2011 Person of the Anthropocene

It is that time of the year again. Who will win the coveted Person of the Anthropocene Award? The award is open to anyone: scientists, politicians, writers, musicians, revolutionaries, all seven billion of us. Except me.

World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy

Ladies and gentlemen. The moment you have all been waiting for. I am proud to announce the winner of the 2011 Person of the Anthropocene Award. He’s a Gallic intellectual…a central figure on the world stage…you guessed it, it’s head honcho of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy!

Wait. Don’t go. I can explain!

2011 really was an incredible year. The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring dominated politics and the media. Both demanded legitimacy and a more open, transparent governance from the powers that be. Curiously, to me at least, throughout 2011, this call for legitimacy was echoed in speeches given by the figurehead of one of those powers that be, WTO Director General, Pascal Lamy.

On 19 February 2011, Lamy spoke at the European University Institute in Florence challenging the dominent theory of global governance. “What does this dominant theory tell us? That the international system is founded on the principle of national sovereignty…. that global governance is the globalization of local governance. This theory of governance, which has not substantially changed for centuries, is based on the transitivity of both coherence and legitimacy: as states are coherent and legitimate, global governance is necessarily coherent and legitimate as well.”

He argued this is not longer tenable: “Today’s world is confronted with major global challenges. We cannot afford to stay still…Pragmatic solutions need to be found now to enhance global governance and better address the problems that our world is facing.”

In a speech during a UN debate on global governance on 28 June 2011 Lamy made similar called for increased legitimacy.

“Legitimacy at the international level is much weaker than at the national level. This is not surprising as legitimacy is inversely proportional to distance. The specific challenge of legitimacy in global governance is to deal with the perceived too-distant, non-accountable and non-directly challengeable decision-making at the international level.”

“International organizations only provide for what I call “secondary legitimacy” — as opposed to the “primary legitimacy” conferred by the direct participation of citizens. While it might be possible to make up for this lack of legitimacy through a sense of belonging, of community, of solidarity, based on common values, such sense of belonging does not yet exist on a global scale.”

Lamy’s final point is the crux of the matter. Occupy and the Arab Spring indicate the sense of belonging at the global scale has arrived. They hint that the digital revolution and information technology have the potential to forge a sense of community and common values internationally. There is a sense of a new and powerful form of social mobilisation on the scene. Could they even point to new ways of political representation and governance?

The kind of self organization witnessed in the Middle East and Occupy is the kind of behaviour expected in complex interconnected systems. Large well-connected networks allow random small incidents to trigger major events. Thanks to social networking — Facebook only began in 2004 – and mobile phones we now have a global complex interconnected system like never before. We are really just beginning to grasp what this could mean.

It seems possible that in future, the global explosion in social media and mobile networks may facilitate a wholly new type of collective behaviour. With civil society now demanding and achieving a new oversight of governance, the beginnings of mechanism for a major transformation in governance may be emerging.

According to the Earth System Governance project, moving global affairs in a sustainable direction will require nothing short of a constitutional moment akin to events immediately following the Second World War. It was then the global elite created the proto UN, IMF, World Trade Organization and others.

Behind closed doors several senior advisors and experts on international processes mutter that only an environmental catastrophe on an unprecedented scale will spur the kind of action required. But the digital revolution looks set to be the wildcard.

With several bottom up movements testing the boundaries, and leaders at the top like Lamy openly advocating change, something new is stirring. This may augur well for the kind of transformation many scientists argue is essential to reduce risk of destabilizing the Earth system.

For showing this leadership, itself a catalyst for change, I award Pascal Lamy the award, 2011 Person of the Anthropocene. Ok, so Lamy may not be the most popular choice, or arguably even a good choice. A more erudite, fair and learned jury may have picked one of the many scientists who tirelessly promote the concept of the Anthropocene.

Or, maybe such a jury would plump for  Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who became a hero of the Egyptian revolution. Perhaps a left-field choice would be Chilian student Camila “Don’t call me Che” Vallejo.

But I didn’t choose any of these. I chose Lamy. And I chose him for stating the obvious. He did it with such Gallic charm and charisma, though.

Ok, I hear you. It goes to Paul Crutzen.

Note to WTO PR people: I have absolutely no authority whatsoever to make such an award.

Is civilization really at risk of collapse?

“In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization.”

This incredible quote is from  Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act, a report from laureates of the Asahi Blue Planet Prize, published 20 February. It sounds like the climax of a Hollywood disaster movie.

Is there enough evidence to back such a statement? Authors of the report, who include NASA’s James Hansen, and also Susan Solomon, Paul Ehrlich, Hal Mooney and Bob Watson, the chief scientific advisor to the UK’s environment ministry, DEFRA, think so.

Below are links to 19 published peer-reviewed research papers that may explain why many scientists are so concerned.

Beyond natural boundaries. This is an 800,000-year record of carbon dioxide, methane and temperature illustrating the Earth system's natural cycles. Top right: recent carbon dioxide and methane levels are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years, possibly 15 million. Modern humans first emerged 200,000 years ago. Source: International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, modified after Loulergue et al. ( Nature 2008) and Lüthi et al. (Nature 2008).

  1. Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation (2012, Nature)
  2. Past extreme warming events linked to massive carbon release from thawing permafrost (2012, Nature)
  3. The geological record of ocean acidification (2012, Science)
  4. Determining the natural length of the current interglacial (2012, Nature Geoscience)
  5. Climate sensitivity in the Anthropocene (2011, Earth System Dynamics)
  6. Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks (2011, Geophysical Research Letters)
  7. Sea-level rise and its possible impacts given a ‘beyond 4°C world’ in the twenty-first century (2011, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A)
  8. Four degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications (2011, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A)
  9. Early-warning signals for critical transitions (2009, Nature)
  10. September sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean projected to vanish by 2100 (2009, Nature Geoscience)
  11. Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles (2009, Nature Geoscience)
  12. High-resolution carbon dioxide concentration record 650,000–800,000 years before present (2008, Nature)
  13. Orbital and millennial-scale features of atmospheric CHover the past 800,000 years (2008, Nature)
  14. Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system (2007, PNAS)
  15. How fast are the ice sheets melting? (2006, Science)
  16. Global consequences of land use (2005, Science)
  17. Abrupt climate change (2003, Science)
  18. Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems (2001, Nature)
  19. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model (2000, Nature)

Feel free to suggest other papers.

Earth operating in “no analogue” state, say scientists, again

In 2001, over 1000 experts issued the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change. The declaration gave an unequivocal warning about the risks humanity is taking with the Earth system. But how many people know about this statement?

Google “Amsterdam Declaration” and you will be spoilt for choice of conference statements.

At the top of the list is the 2002 International Humanist and Ethical Union Amsterdam Declaration. The statement outlines the fundamental principles of modern humanists.

This is followed closely by the 2010 World Congress of Information Technology’s Amsterdam Declaration which “calls on stakeholders to deliver the ambitious goals of enhancing economic growth and …consumer confidence”. And who could forget the Amsterdam Declaration on Migrant Friendly Hospitals.

In 2001, over 1000 Earth-system scientists gathered in Amsterdam for the Challenges of a Changing Earth: Global Change Open Science Conference. At the end of the conference the organizers issued, you guessed it, another Amsterdam Declaration.

It is a curious statement. The title gives nothing away.  Bland and bureaucratic at first, it builds to say something quite staggeringly profound and urgent about the risk of destabilizing the Earth system and the need for a planetary management approach the authors call planetary stewardship.

Halfway through we discover the declaration is ultimately for the “people of the world”.

The declaration peters out towards the end, “Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed.”

The 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference is the largest gathering of global change scientists since 2001. As we gear up for it, here is the full text of the 2001 declaration.

The Amsterdam Declaration

The scientific communities of four international global change research programmes – the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the international biodiversity programme DIVERSITAS – recognise that, in addition to the threat of significant climate change, there is growing concern over the ever-increasing human modification of other aspects of the global environment and the consequent implications for human well-being. Basic goods and services supplied by the planetary life support system, such as food, water, clean air and an environment conducive to human health, are being affected increasingly by global change.

Research carried out over the past decade under the auspices of the four programmes to address these concerns has shown that:

  • The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability. The understanding of the natural dynamics of the Earth System has advanced greatly in recent years and provides a sound basis for evaluating the effects and consequences of human-driven change.
  • Human activities are significantly influencing Earth’s environment in many ways in addition to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Anthropogenic changes to Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere and to biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles are clearly identifiable beyond natural variability. They are equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact. Many are accelerating. Global change is real and is happening now.
  • Global change cannot be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm. Human-driven changes cause multiple effects that cascade through the Earth System in complex ways. These effects interact with each other and with local- and regional-scale changes in multidimensional patterns that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to predict. Surprises abound.
  • Earth System dynamics are characterised by critical thresholds and abrupt changes. Human activities could inadvertently trigger such changes with severe consequences for Earth’s environment and inhabitants. The Earth System has operated in different states over the last half million years, with abrupt transitions (a decade or less) sometimes occurring between them. Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life. The probability of a human-driven abrupt change in Earth’s environment has yet to be quantified but is not negligible.
  • In terms of some key environmental parameters, the Earth System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state.

On this basis the international global change programmes urge governments, public and private institutions and people of the world to agree that:

  • An ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System management are urgently needed. The accelerating human transformation of the Earth’s environment is not sustainable. Therefore, the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth System is not an option. It has to be replaced – as soon as possible – by deliberate strategies of good management that sustain the Earth’s environment while meeting social and economic development objectives.
  • A new system of global environmental science is required. This is beginning to evolve from complementary approaches of the international global change research programmes and needs strengthening and further development. It will draw strongly on the existing and expanding disciplinary base of global change science; integrate across disciplines, environment and development issues and the natural and social sciences; collaborate across national boundaries on the basis of shared and secure infrastructure; intensify efforts to enable the full involvement of developing country scientists; and employ the complementary strengths of nations and regions to build an efficient international system of global environmental science.

The global change programmes are committed to working closely with other sectors of society and across all nations and cultures to meet the challenge of a changing Earth. New partnerships are forming among university, industrial and governmental research institutions. Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed. The common goal must be to develop the essential knowledge base needed to respond effectively and quickly to the great challenge of global change.

Berrien Moore III     Arild Underdal       Peter Lemke                       Michel Loreau

Chair, IGBP             Chair, IHDP           Chair, WCRP Co-Chair     DIVERSITAS

Amsterdam, The Netherlands 13 July 2001

Academic Spring: scientific publisher under fire

The public pays for most research. Why do we have to pay again to see it? A new business model is needed urgently. Google, anyone?

Arguably the most remarkable fact about the digital revolution is not the access to information, nor the volume, nor speed, nor the convenience: it is the cost. So much information is now available free. Newspaper magnates like Rupert Murdoch are appalled. Their business models have been upended. How can they make money if others are giving away news for free?

An exception, though, is scientific publishing. Science publishing is big business and the main players rake in breathtaking profits.

Take Dutch publisher Elsevier. Its bread and butter is 2500 scientific journals.  In its last financial year, it made a £724million profit on revenues of £2 billion, a 36% margin. The content of these journals is supplied by academics for free. It is edited by other academics for free. And it is peer-reviewed by yet further academics, again for free.

Elsevier then publishes this content and sells it back at a premium to the academic community through university libraries, departments and academic institutions.

While it is surprising academics largely accept this situation*, not all are content with the status quo. In late January, Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers blogged about his own long-running boycott of Elsevier. The blog was picked up by others leading to a website and petition to boycott Elsevier. Now, 4720 academics have signed the petition. The numbers are rising rapidly as the media  (Science, the Guardianthe Economist and others) take up the story.

One forgotten element to this is the fact that the public purse paid for the vast majority of work published in these journals. For that reason alone the principle must be free access to academic research: we paid for it, surely we have a right to see what our money bought? The agencies that fund science are curiously quiet on this matter, yet many have sophisticated and successful peer-review systems already in place to assess the quality of grant applications. It would not take a great leap to close the circle and create an independent, impartial system to assess the products of this investment.

But another giant remains silent.

Google has a straightforward if ambitious mission: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. And the organisation has an impressive track record in either providing information at no financial cost to the user, or at least encouraging this behaviour in other organisations.  It would be interesting to brainstorm a new business model for scientific publishing with some of Google’s bright sparks.

Eight months back I had a casual conversation with a Google executive about access to knowledge and the stranglehold of the giants in scientific publishing. She said Google had been thinking about this but had yet to come up with a killer idea.

Google should noodle on this a little more. In the same conversation the executive mentioned a mission of Google.org is to improve the collective understanding of the Earth system. This is welcome. Improving the collective understanding of the Earth system is surely a cornerstone to the move to global sustainability.

You’d think the combined intellectual weight of government funding agencies, scientific unions and an organisation with deep pockets like Google could cook up a new business model that pulls down the firewalls but still generates handsome profits, and most importantly, unlocks civilisation’s most valuable resource.

*As an aside, not all scientific publishing companies are reviled in the same way. Macmillan for example, publishers of journals such as the Nature series, adds considerable editorial value to its content and provides a valuable filtering service separating the wheat from the chaff.