Tag Archives: will steffen

Links: death threats, uprisings, social memory, nature, and LIDAR

1) From Nature News, death threats are being sent to Australian climate scientists, including our Stockholm Resilience Centre colleague Will Steffen.  More information from Australia’s ABC news 1 & 2.

2) How well are researchers able to forecast popular uprisings? Some reflections from political scientist Jay Ulfelder.

3) Economists argue that the long-gone Habsburg Empire is still visible in Eastern European bureaucracies today on Vox.eu.

4) Novelist TC Boyle, recommends five books on people and nature.  He recently wrote a good novel, When the Killings Done, on the control of invasive species in California.

5) Also from Nature News, Greg Asner and colleagues have developed a digital catalogue of the chemical and optical properties of some 4,700 plant species in different conditions. By using this information to analyze high resolution LIDAR images from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, Asner hopes that they will be able to identify the species of individual trees.

A report from the Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability

Below is a guest post from Megan Meacham, a former Masters student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, on the final day of the recent Stockholm Nobel laureate symposium.

The final day of the symposium, titled The Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability – Seizing Planetary Opportunities, gathered some of the world’s leading scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and representatives from civil society together with a broad audience to have a discussion of the solutions, actions and leadership necessary for global sustainability.

The event and venue itself aimed to represent the holistic multi-perspective approach needed for global sustainability. The dialogue was held in the Royal Dramatic Theatre, the most prestigious and opulent theater in Sweden. Marie-Louise Ekman, director of the theater, emphasized theater as an infrastructure in society, guiding and reflecting society and necessary for a secure and prosperous world. Ms. Ekman and Sten Nordin, mayor of Stockholm, both stressed the key relationship between art and science. Art is a way for society to reflect on itself, challenge itself and aspire. Art can activate peoples’ emotions. Science can use this to motivate action. A common theme of the dialogue was the question of communication.  How to translate scientific findings and knowns into societal understanding and action? Art is a powerful tool, exemplified on this occasion by the reading of poetry by the Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska.

General themes present throughout the day’s discussion were taken from “The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping the Scales towards Sustainability,” the recommendations developed over the previous days of the Nobel Laureate Symposium. Questions of social equality, redefining growth and development, leadership, the need for a ‘mind-shift’ in society along with communication between science and society were discussed to varying degrees in all the talks and panel discussions.

Generally agreed upon, was the need for new metrics to gauge and discuss growth. Growth domestic product (GDP) is a narrow index that does not represent the wellbeing, social equality or trajectory of society. Trading easily quantifiable indexes for more representative ones will help to falsify the idea that quality of life is based on material aggregation.

Development was discussed as an opportunity for focusing societal aspirations toward more qualitative and long-term prosperity goals. According to Pavan Sukhdev from UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, developing countries are leading the way in terms of experimentation, innovation and action when it comes to prevention and mitigation of climate change and its effects. Encouraging and rewarding this flexibility and creativity is one way to alter the trajectory of development.

Fostering a transition in society in a way that prioritizes global sustainability requires a mind-shift; focusing society towards understanding the risks facing humanity and creating conditions conducive to innovation and change. A general sense of urgency was express by all the speakers in regards to the need for this change. Considering how to facilitate this mind-shift, emphasis was put on strengthening communication and fostering leadership.

Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate for chemistry in 2003, argued that the accessibility of the science on global sustainability lies in the principals. It is the details that are complicated. Katherine Richardson, Professor of biological sciences at the University of Copenhagen, made a similar point calling for the communication of issues through headlines that people understand. American ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, argued that the terminology used in the discussion of global sustainability can be discouraging action. Replacing the term ‘challenge’ with ‘opportunity’, for example, can alter how people perceive the issue.

Ultimately, the discussion ended on the role of leadership in times of rapid global change. Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, argued that at the international scale leadership was lacking from the developed nations. She suggests that they are not taking responsibly for their role in making structural changes for global sustainability and instead practicing, “creative carbon accounting.” On the national level, Will Steffen gave a positive example of leadership from the Australian cross-party panel on climate change. That have four sectors (science, economics, industry, and social equity rights) represented with equal voting rights to make the national decisions on climate change. On the individual level Frances Westley argued most adamantly for people to, “Start where you are and do what you are good at.” It is policy’s role to provide the incentives or sanctions that afford opportunities and an innovative environment. They ended by suggesting to everyone to take risks and not to be afraid, because guilt and fear will not help the transition to global sustainability.

The program and list of participants can be found at http://globalsymposium2011.org/ .

Is a Good Anthropocene Possible?

