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One Scientist’s Hopeful View On How To Repair The Planet

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This story was first published by Yale Environment 360.


For a researcher who studies how humanity is pushing the earth close to potentially disastrous tipping points, Johan Rockström is surprisingly optimistic. Although he reckons that our species has crossed four of nine “planetary boundaries” — including those on climate change and deforestation — he believes there is still time to pull back from the brink and create a sustainable future based on renewable energy and a “circular” economy that continually reuses resources.


In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Rockström — executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and author of a new book, Big World, Small Planet — offers his take on the state of the planet and explains why he thinks there has “never been so much reason for hope as today.” He outlines how humanity can step back inside planetary boundaries, which he calls “the safe operating space of the hard-wired biophysical process of the earth’s system,” and describes how an alignment of science, technological advances, and a growing public and political hunger for action will get civilization back on track.


“It’s not a journey where we are backing into the caves,” says Rockström. “It’s a journey of high technology, good health, of better democracy, and huge, multiple benefits that [go] well beyond saving the planet.”


Yale Environment 360: As you lay out in your book, the period of the Holocene — basically the last 12,000 years — was stable and conducive to the flourishing of human civilizations. Opinions differ on when the earth entered the Anthropocene. Where do you mark the beginning point?


Johan Rockström: What does the Anthropocene really mean? It means, strictly speaking, that we humans have become a global force of change at the planetary scale, surpassing the magnitude and frequency of natural changes to the planet.


If you look back over the past 12,000 years, over the entire Holocene period, it’s true that we started domesticating animals and plants, we started to move out from our hunter and gatherer society to cut down forests and start the transformation of land. But it’s clear that through that entire period — from 8,000 years back all up until the mid-1950s — we see no evidence of humans affecting the resilience and stability of the entire earth system. Then something happens in the mid-1950s, which is clearly the exponential rise of human pressure on the planet. And then these exponential rises are multiple, from greenhouse gases all the way to loss of biodiversity, eutrophication, deforestation, land degradation, pollution of water. So essentially the whole set of parameters putting pressure on the earth system kicks off in the 1950s. So to me, that’s the entry of the Anthropocene. If you would push me really hard, I would actually say perhaps we didn’t enter the Anthropocene truly until the end of 1989. Because from 1955 up until the late 1980s, the earth system was clearly so resilient that it could buffer even that exponential rise in pressure. 


So even though we were the largest pressure point, it didn’t result in abrupt shocks and stresses. It didn’t lead the earth system to start sending big shocks and waves — or what I often call invoices — back. It’s not until 1989-90 that we start to see big collapses. The codfish fished out of Newfoundland in 1990, big freshwater systems flipping over from oxygen-rich to anoxic, the Baltic Sea flipping over, the accelerated melt of Arctic sea ice, ecosystems going from productive to degraded states. 


e360: You and colleagues have determined nine planetary boundaries — safe operating zones, as you put it. We’ve already exceeded four of them, including the climate boundary of 350 parts per million of CO2. Where else are we doing badly? 


Rockström: It’s our most recent assessment, which was published in Science in January 2015, which concludes that we’ve transgressed four boundaries. So apart from climate change, it’s on biodiversity loss, eutrophication — interference with the global nitrogen and phosphorous cycles — and it’s on deforestation, or global land-use change. These are the ones that are already in the danger zone. 


e360: Your other planetary boundaries include ocean acidification, freshwater consumption, and a few others. You write that adhering to these boundaries won’t hinder economic growth, even with an expected global population of 9 billion. Lay out how that’s possible. 


Rockström: To begin with, it’s important to understand what the planetary boundary framework is. As a thought experiment, we can take humans away from planet earth, and place every human being on another planet for a moment. And what we do is simply try to interview Mother Earth, and ask her, “Where are your biophysical boundaries beyond which we see changes in feedbacks that lead to crossing of thresholds that can take us out of the Holocene equilibrium?” And science has now advanced so far over the last 30 years, in particular, that we are able to translate the voice of earth into quantified bounds. These nine processes are the ones that regulate the stability of the earth system. Once quantified, they give us the safe operating space of the hard-wired biophysical process of the earth’s system. They have nothing to do with humans. It’s really the biophysical boundaries. Once these are defined, we can put humans back. And then something quite interesting may occur, because the question arises, “Is there anything in the planetary boundary research that hinders growth?” And the answer is no. Because we have a safe operating space, which is the safe playing ground for humans.


