Two tribes go to Rio

London: Delegates from around the world gathering in Rio de Janeiro ahead of next week’s Earth summit, have few reasons for optimism. Twenty years have passed since the original summit in the same city produced a raft of environmental management treaties and declarations including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the basis for governments attempts to curb global warming gases.

The wealthy part of Rio as seen from a slum (favela)

In the past two decades, almost all environmental problems targeted by the summit have worsened rather than improved. Indeed progress on addressing the most critical global challenges, such as climate change, has reached a farcical level in which time spent arguing over punctuation and grammar of lengthy documents have stymied any real action on greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, global warming has increased, with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already hitting 400 parts per million in the Arctic, and new data show that the rate of climate change could be even faster than thought.

For those attending the second Earth summit – called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development but known simply as Rio+20 – the stakes couldn’t be higher, according to scientists around the world. Humans are now the dominant biophysical force across the planet. We’re now in the Anthropocene rather than the Holocene. Humans are pushing global temperatures, land and water use beyond what we’ve experienced before. We’re polluting the biosphere, acidifying the oceans, and reducing biodiversity. At the same time, we are a global population of 7 billion – going on 9 billion – all of whom need food water, clean air and who lead increasingly complex lives requiring more things to be comfortable.

Last week, 22 scientists warned that we are approaching a planetary tipping point beyond which environmental changes will be rapid and unpredictable. We will enter a new state never before experienced by our species and which threatens us all. The scientists based their alarming conclusion on studies of ecological markers from species extinction rates (currently 1000 times the usual rate and comparable to those experienced during the demise of the dinosaurs) to changes in land use (more than 40% of land is dominated by humans and we impact a further 40%). In the past, they point out, planetary state shifts, such as entering or leaving an ice age, have occurred relatively suddenly after a biophysical threshold, or tipping point, was reached.

So what to do?

I have no doubt that no binding global agreement will emerge at Rio to protect our environment. The past few weeks have seen horrendous images of the ongoing slaughter of Syrian children beamed around the world, and yet the international community has failed to agree on any kind of intervention. What hope then for the more nebulous aims of such a vast summit?

As with any political or social movement, the Environmentalists have split into various – often antagonistic – camps with different opinions on how to solve the problem. The two most prominent are what I call the ‘conservative’ (or cautious) camp, and the ‘radical’ (or bold) camp. The conservatives believe the answer is for humans to do less of everything: reduce consumption, waste, population, fertiliser use, pesticides, fishing, etc. And in that way, reduce our species’ influence back to being just another part of the biosphere rather than the driving force it has become. The radicals believe that technology and human ingenuity will prevent catastrophe, that as we run out of things replacements will be found, that anyway, many of our environmental changes have been to the benefit of humans – things have improved: the rate of population growth has diminished and global poverty has reduced, for example.

Environmentalism, again, like other movements, is for many people a belief system. It feels intrinsically wrong that, say, rhinos should go extinct, or lakes become polluted, even if neither has any impact on the health or wellbeing of people. Some of it is to do with taste: nature is considered more beautiful (especially by urbanites) than artificial constructs like highways or factories.  The unprecedented changes we are making to our planet are of concern to many not just because they threaten us or future people, but because they represent human-made alteration of our biosphere – and there is a belief that we have no right to make such changes. It is perhaps this that guides the conservatives’ preference for organic farming over lab-manipulated agriculture, or the more gentle idea of revolving wind turbines than the potential of global radioactive impact from nuclear energy.

The radicals, many of whom started out as ‘treehugger’ conservatives, are, like all converts, scathing of the conservatives, who they claim are ‘unscientific’ (even though many radicals are economists or journalists with no scientific background). The pragmatic response to solving our problems, the radicals argue, is to use the most effective and efficient tools we have at our disposal – which means using nuclear to produce the most energy with the least amount of warming emissions, and feeding the world with the most advanced crop technologies available.

