5 reasons for a UN Chief Scientific Advisor

From global pandemics and Earth-system thresholds to internet terrorism and ocean acidification, the international community faces more and more globally interconnected risks. It may seem surprising then that the UN has yet to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor to coordinate and provide crucial advice in times of crisis. Here are five reasons why it would be a good idea (and at the end, a few reasons why it wouldn’t):

1. Leadership. A Chief Scientific Advisor answering directly to the UN Secretary General and with direct access to the most senior politicians would provide a much-needed figurehead for the scientific community.

2. A rapid and considered response in a time of crisis minimising knee-jerk reactions and maximising independent, impartial advice.

3. A strengthened and strategic science-policy interface at the international level that many think lies in tatters. Certainly it is fragmented, weak and lacks coherency. A Chief Scientific Advisor could begin building a more coherent structure internationally and develop close links with independent international scientists and with national Chief Scientific Advisors.

4. Financial and ecological crises show how globalisation has driven us into an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Systemic risk is rising. To minimize systemic risk we need a good understanding of complex systems and how to manage them. A Chief Scientific Advisor will see the bigger picture to support policymakers in dealing with these new types of crises.

5. Long-term thinking. Politicians and policymakers in the UN and in nation states often think in terms of the one-to-four year electoral cycle, occasionally stretching to a decade or longer if they absolutely have to. But many of our actions now will be irreversible with severe consequences for future generations. A Chief Scientific Advisor can provide this long-term independent view and advice.

Some reasons not to

1. From WHO to WMO and UNEP, the UN has plenty of acronyms with plenty of experts to offer advice. (But who has the oversight and long-term view? And this encourages fragmentation.)

2. There is enough bureaucracy at the UN so don’t add to it. (Fair point.)

3. The problem is not the absence of a Chief Scientific Advisor, the problem is the lack of political will to deal with problems. (Yes. This is not a panacea, and admittedly it won’t solve the leadership deficit issue. But it wasn’t designed to.)

Could it happen?

The Rio+20 Summit in June 2012 provides a window of opportunity to create such a new position. If the idea fails this time then it could be several years or decades before such an opportunity comes up again. If such a position were created – and I have made recommendations along these lines to Ban Ki Moon’s High Level Global Sustainability Panel and to the Rio+20 process – then ideally this person would report directly to the Secretary General, head up a small secretariat, and work across the whole UN system and beyond.

Personally, I always liked the idea of creating the position of Planetary Ecologist as a senior role at the United Nations, maybe right there at the top. There is little doubt such a role is needed. But the UN would be unlikely to do something quite so radical so I guess a starting point is the creation of Chief Scientific Advisor, which will essentially amount to the same thing but less exciting title.

The UK example

When it comes to climate-change legislation you can look at the UK and ask why has this country gone further than most. One key reason was a strong Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King. King had a direct link to the higher echelons of UK power. He steadily ramped up pressure on a Labour government open to ideas and supportive of science. I think three factors contributed significantly to sealing the deal: the chief scientist’s undoubted charisma, his strategy and his direct links to the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Sustainable development vs global sustainability

The UN Secretary General’s high-level Global Sustainability Panel is due to report soon. The panel has been billed as the natural successor to the Brundtland Commission, which published Our Common Future in 1987. This document contains the iconic, and slightly enigmatic, definition of sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The new panel, set up by Ban Ki Moon in 2010, toyed with the idea of overhauling the definition of sustainable development, a definition that went on to be used to incredible effect at the first Rio Earth Summit twenty years ago.

Ultimately the panel resisted the urge to tinker. This was a mistake.

The problem is not with the definition; it is what the definition defines. Given our new knowledge about rising risks of crossing thresholds and tipping points in the Earth system, Brundtland’s words should not define “sustainable development” but rather they should define “global sustainability”.

There is a big distinction here. The world is split into the developed world and developing nations. Those in rich nations feel they have stopped developing so don’t link sustainable development to their own actions or agenda, except in the context of aid to developing countries. The richest 25% of the planet use 90% of the world’s energy. Yet the iconic definition used to promote the message of sustainability unwittingly throws the problem at poorer nations.

Moreover, in international spheres sustainable development is pigeon-holed and remains at arms length from the main business of economic growth. Even after decades of effort, and despite the rhetoric, the sustainable component of development remains a minority interest among those in power. If we want to change that it must straddle the whole thing not consigned to some ghetto.

For these reasons the Global Sustainability Panel should have tried to shake up Brundtland’s definition and made it fit with today’s challenges. By applying the Brundtland’s commission definition to “global sustainability” Ban Ki Moon’s panel could have seized upon an opportunity to nudge a mindset that is crippling efforts to transform societies.

