I turned 34 last week. On my birthday I happened to be attending the Planet Under Pressure science conference in London. So there I was, with about 3000 others, listening to world’s leading earth system scientists and trying to comprehend how the world could look like when I turn 70.
That future could be bright. I might be a pensioner in a world that provides enough food, water and well-being for everyone, that has protected its oceans, forests and the richness of species and is powered by renewable energy. We may be happier and our societies more equal, pursuing true well-being rather than chasing growth. (Perhaps we also trust each other more?)
But with current trends, things could also be truly frightening. In fact, it’s difficult to even try to comprehend the changes I could live to witness, if trends aren’t reversed. It’s not just about future generations anymore. The polar regions are already melting dramatically and permafrost thawing. The Amazon rainforest has gone through two extreme droughts in a short period, reinforcing concerns that it could be reaching a tipping point where large areas of forest could be replaced by savanna. Species loss is accelerating and 15 out of 24 major ecosystem services (things such as the water cycle we all depend on) are being degraded or overused. Oceans are becoming more acidic at a speed and to a degree we haven’t seen in at least 60 to 300 million years, threatening marine life, already under stress due to warming waters and gross overfishing. Massive challenges to food and freshwater supply loom as consumption and human population both grow. And the list goes on. It’s all interconnected. In fact, we’ve already crossed 3 out of 9 "planetary boundaries", a concept frequently cited at the London conference and an attempt to define biophysical thresholds we shouldn't cross to avoid possibly disastrous consequences for humanity.
“This is a critical decade. (…) We’re running out of time. We can’t say another five years, let’s go on and revisit it. It has to start now. It should have started (…) a decade or decades ago. This really is the last call, this decade.” (Will Steffen, Australian National University)
Now how is one supposed to deal with these frightening facts?
The more alarming the science gets, the more difficult it is for us citizens to believe it, to truly take it in and to act on it – especially if we don’t see politicians acting as if there was a serious crisis out there (that isn´t about banks). Scientists are struggling to get the message through in a way that would engage people. Unlike politicians, they’re rarely trained to be good communicators.
“We recognize as climate scientists that we’re not perhaps the best communicators in the world. (…) We’re scientists so we have to communicate the science in our way. We can’t say ‘black is black’. We can say ‘it appears to be black but we can’t rule out the possibility that it might be dark grey’”.
(David Griggs, World Climate Research Programme, Australia)
Interestingly, work presented by Hebba Haddad from Exeter University found that people actively avoid messages that communicate uncertainty. It makes them averse to acting. (This is quite disturbing actually, given that science is always inherently uncertain and one of the greatest advances of environmental policy is the "precautionary principle", which requires us to act even without certainty if not acting could lead to negative outcomes.) To overcome this, scientists should try a more open and informal tone, she argues. Scientists need to create trust and engage people. This will also create space to discuss uncertainty and put it into context. I agree, because when people ask scientists how serious something is, it’s often not just the numbers they’re after. They’re keen to know how the person feels about it as a mother or a scientist who has observed the issue for a long time. Ironically, scientists may need to speak more often as people rather than purely as scientists in order for society to act on science.
What was clear on my birthday in London was that the earth science community is eager to play a more active role in enabling change. They want to be more integrated, solutions-oriented and “user friendly.” And they want to think big. In this spirit an ambitious new 10-year science initiative called "Future Earth", was announced in London as an alliance of international partners from global science, research funding and UN bodies.
“Now it’s the time to show that scientific community can make a difference. We need to be acting on our own findings.” (Johan Rockström, co-chair of Future Earth Transition Team)
The official launch of the Future Earth takes place at the Earth Summit in Rio. Talking about which...
Scientists can provide us with data and tools, but they can’t decide that we’ll live within planetary boundaries. Political and business leaders carry the responsibility for action. In parallel with the scientific conference in London, government negotiators in New York were preparing for the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit. It was not going well. Governments are not agreeing on the collective action that would change the course of alarming trends. The US government, for example, said that they have a problem with the word "commit". Not a good start if what we really need is not just commitment, but real action.
I recommend to all Rio negotiators to read the "State of the Planet" declaration from the Planet Under Pressure conference before the next negotiating session, starting on the 23rd of April. Nobody who reads it can doubt the need for urgent action.
If Brazil wants to be a credible host of the Summit, they need to act to save the Amazon –as our Rainbow Warrior is currently making loud and clear. But as the problems we face are global other governments, too, must act now to curb emissions, end deforestation and protect our oceans. They need to bring those actions as gifts to Rio. It is the critical decade we live in now that will define my 70th birthday.
Kaisa Kosonen is a Senior Political Advisor at Greenpeace International