Planet Earth, planet of change.
The planet's under pressure
In the lead up to the 2012 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development - Rio+20, a contingent of CSIRO scientists will join international colleagues at the London Planet Under Pressure conference to discuss the risks humanity is facing from global change. (10:54)
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Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I'm Glen Paul. Back in November of 2010 the international science community announced what they considered to be the five grand challenges of addressing global sustainability in a world of change. These included forecasting, observing, confining, responding, and innovating. And while there’s plenty of research already happening to effectively respond to these grand challenges, there remains the need for a more rigorous, coordinated global effort if science is to effectively respond to them.
To help achieve this a major four day international conference is being held in London from the 26th of March, which will bring together scientists, policy makers, and industry leaders from across the globe. It’s hoped the Planet Under Pressure conference will act as a platform for discussing solutions, big and small, to move societies onto a sustainable pathway.
Science Director of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, Dr Mark Stafford-Smith, is co-Chair of the Planet Under Pressure Conference, and joins me on the phone. Mark, it certainly is a big get together there in London, and being guided by the aforementioned five grand challenges, can you just briefly summarise those for us so we get a feeling of what will likely be on the table?
Dr Stafford-Smith: Well the key for our future on a planet which is coming under pressure is that we really on the one hand need to be able to recognise and deal with the pressures that we’re under, and that means you’ve got to be able to observe them and understand the processes that are going on. And on the other hand we need I think a far better engagement between science and society decision makers, whether in industry or in policy, to be able to respond to those challenges, and in that a whole host of other aspects of science come in.
And so the conference really is designed around a flow of recognising the pressures that we’re under, some quite negative statistics on what we face there, which will be very much the focus of our first day. But then moving on to recognise that we actually have an awful lot of knowledge about solutions coming out of all of those five areas of research, which we want to really showcase on the second day. The third day’s a bit of a downer again, because the reality is we just don’t seem to be taking action on these things we do know quick enough, so the third day will ask why that is, and seek to understand why, which of course in part is largely around social institutions and the arrangements of Governments in that localised world.
And the fourth day then aims to end with a real positive crashing set of information about the way ahead, how we do that, and bring a lot more senior policy and industry people along to the conference for that final day, to recognise that there’s things we can do here.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And what measures are in place to get all parties involved in discussion?
Dr Stafford-Smith: Well, we're expect 2500 people at least, probably a few more than that, and there is of course a whole series of perhaps more conventional scientific sessions which will be outlining some of the latest research, some of the real advances we’ve seen over the last decade, but there are also a whole series of sessions which are intended to be more participatory discussion, engagement, network creating sessions, that aim to leave a real legacy from the conference of much more involvement and connections between policy, business, science, and indeed civil society.
The conference also has a very strong linkage into the whole process moving towards the Rio+20 Conference in June, where the world will get together and hopefully make some significant decisions about how to deal with all the interconnected pressures that we face.
Glen Paul: Now you did mention some negativity there surrounding various issues, was it difficult, or was there any resistance in getting industry leaders and policy makers to attend?
Dr Stafford-Smith: Well we’re still chasing them. There has been a great deal of interest in many areas. We have a series of Patrons – we established a Board of Patrons of senior such people, which people can see on the website – and so we have Patrons such as Jan-Eric Sundgren, for example, from Volvo, who is passionate about the need for businesses to find better routes to contribute to the sustainability of the world, at the same time of course as turning a quid. So I mean there are people like that who are working very hard to get their colleagues and peers along to the conference.
On the more policy oriented side we’ve had a lot of interactions with the Global Sustainability Panel, which was a panel of senior international figures appointed by the UN Secretary General to put together a report on issues that might be dealt with at Rio, but coming from a little bit outside the normal negotiating sphere. And so there are some of them coming along, but also we’ve fed quite a bit of material into the pre-negotiations, and we’re anticipating that quite a number of the people who’ll be in the negotiations at Rio will be along at the conference.