Mapping 2011’s natural catastrophes

In 2011, Newsweek published an environmental ranking of the world’s largest companies. Insurance giant Munich Re took the number one position. When it comes to understanding risk and uncertainty, nobody does it better. It is hardly surprising the company takes sustainability so seriously. Here is Munich Re’s 2011 natural catastrophe global map, published 4 January.

Munich Re totalled 820 natural catastrophes in 2011. 90% were weather-related – however, nearly two-thirds of economic losses and about half the insured losses stemmed from geophysical events, principally from the Japanese and other earthquakes. Normally, it’s weather-related natural catastrophes that domiate losses. On average over the last three decades, geophysical events accounted for just under 10% of insured losses. The distribution of regional losses in 2011 was also unusual: around 70% of economic losses occurred in Asia.

Munich Re notes that while its analysis deals with insured losses, the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in 2011 stemmed from the prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa. Coupled with political instability, the drought resulted in countless deaths from starvation.

US research agency NOAA has also published a similar map but focussing on 2011 climate events.


Extreme events in 2011

Rank Event When Occurred
1 East Africa Drought Ongoing
2 Thailand Flooding July–October
3 Eastern Australia Flooding December 2010–February 2011
Austral Summer
4 Consecutive La Niña Events Throughout 2011
5 Brazil Flash Floods January 6th–12th
6 Tropical Storm Washi (Sendong) December 16th–17th
7 Arctic Sea Ice Extent Throughout 2011
8 Colombia Rainfall March–May
9 Mexico Drought Throughout 2011
10 European Drought September–November

Reference: NOAA-NCDC

Take me to your leader

“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present…who prefer the illusion of security.” So said Robert F Kennedy in his Day of Affirmation address to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town on 6 June, 1966.

The rhetoric of this landmark speech applies equally to today’s global challenges pertaining to globalization, the Earth system and sustainability. This is hardly surprising. The Civil Rights movement demanded complete social, cultural, political and economic upheaval.

Solutions to the global sustainability challenge will require even greater societal transformation. Kennedy saw youth as the solution. “You, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.” He listed four dangers to progress.

The first danger is futility. We throw our hands in the air before we begin. We accept the battle cannot be won. For this he advocated strong leadership.

The second expediency. Hopes and beliefs come a poor second to immediate necessities. For this he advocated idealism.

The third danger is timidity. Nations fold under fierce opposition. People buckle under the wrath of society. For this Kennedy argued for courage.

The final danger is comfort. The temptation to go with the flow is overwhelming. It is too easy to follow well-worn, familiar paths. We are sleepwalking to our destiny. For this the US senator concluded, “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Against the odds, Kennedy and other leaders created the right conditions for a rapid transformation. Ultimately, they succeeded.

Strong leadership is a phenomenal catalyst for change. It can whip up a powerful groundswell of support. It can energise and mobilise. It can break new ground. It can rip down barriers to progress. It is the essential ingredient.

Every 20 years nations gather to focus on solutions to our global environmental problems. The third such gathering, the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit, comes at a crucial time for our global society and the Earth system.

Since the last summit, also held in Rio in 1992, science has shown that humanity has grown into a global powerhouse on par, or even exceeding, forces of nature such as ice ages or meteorite impacts. We are now the prime driver of change on the planet. Indeed, many argue we have entered a new geological epoch dominated by humanity – the Anthropocene.

Research also indicates humanity is pushing the Earth system towards thresholds. If the planet crosses these thresholds it is unlikely we can simply return to the relatively stable state that has allowed civilization to flourish.

Rio+20 has the potential to be a landmark event. It has the potential to create the right conditions for rapid transformation of our global society.

So it may be surprising to learn that the UN Rio+20 Summit gained scant attention in the world’s media as they heralded in the New Year. Politicians, journalists and opinion formers waxed lyrical about the US presidential election, the Middle East and Arab Spring, the Euro-zone crisis, and more broadly the global financial crisis.

So far, Rio+20 is off the radar. The summit is failing to excite those it must excite most. It seems immediate necessities are trumping a long-term vision for the planet.

As global emissions continue unabated, as sea levels rise, as the world warms, as species die, we face a leadership deficit. And without leadership it is difficult to imagine how we overcome the inertia needed for societal transformation.

As in 1966 when Senator Kennedy gave his Day of Affirmation speech, the US remains the dominant global power. How many prospective candidates at the start of the US presidential race have the leadership qualities, the courage, the idealism and vision to take on planetary-scale challenges?

More to the point, is the future direction of the planet even on their agenda?


The UN Rio+20 outcomes document, “the Future We Want”, has been released. It lacks the urgency necessary to prevent crossing a Rubicon in the Earth system. If this is the “Future We Want” what is the future we will get? And, is 57 the new 42?

