Planetary boundaries or opportunities?

There’s a tension simmering beneath the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference in an unexpected area. Stranger still was its full frontal exposure in the first hour of the proceedings.

It’s all to do with planetary boundaries. This concept has been a welcome success story for science communications. People and the media latch on to the idea of nine critical environmental indicators, the graphics are great, and the International Council for Science wants to crown this triumph with a reference to planetary boundaries in the holy text of the Rio+20 summit.

This would ensure that social and economic decisions at Rio+20 are framed in a context of environmental urgency (and that research funds flow).

But there’s a miniature time-bomb ticking in the shape of a paper to be published in the journal BioScience in the same month as the Rio event. Contributors include many of the leading participants in the London conference, notably Elinor Ostrom, the event’s chief scientific adviser.

Here’s the opening of the abstract:

The global change research community needs to renew its social contract with society by moving beyond a focus on biophysical limits and towards solution-oriented research

To stress the aversion to scary limits, the paper appears to give planetary boundaries a makeover:

We propose a scientific focus on “planetary opportunities” to address the middle ground

There’s even a new graphic to compete with the familiar cheese-wedge imagery of the boundaries.

More controversially, the paper substantiates its thesis by reference to history’s reassuring examples of “human ingenuity” in tackling environmental challenges. Its examples range from the advent of farming to action on the American dust bowl in the 1930s.

The Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference has bought into this softer approach to environmental limits. It’s all about scientists seeking solutions to human problems and working with other sectors.

The plenary was duly opened by Diana Liverman, cheer-leader for positive thinking and a contributor to the BioScience paper (which she mentioned briefly in her speech).

In reviewing the drivers of global environmental change in the period since 2000, the Professor of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona made a determined pitch that human society is not doing quite as badly as we think. The rate of population growth is falling significantly while energy intensity, deforestation and nitrogen pollution are all showing signs of improvement.

Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and contributor to the landmark 2009 paper on planetary boundaries portrayed a quite different picture of this recent decade.

Never mind the social and economic statistics. The key environmental danger signs for the planet, led by interference in the nitrogen and carbon cycles, are all accelerating in the wrong direction (with the exception of atmospheric ozone).

He was in no mood to leave out the unsettling language of tipping points and non-linear abrupt change, as illustrated by the potential thawing of the Greenland ice sheet and the permafrost compost bomb. From there it’s a short distance to a new and very uncomfortable steady state of the earth system, with no return ticket available.

Further light on the debate was shone from the unlikely (and possibly unintended) source of Anthony Giddens, one of the world’s best known political scientists, who spoke after the break. Updating the now familiar thesis of his book, The Politics of Climate Change, he pointed out that the traditional strategy for human survival is to tame nature.

Now we’re trying to tame ourselves to protect nature. “How different this is from previous civilisations,” he said, in apparent contradiction of the BioScience paper. “We cannot trust historical experience to resolve (environmental problems).”

It was all smiles on the opening morning of the conference and the speakers insisted that their views are complementary.

I suspect the bonhomie may fade at any hint that the flow of research funds might not be sufficient to investigate both planetary boundaries and opportunities.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK