Another Dan Brown mystery


On 23 May, I received a curious email from my colleague Felix Pharand Deschenes, a Canadian anthropologist.

He told me I needed to get hold of a copy of Inferno, the latest Dan Brown thriller, published 14 May. The book, about a deadly plot to create a new plague to solve over population, contained a curious graph ostensibly from the World Health Organization (WHO) – or at least a fictional version of WHO.

The graph – really a composite of many graphs – depicts the incredible acceleration in human activity starting around 1950 and the knock-on impact on the Earth system.

What is striking is that the graph looks uncannily like the Great Acceleration graphs published by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in 2004 in its synthesis Global Change and the Earth System. See below.

It is possible the WHO has used the IGBP graphs in a publication, or even developed these independently – I’m going to check with WHO. But the appearance in the book is intriguing. Even the titles of each graph reflect the original Great Acceleration graphs.

Graph from Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Graph from Dan Brown’s Inferno.

The Great Acceleration Graphs. Steffen et al 2004. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

The Great Acceleration Graphs. Steffen et al 2004. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

A nomad in a city of nomads

As Mongolia connects to the global economy, its people risk losing a vital connection to their nomadic past. Holding on to nomadic culture is essential for a sustainable future, argues “Mongolia’s Einstein” Togtokhyn Chuluun, perhaps the first Earth-system scientist to oversee a government ministry for economic development.

The nomadic life is etched into Mongolians’ DNA. It flows through their veins and arteries. It defines the national character.

But DNA, itself, is restless. It does not sit still. It mutates. It evolves under external pressures. Sometimes the pace of change has surprised scientists.

Mongolia’s economy is growing at breakneck speed, estimated at 15% for 2012. As Mongolia industrializes and urbanizes a vast canyon is ripping open between the young generation and nomadic culture of yore.

This split from the past spells disaster for long-term economic sustainability says Togtokhyn Chuluun, who has recently been charged with developing the nation’s green growth strategy by the country’s new coalition government. But, can Mongolia’s 2.8 million citizens avoid this fate?

Togtokhyn Chuluun, Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Mongolian Ministry for the Environment and Green Development, speaking at the UN’s Rio+20 Summit, June 2012 (Science and technology forum, image: International Council for Science)

Togtokhyn Chuluun, Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Mongolian Ministry for the Environment and Green Development, speaking at the UN’s Rio+20 Summit, June 2012 (Science and technology forum, image: International Council for Science)

Chuluun is an academic, an Earth-system scientist with expertise in resilience, sustainability and adaptation. Several years back, he returned to Mongolia after a long exile to head the Dryland Sustainability Institute at the National University of Mongolia in the capital Ulaanbaatar. When the new government came to power in June 2012, it plucked him from the university and appointed him joint head of a new ministry for green development.

As a scientist with a wandering mind Chuluun often felt nomadism was not just in his blood but in his synapses, his neural networks and every electrical impulse in his brain.

He grew up in Mongolia in the 1960s and 70s under the fist of the Soviet Union. The country was desperately poor. Food shortages and long queues were part of everyday life. But this did not hold Chuluun back. He excelled at school, coming top in mathematics in the country. This distinction earned him a place in one of the best universities in the communist regime. He studied first theoretical physics then systems ecology.

His requests to take up academic positions in the United States were blocked by the authorities. They were not about to lose what they described as their “Mongolian Einstein” to the West. With the fall of communism, Chuluun was granted his wish. In 1991, he joined Colorado State University.

But the move was never meant to be permanent. He knew his trail would eventually lead back home to the capital.

40% of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants are herders.

40% of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants are herders.

The nomadic city

Ulaanbaatar has a colourful history. For more than a century, it embodied the character of its people. In a flurry of wooden poles and flapping felt the city sprang from nowhere in 1639. It upped sticks and moved 28 times – Mongolians thought nothing of moving an entire centre of civilization – before settling permanently in a valley on the Tuul river, north-central Mongolia, in 1778. With a continental climate, and sitting at an altitude of 1300 metres, Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city.

Mongolia’s nomads and herders are moving in droves to the capital – the manufacturing heart of the country – which has swollen to more than one million people. Around 400,000 live in gers – traditional felt-lined cylindrical tents. Keeping thin-walled gers warm through long, freezing winters means burning staggering amounts of coal – Mongolia’s most abundant natural resource. It is hardly a surprise in 2011 the World Health Organization declared the city the second most polluted in the world after Ahwaz in Iran. For much of the winter the city is draped in a dank fug.

Chuluun worries for the health of his three young children growing up in the capital.

He still holds a visiting professorship in Colorado. For several years this has allowed him to whisk his family away from the capital’s dreadful pollution before the deep cold sets in, to over-winter in the Rockies.

With his new job come new concerns. Chuluun’s worries stretch beyond his three children. Tens of thousands of children live in smoke-filled gers.

Winter in the world’s coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar. Coal fires keep thin-walled gers warm, but air pollution soars. Worldwide, Ulaanbaatar has the second worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

Winter in the world’s coldest capital, Ulaanbaatar. Coal fires keep thin-walled gers warm, but air pollution soars. Worldwide, Ulaanbaatar has the second worst air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

The Mongolian government has ambitious plans to change all this and put the country on course for a sustainable future. With Chuluun as Director General of the Green Development and Planning Department for the Ministry for the Environment and Green Development the government seems serious. While in most countries ministries for sustainable development or the environment are marginalized and lack influence, the government – the Civil Will-Green coalition party – has done something radical and placed the ministry on a level with the finance ministry and, importantly, above all other departments. Chuluun is perhaps the first Earth-system scientist heading up a major ministry in any government in the world.

Rich in natural resources

Chuluun has his work cut out for him. Like much of Asia, Mongolia’s economy is exploding, driven by its mining industry. The nation is rich in coal, copper, molybdenum, tungsten, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, fluorspar, gold, silver and iron. According to the Economist one copper-and-gold mine on the border with China – known as Oyu Tolgoi, or “Turquoise Hill” – provides a whopping one third of Mongolia’s GDP.

The government owns 34%, but the mine is controlled by mining giant Rio Tinto, which has injected six billion dollars into the project. Many Mongolians are unhappy with this split in ownership and want the deal renegotiated. There is a niggling secondary issue too: the electricity to run the mine comes from China. These are some of the issues Mongolians must grapple with during this period of extraordinary growth.

Time to stop celebrating polluters

For someone who understands the enormous pressure seven billion people exert on the Earth system, Chuluun is painfully aware that his country’s rapid growth, industrialization and urbanization comes at a cost to long-term sustainability of both planet and country.

In 2011, he published an article in the academic journal Nature arguing that the UN’s iconic and hugely influential Human Development Index (HDI) had serious flaws (Time to stop celebrating the polluters). The HDI rewarded polluters, he said. It promoted a model of human development that was not sustainable. The scientist suggested the HDI should include per capita carbon emissions alongside the three other parameters, GDP, education and health. Only then would the UN be sending the right signal to developing nations like his own.

When carbon entered the calculation the index changed radically. Sweden and Switzerland swung to the top whilst gas guzzlers like the US, Canada and Australia nose dived.

Human Sustainable Development Index. When per capita carbon emissions are included in the Human Development Index nations with a more sustainable economic model rise higher.

Human Sustainable Development Index. When per capita carbon emissions are included in the Human Development Index nations with a more sustainable economic model rise higher.

In October, Chuluun visited Sweden on a fact-finding mission with his president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Scandinavia is often viewed as a utopian ideal. While not a model of sustainability, the Nordic countries are attempting to move swiftly in the right direction. While in Stockholm I invited the academic to dinner in our home. Over the meal we discussed a word held dear by Swedes “lagom” meaning “in moderation” or “not too little, not too much”. Chuluun rolled the word around his mouth, trying it on for size. He liked the concept, and it appeared in a talk he gave the following day in the Prime Minister’s office.

The idea of “lagom” is part of the Swedish national character. It has come to define a nation that rewards restraint and fairness and frowns on excess. It is no coincidence Sweden rides high in Chuluun’s new index.

Similarly Mongolia’s near neighbours Bhutan and South Korea are increasingly building international reputations related to sustainability based loosely on their national characters. Rooted firmly in its Buddhist ideals, Bhutan is the only nation in the world to take stock of the country’s happiness by annually assessing Gross National Happiness.

Meanwhile, green growth is not a sector of the South Korean government but the driving strategy for the nation’s long-term development. If you want to see what a future green economy may look like, take a trip to Seoul.

A green civilization

Chuluun finds these visions inspiring. He is at the start of a journey to articulate a unique vision for Mongolia. He wants the nation to become what he calls “a truly green civilization”, perhaps the first, and sees the crucial link between old traditions and true sustainability.

“The nomad instinct is dying as people swarm to the capital- within a generation or two it may disappear completely. An entire culture may be lost.” Chuluun is adamant this fate is avoided. And there is still time: 40% of the population are still herders.

As nomads and pastoralists, Mongolians never tolerated waste. Pollution was rare. Richness and wealth were determined by the quality of life of your family, not the amount of money in your bank. Over consumption was unwanted. Warmth and hospitality were hallmarks of a kind people. Sustainability, say Chuluun, “is written into the DNA of the Mongolian people.” Retaining Mongolia’s cultural identity is crucial to becoming a sustainable society once more.

Chuluun’s vision for a green civilization is wrapped up in keeping and celebrating Mongolia’s cultural heritage. Tapping into this rich seam will create natural prosperity for his people. He sees promoting cultural heritage as a spur for green development. But he recognizes it will take more than this to tackle Ulaanbaatar’s appalling pollution. And his biggest dilemma is that resource extraction fuels his country’s phenomenal growth.

“I will be developing this vision in the next year. But it is not just my vision, everyone must own it. We need to go out and talk to people. But the old regime was corrupt. First, we need to rebuild trust. Then we need to ask: What future do you want? And determine how can we achieve it sustainably.”

For a country as poor as Mongolia, the scale of the challenge is daunting. But the capital city is by far the largest urban centre. Chuluun’s first step is to create a plan to transform the capital into a healthy, thriving space celebrating the country’s rich culture. “We need a modern, green transport system and well-insulated homes using cleaner energy. Most of all we need healthy children playing freely.”

If he succeeds in his vision, this will send an important message to other nations. The dominant global narrative pits economic growth against sustainability: no one has found a way to prosper sustainably. This narrative may be false. Sustainability has been an essential feature of all cultures throughout their histories. But we are losing it rapidly. Much of this culture has gone from North America and Europe. Rediscovering it is proving painful.

On the other hand, while Asia and Africa are developing at an astounding pace, their older cultures remain within sight. Chuluun argues, “Investing in the values we shared not so long ago is investing in our future.”


BBC Mongolia profile

World Bank Data Mongolia

Academics launch brilliant viral tribute to Aaron Swartz

Rebel with a cause

Aaran Swartz 1986-2013

Aaran Swartz 1986-2013

It will be hard for the mainstream media to pigeonhole Aaron Swartz, the young man who committed suicide in New York on friday at the tender age of 26. Sure, he was a computer programmer and entrepreneur of sorts with serial internet start-ups under his belt – he helped develop RSS and was involved in Reddit. But these were almost incidental. He was an online activist. More than anything, he was a rebel with a cause.

Two internets

Like the Matrix, we live in a strange world of two internets. Everyone (essentially everyone) believes they can find all information on all subjects online. This is a myth. The academic sector – universities and institutes – produce most new knowledge. This new knowledge – the most reliable information we as a species have – is contained behind firewalls of the major academic publishers. With hefty fees to view each article, it is essentially only accessible to those working in academia. Worse still, the lion’s share of the sum total of human knowledge does not even appear in search engine results because it hides behind a pay wall.

On the flip side, the academics who write the papers for these journals, and act as editors and reviewers, do so for the most part unpaid. To add insult to injury, the publishers sell their products back to universities and institutes at exorbitant prices. You could say the publishers are taking the piss. But, then, the academic community is giving it away.

It gets worse. The expensive research the academics write about is largely financed by tax payers. In this surreal Monty Python-like business model, a costly product is given away for free then sold back to the producer at a sky-high fee.

Swartz felt this was just plain wrong. He was not alone. In the last few years many academics have attempted to shine a light on the scandal through the Open Access Movement and many open access journals have sprung up. Even government funding agencies in the UK and Sweden say it cannot continue and have made steps to address it. But this is a raindrop falling into the ocean of past knowledge.

In 2008, Swartz published the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto calling for students and academics with access to these vast resources to post research papers online making them freely available. Not content with progress on Open Access, the manifesto demanded all academic information be released.

In July 2011, true to his word, in events reminiscent of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Swartz was “indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library,” according to the New York Times yesterday.

This got a troubled man into a lot of trouble and may have contributed to his suicide. As I write, three days after his death, a fitting tribute to a true visionary is drawing attention. Fed up with publishers, academics are posting research papers online and tagging them on Twitter #pdftribute. A stream has turned into a torrent. Every second dozens more tweets swamp the hashtag.

We talk endlessly about the need for humanity to find ways to navigate the Anthropocene, to develop sustainably, to change course rapidly. If reliable knowledge is kept from those who need it nothing will happen. This is a major institution that should topple.

It would be interesting to see a WikiLeaks for academia emerge.

The Anthropocene Journal would support it gladly.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is wonderful, then, to end the first year of the Anthropocene Journal with news that it has already spawned several imitators. In 2013, two publishers plan to launch Anthropocene journals. Academic publishing behemoth Elsevier unleashes the first issue of Anthropocene. Meanwhile, in July 2013 BioOne and several universities launch a new open-access journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

I wish both journals well. Except Elsevier’s on principle. Elsevier’s approach to publishing is parasitic opportunism. It exploits well-meaning academics working freely as editors yet adds little value itself then brazenly sells the product back to the academic community. This brilliant business model generates mind-boggling profits. And must end.

New Year’s Resolution: open access of all for all.

The geology of humanity

“Geology” is an attractive word, no doubt about it. Slipping it into the title of a lecture or article – any talk or article – creates a gravitational pull no other scientific discipline can match.

I’d go out of my way to attend a talk entitled, “The Geology of the Human Heart” (Disclaimer: I am not a geologist). But the “the Physics of the Human Heart” leaves me cold. Other substitutes are equally unattractive: “the Economy of the Human Heart”, “the Chemistry of the Human Heart” or the soporific “Geography of the Human Heart.”

Try it for yourself, it works for other lecture titles, too. “The Geology of the Euro-zone Fiscal Crisis.” I’m there.

“Geology” evokes hidden depths. It suggests digging deep and forensic examinations. It hints at peeling back layers and strata, uncovering structures and meaning. Ultimately it offers the intriguing possibility of looking at a subject in a whole new light. And of course it is a search for the truth and, increasingly, clues to the future. Geology is a word rich in meaning. For geologists, the most visible tool of the trade may be the humble pick, but the most important is the mind. Geology may well be the most romantic of scientific disciplines.

The concept that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, is destined to be picked up and adopted beyond the field of geology. Religious organizations, politicians, pressure groups, artists, writers and other academics are prime candidates to latch on to the term. They will undoubtedly define and redefine the Anthropocene for their own audiences and for their own ends.

New definitions and meanings will evolve that are far removed from global sediment flows. But “evolve” may not be quite the right word. It is more like the word “Anthropocene” is being exposed to the elements. Indeed, it will undergo a process of weathering.

2011: the Anthropocene comes of Age

2011 was a remarkable year. The Anthropocene concept broke out of the scientific community and into the mainstream. It took on a new significance and meaning in the wider world with potentially profound consequences for how we see our place on Earth.

The concept came of age.

The main events:

  1. In January 2011, the UK’s Royal Society’s in-house journal, Philosophical Transactions A, published a special issue, The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?
  2. On 11 May 2011, the Geological Society in London ran an open meeting of the same name.
  3. Also on 11 May, the Vatican (Pontifical Academy of Sciences)
    published a report, Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene
  4. A week later in Stockholm (16-19 May), a group of Nobel Laureates gathered at the home of the Nobel prizes, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, for a symposium on global sustainability. The Anthropocene was high on everyone’s lips.
  5. On 28 May the Economist‘s front cover read: Welcome to the Anthropocene. The magazine ran an editorial and feature on the concept’s power to change our view of ourselves and the planet.
  6. A couple of weeks later, also at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and partners held a three-day workshop to look at how we navigate the Anthropocene, Planetary Stewardship: solutions for responsible development.
  7. Throughout May and June the global media discussed the Anthropocene: the Guardian, New York Times, BBC.
  8. In October, the Dalai Larma held a seminar to discuss the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene.
  9. In November, to mark the arrival of number Seven Billion, Globaia launched the Cartography of the Anthropocene – an amazing suite of data visualizations taking us through the Anthropocene.
  10. December, Hope in the Age of the Man, (New York Times).
  11. End-of-year reviews brim with references to the Anthropocene, Nature 365, 2011 in review: living in the Anthropocene, Bloomberg Don’t Panic: Earth’s nine threats to humanity.

First “State of the Planet” declaration published

On 29 March, 2012, the Planet Under Pressure conference published the first State of the Planet declaration to “our global interconnected society”.

State of the Planet Declaration

Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions

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.

2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.

