Friday, March 30, 2012

Scientists Call for Practical Steps to Smooth Humanity’s Journey

Planet Under Pressure, a four-day conference exploring how science can identify and limit risks in the face of increasing human impacts on the Earth, has ended* with a call for “urgent action” against the the unrelenting buildup of greenhouse gases. But the prime focus, refreshingly, was on boosting science education and interdisciplinary inquiry and maintaining investments in systems and agencies devoted to comprehending environmental change.

At a final press briefing, Sybil Seitzinger, executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, which has been charting the great acceleration of environmental impacts, said: “I think we’re ready for a great acceleration of the next steps in our science.”

(The meeting also saw the release of a new report pointing to ways to address stresses on the global food system, summarized nicely by Justin Gillis on the Green Blog.)

Particularly refreshing, in a session on “convergent global megatrends,” was Sir John Beddington, the science adviser to the British government. He offered a perspective on the challenges of sustaining a thriving planet that was far more cogent and realistic than anything I’ve heard in years. (Watch the video clip above.)
First, he said, plainly, that no one knows at present how to get the world on a path toward stabilized concentrations of the main greenhouse emission, carbon dioxide. In essence, he acknowledged that this process will take a very long time and require a series of generational handoffs, as data and options evolve. This is the iterative “learn and adjust” approach that also was stressed in the recent America’s Climate Choices report from the National Academy of Sciences.

That approach contrasts with the strategy tried, in vain, under two decades of international negotiations aimed at building a comprehensive and binding treaty, and, in the United States, a lost decade aimed at passing a “comprehensive” climate bill. Beddington’s stance reflects a broader shift away from “solving the climate crisis” toward managing climate risk, both by enhancing the capacity to withstand extreme conditions while working as hard as possible to stem emissions.

Here’s one transcribed excerpt from our chat after the panel. Beddington notes that while long-term outcomes for humans and climate are uncertain, human and environmental trajectories through 2030 or so are already clear, offering clear choices on actions that could limit regrets and boost prospects later in the century:
There are three key areas that are determined. Population growth is one. We are going to reach a further billion people by 2025…. We also know the distribution of that billion — about 500 million in Africa 500, about 500 million in Asia…. Changes in fertility will not affect it much.

The second trend is urbanization. There’s a massive trend towards people moving into cities in the developing world. And so for example those 500 million Africans are likely to be in 1,000 cities of 500,000 people each. Something similar in Asia except the cities are about a million. So those are two trends that are just not going to change. They’re going to be there for about the next 15 to 20 years.

The third change that’s happening is climate change. And because of the delays in the climate system, the greenhouse gases that are up there now are going to determine the climate for about 15-20 years ahead – even whatever happens in terms of the reduction of greenhouse gases, or indeed their expansion.
During the session, he said that the challenges posed by these simultaneous trends, in terms of providing adequate food, water and economic prospects, will force governments to act even as they resist steps to address the longer-term questions.

“The seriousness gives me some degree of hope,” he explained, noting how the near-term stresses fit within the political cycles of most developing democracies. “I think you have a situation where countries will actually have to recognize these things are happening,” he said, saying that the responses will, appropriately, be local. “The world will not come together to solve the world water problem. It will be solved on the local level.”

He described steps identified by Britain’s Foresight Project, which has produced a string of invaluable reports assessing issues and opportunities arising in considering the next 20 to 80 years in agriculture, water, climate, food and other areas.

One huge opportunity lies in closing the “yield gap” between African farm productivity and that in developed countries. Another is cutting food, water and energy waste. Beddington noted, for example, that China is building many of its reservoirs underground to limit losses from evaporation.

Needless to say, this approach resonates with me. It also meshes with the approach on climate taken by Stephen H. Schneider late in life, when he called for stepwise action that demonstrates success and builds popular support instead of intensifying divisions — as so many policy approaches on climate have done so far.

Here’s a Debategraph “map” of issues and options explored at the meeting. I’ll be filing a separate post about this fascinating new tool for shaping constructive discourse on layered issues.

Written by Andrew C. Revkin@The Opinion Pages New York Times

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