“The Future We Want” has landed (10 January). This is the title of the so-called zero-order draft of the Rio+20 outcomes document.

I warn you, if you are feeling a little down or depressed, skip the next bit and jump straight to the end.

The words “bold”, “ambitious”; and “visionary” are not words to describe the document. “Weak”, “woolly” and “woefully inadequate” may step closer to the truth. There is no urgency. No feeling we can crack our global challenges this generation or the next. “The Future We Want” simply reiterates the hopes and dreams of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

But since then, science has demonstrated that this vast human powerhouse is now the prime driver of planet-scale change: we have entered the Anthropocene. Science has shown we are pushing the planet towards tipping points. Earth’s seven billion inhabitants are the equivalent of geological forces lasting tens of thousands of years. In the crows nest of humanity, Earth-system scientists are shouting a clear warning that our actions jeopardize the stability of Earth’s life support system as we know it. Civilization has managed this feat not in ten-thousand years, but in a single lifetime — since 1950.

In the last few years I have attended several meetings where UN experts and advisors have argued that only an unprecedented environmental catastrophe will kick nations out of complacency. In the vein of a blockbusting action movie, these same experts usually finish by saying this generation is risking the future of humanity. At this stage a scientist at the table usually pipes up, gently correcting them: humanity should be fine, it is civilization that is at risk.

OK, so are these people prone to hyperbole that they have lost all touch with reality?

Maybe not. The world needs to take a reality pill. If we take no action our planet will be 2-4 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of the century, 6 or more by the next century, 8 or more a century later. The best evidence is that in this regime the world’s ice will eventually melt, raising sea levels 70 metres plus. With most of the world’s major cities on vulnerable coastlines, civilization as we know it now will be unrecognizable a few centuries on. And of course the problems reach far beyond a rise in sea level. Leaving it for the next generation to solve is not an option. By then we will have crossed the Rubicon. In all likelihood there will be no going back. The corner needs to turn in the next decade. So Rio+20 is timely.

We are a species that knows how to adapt. In the last two hundred years we have pulled a surprising number of rabbits out of the hat, so we will crack this one, right?

Well, the zero-order draft will not save us.

The Future We Want’s scene-setting introduction is ominous. It fails to inject any urgency into proceedings. “We, the Heads of State and Government resolve to work together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet.”

At least there is some hope that presidents and prime ministers will turn up to Rio.

“We are also committed to enhancing cooperation and addressing the ongoing and emerging issues in ways which will enhance opportunities for all, be centred on human development while preserving and protecting the life support system of our common home, our shared planet.”

Great. But this was said twenty years ago at the first Rio Earth Summit.

The preamble closes with a soporific: “Taken together our actions should fill the implementation gaps and achieve greater integration among the three pillars of sustainable development – the economic, the social and the environmental.”


The framing is wrong. Rio+20 should not be set in the landscape of the first Rio summit. Things have moved on. Between 1992 and 2012 we have gathered enough evidence to redefine sustainable development. The first Earth Summit adopted the Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

By now the penny has dropped that politically this is viewed as an aspiration – an ideal to work towards. The reality is global sustainability is not an ideal but a prerequisite for any kind of long-term development of our societies. This is a major omission in the zero-order draft.

So what is useful in the draft? The two big-hitting proposals focus on creating a Sustainable Development Council from the ashes of the Commission on Sustainable, and promoting the United Nations Environment Programme to an organization. This will allow them to wield more weight within the UN, but it is not obvious that this is enough to kickstart fundamental transformation.

Paragraphs 52 and 53 are encouraging on the science front:

52. We stress the need for a regular review of the state of the planet and the Earth’s carrying capacity and request the Secretary-General to coordinate the preparation of such a review in consultation with relevant international organizations and the UN system.

53. We call for the scientific basis for decision making to be strengthened across the UN system and recognise that the interface between science and policy-making should be enhanced.

A regular “State of the Planet” assessment going beyond climate – and the environment – is a necessity. How this can happen and in what form needs much discussion, but an Intergovernmental Panel on Global Sustainability (see previous post) deserves some consideration. This would have the necessary political and scientific legitimacy required for progress. It would make full use of all existing assessments, indeed it would bind them together creating a coherent narrative but focus on interconnected solutions.

Paragraph 57 is also interesting. “We agree to further consider the establishment of an Ombudsperson, or High Commissioner for Future Generations, to promote sustainable development.”

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the number one position on the planet, the Obama position, was not “US President” but “Planetary Ecologist”. This was someone whose focus was far into the future, linking actions now to impacts generations hence – for planetary stability and predictability. Perhaps paragraph 57 is a realisation that one day Earth may need such a position. Rio+20 may bring us a step closer to that day.

