Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

PUP (Planet Under Pressure 2012) Statement

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The Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference has just finished in London and released a statement as these things are wont to do. The conference itself is a biggie and is setting out the science (in a broad sense)  in the run-up to the UN Rio+20 conference. It was  co-convened by Lidia Brito and Australia’s own Mark Stafford-Smith and sponsored by the big international research collaborations IGBP, Diversitas, IHDP, WCRP and ICSU.  The recommendations in the statement have been passed onto the D-G of the UN Ban Ki-Moon who has agreed to take them on board.

Before commenting on the statement, I’ll do a gap assessment. Instead of seeing who was present – who was absent? Present were over 3,000 attendees and many more on-line.  The peak global change research organisations were represented. The patrons of the conference were mostly blokes and mostly western, despite a very different mix of interested parties at the ground level. The supporter of the conference included scientific, aid and development organisations. So development interests, gender, poverty and other issues straddling society and environment were present. Absent were the Davos types, miners, OECD, IMF.

There was one session moderated by Andrew Revkin on creating new playing fields for governance 2.0 – Moderator: Andrew Revkin, New York Times – Panellists: Oran Young, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA; Gustavo Fonseca, UN Global Environment Facility; Daniela Mariuzzo, Rabobank International, Brazil; Warren Evans, World Bank; Yannick Glerarec, United Nations Development Programme; Vasna Ramasar, Earth System Governance Project, Sweden. If Revkin posts on how that session went, I’ll link.

The big issue is how power at the national and international scale translates into governance. This, of course, is dangerous territory. Especially for scientists.

This statement defines what expert knowledge says about risk:

1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

Why the qualifier we could face threats? I don’t know why the could is there. A threat is conditional, why have two? All they do is propagate doubt. We do face threats without urgent action. Doubt at the stage of saying what is at risk, given confidence in the science, is foolish.

4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

I like this one. Even if we don’t know what sustainability is, we have a good idea of what it is not. At the moment sustainability is opt in, not foundational. Creating a societal foundation based on sustainability would require  unsustainable activities to justify themselves before they can be approved. This creates difficulties for economics because it increases the importance of intangibles, such as preference for family and environment, relative to goods and services in the marketplace. It frames markets and creates boundaries for them, something that many people object to on ideological grounds (even if it not often articulated in that light). However, economics should be able to do that if we are to be consistent with its roots in Greek language.

A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities.


13. Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate rapidly. The Planet Under Pressure conference has taken advantage of this potential to explore new pathways. It has marked a new direction for global change research. The international scientific community must rapidly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and rapidly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.

This message needs to get into boardrooms and around cabinet tables. But it still sits at the “what” stage, not the “how” stage. One  issue is that science of this type dealing with the social-ecological system at planetary to local scales is highly egalitarian and communitarian. In terms of cultural framing, it marginalises, or seems to, individualistic and hierarchical cultural tropes. This is strongly opposed in many western countries and certainly within the English-speaking media.

Because developing country outweigh developed country populations, Earth’s population is mostly egalitarian and communitarian in outlook. Those of us who live in western countries may not see this because our media is dominated by individualism and hierarchies defined by power. Global governance viewed via these different cultural prisms looks very different. This is what the “how” has to grapple with, and it isn’t even close.


Written by Roger Jones

March 31, 2012 at 11:57 am

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