Fundamentalism of either variety, with its blinkered idealism, will not solve the problems. The world is vast and diverse and we will need to tailor each tried and tested method to its situation. Organic methods of farming, such as using neem as a pesticide, have proved very effective, cheap and safe in parts of India, as have intercropping of legumes or tree planting. Likewise, peanuts genetically modified to contain high levels of vitamin A could solve eyesight problems across the developing world, crops modified to grow in semi-arid or saline conditions, to require less fertiliser or pesticide could help feed millions on less land and with fewer polluting impacts. The problem with many technological solutions is that they are either not ready yet for deployment, or they haven’t been proven effective practically or socially – which is at least as important. Solving this last might involve a fundamentalist cheerleading stance, but I suspect it needs some other technique, while trust remains low. Perhaps, a meeting halfway with the other camp – an acknowledgement that there are uncertainties and that proven conservative methods have different societal benefits.

Technology and innovation have already saved us from plagues, low crop yields, water shortages, reliance on fossil fuels and more. But the planet remains finite – there is nowhere else for us to live except Earth and we depend on it for our every need. And we have never before in the history of our species experienced living in some of the conditions we are creating: where average temperatures exceed anything in our history (perhaps as soon as 2070), where nitrates and other pollutants are greater than anything our ecosystems have evolved to function in, and where our own hungry population is above 7 billion, for example.

Heading for Rio, is a new schism among the Environmentalists over the so-called planetary boundaries. I’ve talked about this debate before, but it’s reared its head again this week, prompting vigorous email discussion between earth-system scientists and interested parties.

In 2009, Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and colleagues, identified nine ‘planetary boundaries’ – biophysical thresholds – that must be observed if humanity is to remain in the “safe operating space” of Holocene-like conditions. The boundaries include climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, change in land use and freshwater use. The concept was enthusiastically embraced by institutions from the UN to large NGOs like Oxfam, who adapted the idea to include social boundaries. The concept was a brave attempt to quantify the rather vague threats that our many environmental changes pose and will underly much of the discussion at Rio.

However, others argue that these nine are rather arbitrary choices. I would question whether, for example, we can measure a “change in land use” or “biodiversity loss” boundary. Losing rhinos is far less of a problem than losing pollinators like bees, for example. And the spaghetti-like complexity of all these interactive biophysical elements in our chaotic biosystem makes setting individual boundaries impossible even locally let alone globally, I’d have thought.

Others contest that there are either no biophysical thresholds for these nine, or that we are far from reaching them. I would disagree with this – there is a clear threshold for dangerous loss of stratospheric ozone, for example, and I would also say for global temperature – caused by too many greenhouse gas molecules and too few carbon sinks such as forests – although whether that’s a 2, 3, 4 degree threshold, I’m not sure. I wouldn’t like to go above 2.5, but we are already heading beyond that, so what does that mean – are we all doomed? Possibly.

Now, Ruth Defries, Erle Ellis and some of the authors of the Planetary Boundaries paper, including Diana Liverman, have published another paper, describing Planetary Opportunities. “Scientists’ most useful role is not to set doomsday limits and set thresholds, but to provide a more optimistic opportunity for society,” Ellis told me. “There is no hard-line carrying capacity for the planet. Humans are very adaptive.”

Urbanisation is a good example of the human system responding to a planetary opportunity, Ellis says, by living more efficiently in larger populations, while freeing up rural land for ecosystem services or agriculture. We need to apply human ingenuity on a multi-scale approach – from individuals to the global, both in governance and the scale of scientific analyses – in order to find solutions, he says, citing examples of societies successfully adapting to environmental threats in the past. “Planetary boundaries are not a useful concept for society,” Erle says.

Rockström, counters, saying: “We should not frame this crisis as an opportunity. This is not an opportunity. If we destroy the water supply, the air, the climate, humanity will not be safe,” he says, adding that he finds the whole ‘technology-will-solve-all-our-problems camp tiresome. “But, the journey towards something good represents an opportunity. The safe operating space is an opportunity,” he concedes.

We are already in the Anthropocene – in that humans are the largest driver of planetary change – but we have not yet changed state from stable Holocene to another stable state yet, he says. Breaching tipping points could send us into another state of which we have no experience, and which is likely to be dangerous. Exceeding the planetary boundaries, as we already have for three of the nine, he warns, is a very dangerous game.

However, another publication goes even further this week in its criticism, claiming the Planetary Boundaries concept is “scientifically flawed” and shouldn’t be used to guide global environmental policy. Ted Norhaus and Michael Schellenberger of the radical thinktank Breakthrough Institute point out that many of the Anthropocene conditions we’ve brought about have been to the net benefit of humanity.

Ultimately, a scientific argument over the validity of thresholds and their values is a minor sideshow to the real action: people’s environmental belief or desire. If people decide they want to live in a world with clean air, water and soil, with rhinos and forests, then they will vote for it. If they decide that short-term financial gains are more important – or, as is often the case, corrupt individuals or companies take that decision away from them, then we will continue to see environmental degradation.

There will not be any global agreement at Rio, but people are taking action, either as individuals, communities or countries. Mexico has forged ahead with impressive plans, as has China (despite its mounting environmental problems).

For most of our species’ history, we’ve effectively lived among limitless resources. There are many examples of societies exceeding environmental limitations with disastrous consequences, among some encouraging ones of good environmental stewardship. But perhaps we have not got any better at recognising thresholds except with hindsight. Apart from gravity and (effectively) sunlight, everything else we use has its limits. Whether we can identify those ones crucial to our survival – and whether our poorly adapted human brains are unable to act on this message – is another question.

7 thoughts

  1. “Last week, 22 scientists warned that we are approaching a planetary tipping point beyond which environmental changes will be rapid and unpredictable”

    Could you tell me at what point in human history have environmental changes “NOT” been unpredictable? Meteorologists can’t even predict the weather 3 days from now.

    Also, 22 scientists? 22 out of how many?

    I am sorry to say you have nothing new whatsoever to add to the debate.

    1. Hi Stanley, on the contrary, environmental change is usually slow, predictable and manageable. We live in a very stable regulated biophysical state, however, we are pushing the limits of this stable Holocene system. I don’t understand your question 22 out of how many? The paper I reference had 22 authors.

      1. I stand by my assertion that you have nothing new to add to this debate (which is more about money than fact). In my life, I have been told that I simply must wake up! and save the rain forest, save the seals, save the whales, save the redwoods, that acid rain is going to destroy the forests, fear the Russians, fear Reagan and Thatcher, fear the communist “domino effect”, genetically engineered corn, that AIDS is going to wipe us all out, fear Obama – he’s a commie, avian influenza, H1N1, monkey pox!, Y2K, the end of oil, fear the nukes, fear the terrorist “sleeper cells” (remember that one?), fear Saadam, fear Bin Laden, on and on and on. Now I have to worry that the ice is melting and we’re all going to have to move further inland. Movements like this always take hold with the young people, because their heads are generally empty and just waiting to be filled by any emotional plea or scare tactic. I really believe that in 50 years or so when global warming has been milked for all it’s worth, the next new thing to fear will likely be some sort of threat from outer space.

        1. Risk of anything is a probability and some things are more likely to occur than others. Equally, the severity of some events must also be weighed with the risk of their occurrence. Sometimes it is hard to get a clear consensus from experts on how likely something is to occur, and some of the examples you list were not agreed to be a strong risk by large cohorts of experts, whereas others were. The AIDS threat, which still remains a significant issue in Africa and parts of Asia, was prevented from becoming the devastating pandemic it could have been elsewhere because of timely government action. Climate change is already occurring, we don’t know for certain whether the Greenland ice sheets will melt this century or in a thousand years time. But we do know that the likelihood of extreme weather events and agricultural failures is already greater and increasing. Based on a near consensus of expert opinion, climate change is a significant risk to humanity, and we must each decide whether we choose to accept expert opinion based on hundreds of thousands of scientific studies, or dismiss them for our own perverse reasons.

  2. Hi Gaia, I wouldn’t say that you’ve got nothing new to say as clearly plenty of people haven’t stopped screaming at each other and realized that nothing’s being done amidst the din.

