Published on March 26, 2012

Planet under pressure – Science’s warning to the world

By Rosalie Callway

Rosalie is supporting Involve in looking at the central role of public engagement in delivering sustainable development, identifying new opportunities for engagement, building the evidence base for how engagement can assist changing attitudes and behaviour, as well as ways to scale up engagement.

A global gathering of scientists and academics are meeting this week in London in advance of the Rio +20 Summit on Environment and Development to wake up the world to our responsibility to the Earth.

In the first day of a four-day international conference participants are looking at the state of the planet – current trends and looking to the future. Major threats to the planet include:

  • Biodiversity and ecosystem loss, overuse and invasive organisms – damage caused by land use changes: deforestation, mangroves cut for prawn farms, mining, urbanisation
  • Water pollution and overloading – Nitrogen, phosphorous run off to rivers and oceans
  • Climate change – Green House Gas emissions resulting in melting of polar ice sheets, sea level and temperature rise, extreme climate events (flooding, drought,

The speakers from the first day have been clear – despite some positive responses we are failing to halt these trends. “The fabric of life is deteriorating fast…it is taking with it a number of important benefits to mankind…” Sandra Díaz, Professor, Córdoba National University

When I first began studying this agenda back in the early 1990’s we were shown research on Ozone Layer destruction and Global Warming from the 1970’s. The Limits To Growth report from 1972 was clear in its warning of economic and societal collapse. Scientists at this meeting agree that the report’s predictions from thirty years ago are now showing to be broadly correct.

What is unusual and important about this meeting is that that it is drawing together experts from across scientific disciplines to address the complexity of the earth as a system – also known as the ‘Gaia’ concept or Earth Systems Science. This science also recognises that humanity has moved on from the last 12,000 years of Holocene into the ‘Anthropocene’. This Age of Man is putting huge pressure on the earth system and if it continues we will see a sudden and shocking run-away system that we may no longer be able to control.

What’s most troubling about all this science and research is not just the escalating environmental threat to the planet. It is that politicians and the public are failing to react quickly enough in response. We are still painfully slow to make the connections between our social, economic and political behaviours on the earth which we all depend. Within a complex earth system the impacts of our behaviour are not necessarily felt immediately or directly.

Hopefully there are more than earnest academics attending this event. The science needn’t be bewildering but it is often lost in the push to get people to pay attention to the most critical issues; “We must focus on oceans. They cover 96% of the earth but only get 5% of the [political] attention”.

The following days of the conference will address the questions of how do we live within planet’s boundaries? And discussing those options and opportunities that lie before us.

‘This is the critical decade…we have to start now…We should have started 20 years ago’ Professor Will Steffen.

Planet Under Pressure runs from March 26-29 and is available to watch here Live online. This is the first blog about the conference with another focusing on Public Engagement to follow.

 Image from thinkgloballyradio

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