3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

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.

5. The Global Environmental Change Programmes[1] with the International Council for Science convened the Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions conference to assess the state of the planet and explore solutions to impending global crises. The conference brought together nearly 3000 leading experts and decision-makers to discuss global challenges and offer new solutions. And at least 3000 people across the world participated in the conference online.


6. Humanity has taken a huge leap and become a planetary-scale force. Significant changes have occurred since the 1950s, and the rate of change is accelerating. Researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilisation.

7. The past decade has seen the emergence of important areas of new scientific understanding by which to define what we are witnessing:

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. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.

A2. The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are themselves highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation. But they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.

A3. Assessments of current mechanisms for governing global environmental change show why existing international arrangements are not dealing quickly enough with current global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss. There is growing evidence that diverse partnerships amongst local, national and regional governments as well as business and civil society provide essential safety nets should singular global policies fail – a polycentric approach for planetary stewardship.

8. These insights from recent research demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountabilities of nation states to support planetary stewardship. This requires goals aimed at global sustainability in order to achieve universal sustainable development. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of well-being and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.


9. Interconnected issues require interconnected solutions. Rapid scientific and technological progress can provide potential solutions – if adopted in timely manner – to reduce the risk of deleterious consequences for societies everywhere. But technological innovation alone will not be enough. We can transform our values, beliefs and aspirations towards sustainable prosperity.

10. Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions. This contract needs to encompass three elements:

B1. Integrated goals for global sustainability based on scientific evidence are needed to provide essential targets for societies. In support of this, the international scientific community calls for a framework for regular global sustainability analyses that link existing assessments that build on the foundations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and other ongoing efforts. Such analyses can be designed to bring coherence to the science-policy interface.

B2. The challenges facing a planet under pressure demand a new approach to research that is more integrative, international and solutions-oriented. We need to link high-quality focused scientific research to new policy-relevant interdisciplinary efforts for global sustainability. This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research as well as local knowledge systems, across the North and South, and must be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders, and the private sector. As part of this new collaboration, at this conference the global-environmental-change programmes support a major research initiative, Future Earth: research for global sustainability.

B3. New mechanisms to facilitate an interactive dialogue on global sustainability among the various stakeholders and the policy-making community at different scales. Such interactions should be designed to bring societal relevance and trust to science-policy interfaces, and more effectively inform decision-making to keep pace with rapid global change.

11. To these ends, the initiatives above must be supported by:

  • A greater commitment to fund and support capacity-building in science and education globally, and particularly in developing countries.
  • A strong commitment to both applied and pure research and increased efforts to bring together disciplines, across all research domains.
  • Strengthened support for observing systems, particularly in developing countries, including the new observations needed to support decision-making for global sustainability. New approaches should fully integrate global observing systems for environmental and social issues.
  • Continued exploration of new areas of knowledge, such as theoretical and applied research in behavioural science and economics addressing ecological and social tipping points and irreversibility at multiple levels.


12. The United Nations Rio+20 Conference is an opportunity the world must seize at this crucial juncture. The UN Secretary-General’s Global Sustainability Panel report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, provides a strong strategic framework for a sustainable future while calling for a marked strengthening of the interface between science and policy. The findings of the Planet Under Pressure conference support the key recommendations including:

C1. Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars. Current understanding supports the creation of a Sustainable Development Council within the UN system to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level. There is also strong support for strengthening global governance by including civil society, business and industry in decision-making at all levels.

C2. A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production. The research community should be involved in the development of goals, targets and indicators, recognising interconnected issues and building on existing measures of well-being. They should apply to all levels of governance.

C3. Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.


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.

14. Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action. We must show leadership at all levels. We must all play our parts. A strong contribution from all stakeholders should make the UN’s Rio+20 conference a defining moment that sparks global innovation to move us towards a sustainable future. We urge the world to grasp this moment and make history.

London, 29th March 2012

[1] DIVERSITAS, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change and World Climate Research Programme.

Global temperature 1880 to 2011

Recently, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a time series of global temperatures from 1880 to 2011. The data shows how Earth continues to experience higher temperatures than several decades ago. The average temperature around the globe in 2011 was 0.51 C higher than the mid-20th century baseline.The global average surface temperature in 2011 was the ninth warmest since 1880.The finding sustains a trend that has seen the 21st century experience nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record.

NASA 2011 Global Temperatures, 9th warmest year since 1880

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).

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 CH4 over 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