    However this passage caused me pause:

    “The radicals, many of whom started out as ‘treehugger’ conservatives, are, like all converts, scathing of the conservatives, who they claim are ‘unscientific’ (even though many radicals are economists or journalists with no scientific background). The pragmatic response to solving our problems, the conservatives argue, is to use the most effective and efficient tools we have at our disposal – which means using nuclear to produce the most energy with the least amount of warming emissions, and feeding the world with the most advanced crop technologies available.”

    I might be too dense to follow your thoughts here but it looks like you’ve transposed the two groups, unless the conservatives are really pushing for nuclear power and GM crops while the radicals don’t think this is enough.

    While I definitely enjoy the fruits of scientific labor I keep noticing with dismay that each new technology which arises to replace an older and less efficient one continues to snag new problems. Switching from oil blubber to petroleum certainly saved the whales but… and solar cells and wind turbines can cut direct emissions but how many rare metals have we got, and then there’s the messy extraction bit. As Stanley points out, albeit with the back of his hand, is that panic fatigue and quick fixes make for a careless people. Yes, you and I never met the Ruskies on the field of battle, but plenty of Russians, Ukrainians, etc., etc. will sing a different song. Maybe if everyone got to experience the effects of our excess first-hand, instead of negotiations over taxes and cap and trade, we’d all take a little more care regardless of how many years the next iPhone will last.

    1. Thanks for pointing out my mistake Brendan – now corrected!

      I do think that pricing resources to reflect their true environmental cost or rarity would make better guide consumers and also product designers. Even accounting for the very large volumes of water required to produce energy, extract metals and in manufacture would be a start. In many of the most water-stressed countries, industrial use of water is free.

  3. A Pow-Wow in Rio…

    “One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothing can beat teamwork.” Edward Abbey

    All of you are so well-intended, but let me put it this way: There is lots of smoke, but no fire, and I’ve heard it all before.

    I’m a fella that spent four decades working in bib overalls, a few times in shirt and tie; the whole of the time attempting to prevent pollution, or cleaning up someone else’s mess; or demonstrating alternatives. I wasn’t the only one there were others on the same mission. Today, we are old, tired and broke and fairly doubtful of a good outcome in Rio.

    What happened since the late 60’s when I waded in earnest into this quagmire? Regardless of the measurement is things got worse.

    As each year passed into decades the bad became worse regardless of the work we did. Society back then, as it is today, is full of itself and political leaders and minions, the so-called engineers and scientists, had answers to nothing. They were on the payroll of the polluters…the bad ideas of the 60’s and ‘70’s were built upon in the ’80’s and 90’s and have become today’s pending calamities. There were conferences after conference.

    Forty years ago there were ample solutions, each of which offered humans a slice of a total solution to prevent decline of the planet…methods were forwarded to protect air and water quality; to reduce the loss of topsoil and forests, and to slow the extinction of species integral to the chain of life…we forwarded alternatives that would have prevented the industrial breakage of planetary carbon and nitrogen cycles.

    It would have been easier to strike up a conversation with a stump in the woods.

    We tried forwarding legislative initiatives such as zero population growth…urban gray water systems…terracing cropland and requiring crop rotation…developing policies of waste reduction, reuse and recycling…packaging deposits…on and on.

    In his 1971 book” The Closing Circle”, Barry Commoner said the American economy should be restructured to conform to the unbending laws of ecology.

    In the June 10, 1972, as a lobsterman in the Florida Keys, seeing the decline in the harvest, in the Miami Daily Planet, I wrote a few weeks before the Democrat Convention on Miami Beach.

    “(It’s)…obvious just by looking around that white man is on the verge of devitalizing the whole planet in order to maintain and improve upon his material rituals. This country’s practice and concept of producing, consuming and exchanging goods and services will deplete the world’s fossil fuels and natural gases and untold other resources (not to mentioned the wanton destruction of life) to such an extent that we should pray the next core sampled of the moon brings up a highly combustible cheese.”

    “I can picture mankind as a colony of ants hanging onto a giant barren celestial skeleton with a quizzical expression on its face asking, “…is that all…?” If is a fact that we have regressed to the point of hating ourselves so much that we can’t see our worth in any terms other than those self-effacing indulgences we consume…(from) corporation stores…?”

    Good luck in Rio! Write me in 40 years and let me know how things came out.

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