What Would It Take? Protecting Earth from Catastrophe


johan.jpgWhat would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Mary Hoff spoke with resilience strategist Johan Rockstrom on what it would take to protect the Earth’s systems from catastrophic failure.  

Why do we need to think about protecting Earth’s systems from catastrophic failure? 

The basic reason is that major advances in Earth system science now show that humanity is facing the risk of large-scale, potentially catastrophic tipping points that could hamper human development. The evidence shows that we may have entered a whole new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, where humans constitute the main geological force changing planet Earth. The planetary boundaries framework was developed to address this new reality.

But the insight of the Anthropocene gives you only the very first step, because it just indicates we have a high degree of human pressure. The second is the risk of nonlinear change, which comes out of resilience theory and from empirical evidence that particular ecosystems have multiple stable states. We see evidence that lakes and forests and wetlands can have different equilibria—so you have a savanna system that may be stable and thriving, but it can also tip over and become an arid steppe if pushed too far by warming, land degradation, and biodiversity loss. A clear-water lake can become a murky, biodiversity-low anoxic lake. Unfortunately, the science is increasingly showing that even large systems can tip. There’s paleoclimatic evidence that if oceans get an overload of phosphorus, they could collapse with large dead zones. The largest ice sheets also show evidence of shifts between ice-covered and ice-free states.

We asked ourselves: OK, so if we are in the Anthropocene, and if we are at risk or have evidence of large regional to global tipping points, then what is our desired state for planet Earth? What is the state at which Earth needs to be in order to support human well-being in a world of 7—soon to be 9—billion people?

Paleoclimatic records show clearly that the past 10,000 years, the Holocene, is a remarkably stable period in which we went from being a few hunters and gatherers to become more sedentary agriculture-based civilizations, which then moved us to the current populated modern era. So there’s robust evidence that the Holocene is our desired state and the only state we know that can support the modern economy. If we know that, we can also define the biophysical preconditions: What are the Earth system processes that determine the Holocene’s familiarity? Can we for those processes identify tipping points we want to avoid? The insight of the importance of the Holocene stability provides humanity with a science-based analysis of global sustainability goals that should be met to provide us safe operating space for human development.

Judy Cross
5/14/2012 12:30:52 AM

Since the climate changes every 20-30 years, I don't doubt it's been talked about . But one thing is for sure, CO2 has nothing to do with it. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/01/01/new-peer-reviewed-paper-absence-of-correlation-between-temperature-changes-and-co2/

3/16/2012 1:11:42 PM

Another way Angaangaq says this is: Only by melting the ice in your heart, will you have a chance to change and begin using your knowledge wisely.” Then we will have balance in everything we do and we will make it viable for all of us. See his website at www.icewisdom.com for more.

3/16/2012 1:06:31 PM

The author says, "I think a broad entry point is the need for a shift in mind-set." and I suggest that what is needed is a change of heart as well. The author hints at this near the end of the article. For the past four years I have had the privilege of working with Angaangaq, an Eskimo friend from Greenland who has been talking about climate change for over 40 years. He now sees the need for inner climate change, or spiritual climate change, saying, “Only when we succeed in melting the ice in the heart of man, will a transformation be possible; a change that will enable us to meet the melting of the Big Ice—to cope with the outcome of climate change.”

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