In another famous science fiction book, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams revealed that the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything was 42. Leadership is a powerful catalyst for change but there exists a leadership deficit in the world today. Our leaders need to take more responsibility for the future. Perhaps one day the ultimate answer to the ultimate question will be 57.

Time for a global sustainability assessment?

The world needs a regular, comprehensive State of the Planet Assessment. Can Rio+20 deliver?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has set a high standard for international assessments. Since its inception in 1988, it has undoubtedly strengthened the bond between climate science and policy at the international level. This success has led other sectors to look upon the IPCC with envy. In 2010, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was launched. Now there are strong reasons, and calls, for assessments on the oceans, nitrogen and other pressing global concerns.

But is assessment proliferation useful? It risks further fragmenting the science when many scientists argue for a science-policy approach that captures the interconnected nature of our global challenges. We will never solve climate change unless we solve poverty alleviation. We have little chance of solving this without dealing with food security. Food, water and energy security are inextricably linked. Biodiversity loss is a function of all of the above. Tackling pollution can affect climate and health. And so on.

Nowhere is the fragmentation problem more apparent than at the recent Durban climate talks. Countless special interest groups released endless reports vying with each other for the attention of negotiators, each shouting that their area of concern was being ignored: food security, poverty, biodiversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen pollution, the list goes on. The reality is our global challenges are tightly interlinked. Interdependence is the norm not the exception. Rapid political progress – and transformation – may well hinge on a fundamental grasp of this fact.

With the United Nations Rio+20 Summit looming large on the horizon it is time to seriously consider joining the dots. There is a window of opportunity to think hard about a global sustainability assessment, that could take the form of an Intergovernmental Panel on Global Sustainability, but would need to be much broader, bringing in many more international institutions, for example WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. Such an assessment or review would not compete or negate existing assessments, and few would disagree with their value. On the contrary it would bind them together completing the picture.

If evidence supports the notion that sustainable development is a necessity rather than an ideal to aim towards, which it appears to, then a regular state of the planet assessment is a must. At the core of such an assessment, which needs political legitimacy, should be policy-relevant information relating to systemic risk management at the planetary level. But recognising that systemic risk management needs to be undertaken at all levels, from towns and cities, through to national, regional and global levels.

Some may argue the science is not ready to take on this task, or that the charge is simply too difficult and must be broken down into components. This approach is unhelpful and incorrect.

If the motivation can be found for a new panel, then the timing is good. Indeed, we may see history repeat itself. In 1988, the Swedish academic Bert Bolin and colleagues set up IPCC to assess whether the climate was changing, and if so, what was the cause. It followed in the footsteps of two highly influential international research programmes initiated in the seventies and eighties by the far-sighted Bolin: the World Climate Research Programme and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Bolin argued a distinction between the science and the science-policy was essential. These programmes were set up to do the science; IPCC assessed it.

Now a consortium of leading international organizations* is pushing for a realignment of the four large international research programmes**. The consortium wants to steer these programmes towards a ten-year focus on Earth-system sustainability, entitled Future Earth. 2012 will see the launch of Future Earth. If this is to be as successful as its predecessors, it will need an international policy focus to bring together the new knowledge generated. Now is the time to start thinking seriously about the high-level policy outcome of this venture.

*The International Council for Science, International Social Science Council, UNESCO, UNEP, United Nations University, and a range of funding agencies.

**WCRP, IGBP, DIVERSITAS, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change

New tipping point on horizon

In 2011, the world population crossed the seven billion landmark. With less fanfare, the International Telecommunications Union announced in 2011 that humanity had crossed another landmark: one third of the world’s population is now online.

The rise in online connectivity has been dramatic. Five years ago, only one fifth of the world’s 1.8 billion households had internet access. In this period, developing countries increased their share of the world’s total number of internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011. Today, 25% of all internet users are in China.

These figures are dwarfed by the explosion in mobile phone use. Mobile phone networks now reach over 90% of the human population. There are nearly six billion (5.9) mobile cellular phone subscriptions for seven billion people, though many have multiple subscriptions.

By 2020 internet and mobile phone coverage will reach all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere. As we frantically scramble to understand tipping points in the Earth system, we are rapidly heading towards a tipping point in our global society with little clue how this will play out.

In not much more than a decade, the internet and digital technology have overhauled how we shop, how we work, how we consume culture, how we communicate and how we see ourselves. Until 2011, the digital revolution’s impact on global politics has been minimal. Given the influence of social networking and mobile phones in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, this may all be about to change. But the full implications of this approaching tipping point have yet to be explored.