Will Steffen and I gave contrasting talks in a Mock Court on the meaning of the Anthropocene at the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability in Stockholm.  The talks are now online, along with other talks from the symposium (I recommend Frances Westley‘s on innovation).

Will and I were arguing about four charges (defined by the Symposium organizers):

  1. Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch.
  2. Humanity is at risk of pushing the planet across catastrophic tipping points.
  3. Incrementality is dead as a strategy for human development in an era of rapid global change
  4. Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries (within the intrinsic boundaries of the Earth System).

I accepted Will’s case on the first, but argued against 2&3 and for 4.  The jury of Nobel Laureate ruled.

  1. Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch. Yes
  2. Humanity is at risk of pushing the planet across catastrophic tipping points. Lack of evidence.  The key sticking point here was the word “catastrophic”.
  3. Incrementality is dead as a strategy for human development in an era of rapid global change.  No
  4. Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries (within the intrinsic boundaries of the Earth System). Yes (But the key word is can – there is no guarantee humanity will.)

Nobel Symposium in Stockholm

I just argued the human role in the Anthropocene with Will Steffen at the 2011 Nobel Laureate Symposium in Stockholm.  In a mock court, in front of a jury of Nobelists, I successfully argued that:

1) Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch, but 4) Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene

2) Humanity has substantial capacity to cope with tipping points, they do not represent “catastrophic change” (from the perspective of humanity).

3) Humanity needs learn how to cope with a novel, turbulent world requires change – based on learning, experimentation, diversity.

The rest of the symposium is is being broadcast on the web.

The symposium’s website provides a description of the meeting:

This third Nobel Laureate Symposium will focus on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change.

Climate change, decreasing biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystems, poverty and a continuously growing population all contribute to reducing the planet’s resilience and may have catastrophic implications for humanity.

Each of these problems has attracted great attention from the international community, but they have invariably been considered in isolation, with little or no regard to the interactions between them.

It is time to change this approach.

The Symposium is organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Stockholm Environment Institute, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research.

The Symposium, organised with the participation and support of HM King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, will provide an informal setting for productive discussions on how we can transform current governance into a more sustainable and adaptive management approach that operates within the boundaries of the planet.

It will take place at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm between 16-19 May and will include a mix of plenary presentations, panel discussions and working group sessions. The Symposium will be concluded with a Royal dinner hosted by HM Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

Visualizing the great acceleration – part ii

The New Scientist adapted graphs from Will Steffen’s and others 2004 Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure for their feature How our economy is killing the Earth.

The three graphs show

  1. first how various drivers of change have accelerated,
  2. how these human changes have driven change in the Earth system, and finally –
  3. when these graphs are combined the accelerating growth of human civilization’s impact on the planet is clear.

(click on graphs for larger versions)

Visualizing the great acceleration

A visualization of the great acceleration from the Encyclopedia of the Earth article Evolution of the human-environment relationship by Costanza and others.

Figure 1. Selected indicators of environmental and human history.

While this depiction of past events is integrative and suggestive of major patterns and developments in the human-environment interaction, it plots only coincidence, not causation, and must, of course, be supplemented with integrated models and narratives of causation.

In this graph, time is plotted on the vertical axis on a log scale running from 100,000 years before present (BP) until now. Technological events are listed on the right side and cultural/political events are listed on the left.

Biologically modern humans arose at least 100,000 yrs BP and probably more than 200,000 – 250,000 yrs BP, but sedentism (and later agriculture) did not start until after the end of the last ice age and the dramatic warming and stabilization of climate that occurred around 10,000 yrs BP, at the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary.

Northern Hemisphere temperature can be reconstructed for this entire period from ice core data, combined with the instrument record from 1850 until the present.

Human population fluctuated globally at around 1 million until the advent of agriculture, after which it began to increase exponentially (with some declines as during the black death in Europe) to a current population of over 6 Billion.

Gross World Product (GWP) followed with some lag as people tapped new energy sources such as wind and eventually fossil fuels.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) closely track population, GWP and energy use for the last 150 years.

The start of the “Great Acceleration” after WWII can be clearly seen in the GWP, population, and water withdrawal plots.

The plot for “SE Asian Monsoons” shows the long-term variability in this important regional precipitation pattern.

Patterns in land use are shown as the fraction of land in forest, cropland, and in the “three largest polities”. This area in large “polities” or sovereign political entities has increased over time, with significant peaks at the height of the Roman, Islamic Caliphate, Mongol, and British empires. Currently the three largest polities are Russia, Canada, and China, together covering about 32% of the land surface. At the peak of the British empire in 1925, the 3 largest were Britain, Russia, and France, together covering about 53% of the land surface before the independence of British and French colonies.