relative to the surface. This “Mooratmung” (“bog-breathing”) is related to the sponge-like nature of Sphagnum, which can adsorb water and trap gases. Recent studies have shown that the carbon balance of peatlands can in turn be surprisingly resilient to perturbations, even fairly severe ones. For example, subjecting peat cores (5) or a peatland field site (6) to a water table drawdown similar to a prolonged drought initially led to a respiration-driven loss of soil carbon. But both carbon loss and subsidence (6) lowered the peat surface, decreasing its height above the water table, and effectively shifted the system back toward its starting state. Conversely, a rising water table stimulated growth of Sphagnum and other vegetation, which increased carbon accumulation, raised the surface of the peat and, in effect, lowered the local water table (5). Thus, an environmental perturbation may trigger an initial gain or loss of carbon, but recovery in the direction of the initial state can moderate the impact.

Long-term global changes—particularly warming, drought, and elevated nitrogen deposition—are likely to ultimately induce shifts in some existing peat-forming areas to new ecosystems such as grassland or shrubland (10, 11), and the increase in biomass from vascular plants could in part compensate for carbon losses from soil oxidation during the transition. However, even if some net carbon accumulation returns, the gains are short-lived: The key peatland quality of slowly removing and storing carbon for hundreds or thousands of years is lost.

Considering peatlands as complex adaptive systems characterized by quasistable equilibrium states—resilient to change at some level of perturbation but shifting to new states at higher levels of disturbance—provides a meaningful framework for understanding and modeling their response to environmental change. Ignoring the strong feedbacks inherent in peatlands may lead to substantial under- or overestimates of their response to global change. The challenge is to forecast both the future environmental conditions that peatlands will experience and the internal feedbacks and state changes that may be triggered by these conditions. To meet this challenge it is vital to continue and expand long-term monitoring networks to characterize the present, paleo-environment research to reconstruct the past, and manipulation experiments in the field and laboratory to build our understanding of these unique and valuable ecosystems.

Global change and missing institutions

In  Science Policy Forum, Brian Walker and others have a policy forum in Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions, in which they argue that the the global order of nation-state’s has improved the well-being of many people at the cost of global resilience, and that building global resilience requires more interaction among existing global institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.  They write:

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects. The core of the problem is inducing cooperation in situations where individuals and nations will collectively gain if all cooperate, but each faces the temptation to take a free ride on the cooperation of others. The nation-state achieves cooperation by the exercise of sovereign power within its boundaries. The difficulty to date is that transnational institutions provide, at best, only partial solutions, and implementation of even these solutions can be undermined by international competition and recalcitrance.

…Of special importance are rules that apply universally, such as the peremptory, or jus cogens, norms proscribing activities like genocide or torture. Failure to stop genocide in Rwanda spurred efforts to establish a new “responsibility to protect” humanitarian norm (12). As threats to sustainability increase, norms for behavior toward the global environment are also likely to become part of the jus cogens set.

The responsibility to protect rests in the first instance with the state having sovereignty over its population. Only in the event that the state is unable or unwilling to protect its people are other states obligated to intervene. The challenge is not just to declare the principle but to ensure its acceptance and enforcement. Acceptance is needed for legitimacy, and enforcement will depend on whether states are willing to make the necessary sacrifices. If the responsibility to protect is to apply to the environment as well, these same challenges will need to be overcome. We use three examples to illustrate how institutional development might proceed.

Climate change. International climate agreements must be designed to align national and global interests and curb free-riding. Borrowing from the WTO architecture, the linkage between trade and the environment could be incorporated within a new climate treaty to enforce emission limits for trade-sensitive sectors. New global standards could establish a climate-friendly framework with supporting payments, e.g., for technology transfer, to encourage developing country participation. In this context, trade restrictions applied to non-participants would be legitimate and credible, because participating parties would not want nonparties to have trade advantages.

