Scientists welcome Anthropocene with less science, more solutions

The world’s leading earth scientists have been summoned to a London conference in a last ditch attempt to influence the outcome of the UN summit on the future of people and the planet in Rio de Janeiro in June.

Radical change in the approach to science itself is also on the agenda for the event which starts tomorrow.

Although Planet Under Pressure 2012 includes an update on the state of the earth’s ecosystems, its overall programme reflects anxiety about the future direction of research and the need for scientists to interact with the social and political dimensions of the environmental crisis.

“The focus must shift from documenting problems to supporting solutions,” warns Dr Mark Stafford Smith, Co-chair of the conference and a climate specialist at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

The head of the delegation from Arizona State University, Sander van der Leeuw, has been more forthright. “The whole of the research agenda for sustainability science for the next several years will be recast and the funding reorganized to take account of the discussions at this conference,” said the dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability.

If the many American scientists attending the conference imagine they can escape the unsettling evidence of climate instability in their country’s unseasonable heatwave, they will be disappointed. Temperatures in parts of the South of England approached record highs yesterday and are set to continue.

The scientific sponsor of Planet Under Pressure 2012 is the International Council for Science. Representing the world’s national scientific bodies, the ICSU is responsible for the science community’s formal submission to the negotiating process of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, commonly known as Rio+20.

The London conference is therefore not shy of encouraging science delegates to engage with international politics. The organisers have published a series of policy briefs designed to “specifically target policy-makers in the Rio+20 process.”

These briefs are by no means confined to matters of science. One is titled: “Transforming governance and institutions for a planet under pressure.” It makes several recommendations relating to global governance, ranging from foreign aid to the sensitive question of introducing majority voting in UN negotiations on environmental treaties.

This briefing is the work of the Earth System Governance Project, a research programme which falls within the ambit of the ICSU. It introduces its ideas with an expression of frustration with global politicians that is widely felt amongst the scientific community: “despite more than 900 environmental treaties coming into force over the past 40 years, human-induced environmental degradation is reaching unprecedented levels.”

And it concludes with the plea: “we need to have a ‘constitutional moment’ in world politics, akin to the major transformative shift in governance after 1945 that led to the establishment of the United Nations.”

The London conference will also mark a determined effort on the part of the science community to address the social as well as environmental dysfunction of modern economic management.

“The developing world will be disproportionally affected due to a combination of geographical and socioeconomic circumstance,” acknowledge the organisers. “Failure to involve representation from the developing world will not produce sustainable solutions.”

A senior official of the UN Development Programme has been invited to present the 2011 Human Development Report which addresses the tensions between environmental sustainability and social justice. There are more scientific papers under discussion in the context of supporting global poverty reduction programmes than for natural earth science.

As well as reaching out to politics and development, Planet Under Pressure 2012 is acutely conscious of the importance of effective communication of science, often the Achilles heel of the profession.

Panel discussions will be webcast live and the experts will accept questions via social media from anywhere in the world.

There will doubtless be many references to the Anthropocene, the proposed term for a new geological epoch. It powerfully and painfully evokes how the critical stresses now experienced by the planet can be attributed to a single species.

“The Anthropocene changes our relationship with the planet. We have a new responsibility and we need to determine how to meet that responsibility,” said the Conference Chief Scientific Advisor, Nobel Laureate Professor Elinor Ostrom, of Indiana University.

A new film animation released by the conference explains how the 18th century industrial revolution unleashed “a phenomenal global force….which is altering earth’s natural cycles.” The close of the film warns: “As the population grows to nine billion, we must find a safe operating space for humanity for the sake of future generations.”

This is indeed communication of exemplary clarity. Welcome to the Anthropocene.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News