If you define growth [only] in GDP terms, then you are always at risk of pushing us outside the boundaries.’


So I give you one example: Is it possible to think of a world economy growing, but powered by the sun instead of fossil fuels? Meaning that we would stay safe on climate, and still have a high degree of modern energy use that could power economic development in the world. And the answer is yes. Now, if you define growth in GDP terms, where you have no consideration whatsoever of the deterioration and use of natural capital, then of course you are always at risk of pushing us outside of the boundaries. But if you combine a zero-carbon economy — an energy system that is entirely renewable — with a circular economic logic, where you try to recycle all the resources and all the ecosystem functions and services that you’re tapping out of the earth system, you can actually think of a world that has good economic development within a safe operating space. Now, at the end of the day, you can’t be 100 percent sustainable. But I think it’s fair to say today that we have enough evidence that we can actually deliver sustainable economic development. We’re saying that people and the planet can go hand-in-hand. There is therefore not, in the strictest sense, a limit to growth.


e360: Is the vision of a stable Anthropocene dependent on technologies that have yet to be developed?


Rockström: Well, yes and no. To me, a good Anthropocene is that we stay within Holocene-like conditions. Technologies will play a fundamental role in allowing a transformation to a zero-carbon future. I don’t believe, though, that that transition will easily be accomplished through large-scale geoengineering. It’s rather about innovations in the energy system, in mobility, in energy efficiencies, construction. And also, fundamentally, in the way we produce goods and services. So I think the innovation towards circular economic models is absolutely fundamental and, in particular, for the food system to produce food in sustainable ways that can deliver to nine, ten billion people. But I wouldn’t exclude some large-scale technological innovations to help us. For example, carbon storage and capture, or a breakthrough in fuel cell technology that can go to scale in ways that we do not see today. You can think of next-generation nuclear power, which we haven’t seen yet. So, technologies will, and do already, play a very important role. Just five years back you couldn’t say that renewable energy could be delivered to scale. Today we can with solar and wind, which is quite remarkable. 


But technology alone will not do the job. It will require behavioral change and new values. We need a mind shift. We need to reconnect our human societies with biospheres, and we need to work with nature, not against it.


e360: Are there strategies that you would encourage that could expedite such a mind shift?


Rockström: We need to work with the humanistic dimension of ethics, of responsibility, of thinking inter-generationally and, quite frankly, to nurture the love of our planet, the beauty in nature. At one point in this book we say that we don’t believe that any human being wakes up in the morning with a deliberate attempt to destroy the planet. It’s simply that we are stuck in a logic, where, despite our love for our planet, we destroy her anyway, because we are stuck in a path that, just to live our lives, we cannot be fully sustainable. And the mind shift is really about putting the planet first, and then evolving from there to allow us to be much smarter about resolving these current conflicts between sustainability and development. It’s not a journey where we are backing into the caves. It’s a journey of high technology, good health, of better democracy, and huge, multiple benefits. It’s really about a high-tech — what I call a Tesla — future. It’s a future that is techier, cooler, desirable, healthier, and therefore a very exciting journey.


Technology alone will not do the job. It will require behavioral change and new values. We need a mind shift.


e360: When President Obama visited Alaska recently to sound the alarm about climate change, critics pointed to the irony of that trip, considering his decision to allow Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic. In response, the President’s senior adviser on science and technology said, quote, “We might wish for an instantaneous transformation that was drastically less reliant on oil and gas. But we don’t live in a magical world.” What’s your reaction to that? 


Rockström: There is of course, a fundamental contradiction here. And the contradiction is so blatant because, on the one hand, both [Secretary of State] John Kerry and President Obama point out very clearly that the climate risks in the world are not only urgent, they’re potentially catastrophic, and things are moving too slowly because we need a transformation to an essentially zero-carbon world economy by 2050, 2070. And then secondly, they like to point out that this is not a journey of sacrifice, it’s a journey of opportunity. But then Kerry says, “Oops, we cannot phase out oil in the short term, because we simply need a transitional phase, and we don’t have this magic wand that would enable us to abruptly shift out of oil.” And that to me is problematic because either you ride on the risk analysis and on the description of this huge opportunity arising, or you ride on the argument that, in fact, these renewable technologies are not scalable. So because we need cheap energy, we need to continue on oil.


And I think the reason why you’re hearing these contradictory arguments is that we are in a very exciting transitional phase right now. Just three, four years back, the argument that we needed cheap energy, fossil fuel energy systems, because we cannot scale novel technologies, was correct when solar was 0.2, 0.3, or up to 1 percent of the energy mix. Today that’s not true at all. China, Germany, parts of the U.S., Denmark are going to scale with wind and solar and biomass in ways that were impossible to predict. In fact they’ve gone totally through the roof compared to any optimistic assessment just three, four years back. So now we’re in a transitional phase where, for the first time, we can say, “Yes, we have the largest planet risk ever, and yes, we have a solution that is scalable.”


So I think he [President Obama] is making a cold calculation that, “I cannot domestically go head-on with all of my desired arguments on a phase-out of fossil fuels — I have to make some compromise.” What he has decided is to allow for exploration. And then count on, in three or four years, oil will not be very attractive. I mean, with current oil prices, there’s no way at all that any oil will be taken out of the Arctic, which is now under sea ice.


e360: The U.N. met to formally adopt 17 sustainable development goals that address a wide range of issues. Do you see the concept of planetary boundaries being taken into account in those goals?


Rockström: Yes, I do. The Sustainable Development Goals say that we want world development within quantitative, scientifically defined, global environmental goals. And four of the 17 goals are planetary boundaries. There is a climate goal, a freshwater goal, a biodiversity goal, and an ocean goal. 


But actually all the other five boundaries are inside the sustainable development goals. We’re really in a dire state in terms of both social and environmental risks in the world, and we need a new logic where people and planet operate in harmony, and if you translate that to the goals, it’s clear that it’s a world that develops within a safe operating space. It is a shift toward a logic that aligns itself with the planetary boundary framework.


What keeps me awake at night is the slow pace of change, and that we win one, and then lose one.’


e360: With climate negotiations set to begin in Paris, you’ve said that we’ve reached a “Montreal moment in climate.” What do you mean by that?


Rockström: In 1987, the world agreed to come back to the safe operating space on one of the nine boundaries, namely the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer — the layer that protects us from dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Scientists identified the risks from chlorofluorocarbons from refrigerators and cooling systems. And the Montreal Protocol was a phenomenal success. The world actually took itself from a danger zone back into the safe operating space. How did this happen? Well, the industry actually had technologies that it went to scale with and, moreover, actually delivered not only a safer future, but cheaper and more advanced technology. And when you analyze that success, you find that three criteria were in place. One, the science was established, and policy makers and industry believed in the science. The second is that technology was available, and industry was ready to move. And third, you had policy makers that were ready to act.


For climate, these criteria have never been fulfilled. So you’ve had debates on science. You have never been able to talk convincingly about solutions. They’ve never been scalable. Shell and BP will say, “We trust the science, but we are forced to drill for oil, because it’s the only way to power the world economy.” And third, we haven’t had a kind of an alignment in terms of policy. And now, in 2015, for the first time, you actually see that we’ve seen a Montreal moment on climate. Because the science is now so well established, and the technologies are available and scalable. And we have a completely new policy and business recognition that this is not only a risk we need to solve but it’s an opportunity that we can grasp. And that was not there just a few years back.


e360: Your book has quite an optimistic tone. By your estimation, though, we’ve got a decade to accomplish the mind shift and begin operating within the planetary boundaries. You’ve also said that if bold decisions are taken this year, you’re optimistic that the future will be bright. But what keeps you up at night?


Rockström: I’m convinced that the world has crossed a social tipping point. We’ve tipped over to a logic where it’s clear that sustainability is the future for humanity. But what keeps me awake at night is the slow pace of change, and that we win one, and then lose one. We see Australia investing in coal mines. We see Canada being a slow mover. We see India with an uncertain position. We see a world that is in a very nervous state with regards to terrorism, fundamentalist Islamic movements, and the economy.


So with all of this social, geopolitical turbulence and ups and downs, when it comes to really moving forward on solving the climate challenge and grasping the opportunities, will we really be able to turn the tide in five to ten years? Will we be able to avoid the earth system pushing these hard-wired “on” buttons that will take us irreversibly in the wrong direction? So it’s a very interesting moment right now. There’s never been a reason to be so nervous as today, but never has there been so much reason for hope as today. And the question is where will we take it.


Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview, is a regular contributor to Yale Environment 360. Toomey is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report, and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She currently is an associate researcher at the PBS science show NOVA.

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