Coevolution of institutions offers a pathway to further progress. Recently, the Montreal Protocol strengthened its controls on hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), manufacture of which produces hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as a by-product. HFCs do not affect ozone and are not controlled under the Montreal Protocol. However, they are greenhouse gases (GHGs), controlled under the Kyoto Protocol. The Montreal Protocol should now either be amended to control HFCs directly or else a new agreement, styled after the Montreal Protocol, should be developed under the Framework Convention to control HFCs.

High-seas fisheries. The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which was adopted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1995 was a positive step, but because adherence is voluntary, it has had little effect. Another approach would be to develop a norm, akin to the responsibility to protect (12), requiring all states responsible for managing a fishery to intercede when a state fails to fulfill its obligations. Credible enforcement is a challenge, but efforts by major powers to enforce a U.N. General Assembly ban on large-scale drift-net fishing offers hope that an emerging norm can be enforced (13).

Drug resistance. Addressing drug resistance demands global standards. The International Health Regulations (IHRs) are an international legal instrument that is binding on 194 countries, including all the member states of the World Health Organization. It currently establishes minimum standards for infectious disease surveillance, but could be amended to promote standards for drug use. For example, monotherapy treatments for malaria are cheaper but more prone to encourage resistance in mosquitoes than combination therapy drugs. Their use should be limited in favor of the more expensive combination therapy drugs. One approach to global action would be an amendment to the IHRs that obligated all member countries to collective action to promote combination therapies, supported by global subsidies, and to discourage, or even prohibit, monotherapies (14).

Intensive agriculture’s ecological surprises

regime shift cartoon from TREE paperRhitu Chatterjee has written a news article Intensive agriculture’s ecological surprises in Environ. Sci. Technol. (July 2, 2008) about a paper Agricultural modifications of hydrological flows create ecological surprises (doi:10.1016/j.tree.2007.11.011) that Line Gordon, Elena Bennett and I published in TREE earlier this year.  From the article:

Previous reports have outlined ways that agriculture alters ecosystems by changing hydrology. The new study, led by Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, classifies these changes, or “regime shifts”, from one ecological state to another into three categories: through agriculture’s interaction with aquatic systems, as in the case of nutrient runoff; in the interactions of plants and soil, as in Australia’s salinity issues; or by influencing atmospheric processes such as evaporation and loss of water by plants (transpiration), as in the rapid drying of the Sahel in sub-Saharan Africa.

The authors “make it clear that agricultural practices result in these regime changes by altering water quality and available quantity,” says Deborah Bossio, a water expert at Sri Lanka’s International Water Management Institute.

“The increasing demand for food, feed, and fuel is placing enormous pressure on the world’s arable lands,” says ecologist Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia (Canada). Awareness of agriculture-related environmental problems has been growing in the past few years, says Bossio. But some of that awareness has been lost in the “current frenzy of global food crisis shifting the balance back toward increasing yield.”

Be it the desertification of the Sahel, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or the increasing salinity in Australia, countries all over the world are already trying to solve some of these problems. But the fixes are not quick, and the results of their efforts are often hard to predict.

Given the difficult-to-repair, or even irreparable, nature of the problems, agricultural systems must be made resilient to change, the authors argue. The new study adds to “the increasing chorus of voices” that emphasizes the need to avoid irreversible ecological damage, says Donner.

However, the science of understanding ecological regime shifts is still young, which makes it difficult to predict when the changes will manifest. “The tipping points aren’t very well understood at all,” says Bossio. Researchers first need to understand the various biophysical factors involved and how those factors interact with one another, the authors say.

For now, ecologists, agronomists, and regulators can acknowledge the problem and encourage certain practices to minimize the likelihood of some of these water-related changes. People should begin by viewing agriculture not simply as a source of food but also as a source of ecosystem services like water and biodiversity, says coauthor Garry Peterson of McGill University (Canada). For example, Australian farmers are adopting mosaic farming, which involves combining annual crops, pastures, and perennial trees into the same landscape. This restores biodiversity and hydrology and prevents the rise of salinity.

“If we don’t heed the management lessons from the past, many of which are listed in the paper, we are bound to face many more ecological surprises in the coming decades,” says Donner.