But I mean those in a way are aimed at shorter term interactions. The longer term thing is thinking about both the science, the science agenda that’s needed over the next decade or so to contribute to all these problems, and also the science policy, or science decision maker engagement processes that can help with that, so one of the exciting developments that will be announced on the last day is our commitment to a much greater emphasis on that sort of engagement process in the way that science is carried out at this global level over the next decade.
So there’s all sorts of exciting things going on there, which we hope will leave really serious legacies.
Glen Paul: And you did mention it’s a prelude to Rio+20, so do you expect the conversation to become heated?
Dr Stafford-Smith: I’m sure there will be some heated issues. I hope there will be some cool blooded thinking through as well. There are emerging in the early drafts of the things that are going to the negotiators at Rio, there are some emerging issues which are sort of positive ideas, things like creating a new set of sustainable development goals that could add to the millennium development goals which have been guiding some international activities over the last decade; looking for some SDGs (sustainable development goals), they could do that better.
So I mean there’s an example of an idea which seems to be pretty firmly embedded in the Rio negotiations, but there’s a great deal of genuine scientific challenge, and also no doubt political manoeuvring to be done, to think about what those goals might be. So I hope the conference will contribute to that sort of thing, so that could be both heated, but also hopefully cooling and contributing usefully.
There are other issues such as thinking about global institutions that might put a much higher emphasis on a truly integrated approach to sustainable development, so we’ve seen something of a fragmentation between the economic social and environmental pillars since the Brundtland Report back in the early 80s, and it’s time now to really bring those together in a profoundly integrated sort of way, and that actually does need some sort of entity which can speak to those integrated issues in a way that the sort of silos of UN organisations at the moment find difficult.
So that again is one where there’s a fairly strong support for something to happen at Rio, but there’s a lot to be said, and a lot to be discussed, around exactly what that might mean, and there is from the Governments research that’s been happening internationally, there’s quite a lot of insight as to how that might be done. And there are a number of other issues like that, so I’m sure there’ll be some exciting conversations there.
Glen Paul: And in relation to that research, what is CSIRO bringing to the conference?
Dr Stafford-Smith: Well, CSIRO have quite a contingent there. I think there’s 40 or so people planning to head along, and I think involved in running at least two or three sessions, as well as giving almost in all cases, I think giving Papers. So there’s some exciting possibilities there.
I think CSIRO has plenty to offer at this time when global research is trying to think about how to be a bit more strategic applied, which of course is our mandate, so I think we have lessons to offer to people around the world about that.
We also have lessons to offer, I think, in this whole area of engaging with decision makers, again whether they’re in policy, or in industry, or in other sectors of society. Again, we have long experience in trying to do that, so I think we’ll be running a significant booth there, which we’ll try and get some of these messages across, and I hope CSIRO will come across in the conference as a significant player around the world in all of these issues.
Glen Paul: And what of the developing world, how, or who is going to represent them at the conference?
Dr Stafford-Smith: Well that’s a very good question, and the aspiration of the international organising committee, which I’m co-chairing, has been from the very start to try and get something like 40 per cent of our participation from the south, the global south, and we’ve put a lot of effort into raising resources to get people there. I’m not sure whether we’re quite going to meet our 40 per cent, but there is a very large contingent of people internationally coming.
In fact there’s something like 96 countries represented at the conference, so a very diverse set of people, and more than half our parallel sessions have got southern representatives as convenors, or co-convenors, so there’ll be a good turnout in that sense, both at the science level, and in fact in the more policy level, probably less in the industry side unfortunately.
And I guess we’ve made a very big effort to try and get some balance right through the program in terms of the involvement of the south, so that the voice is there. And I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll have some very powerful and effective discussions going on there.
Glen Paul: Righteo. Now of course the conference is in London, but we do have overseas listeners, so who would you encourage to attend, and is there a cut-off date in signing up to attend the conference?
Dr Stafford-Smith: Well people can turn up, up to the day in terms of turning up, if they don’t mind paying the money to get there [laughs], but I think perhaps really importantly for our Australian audience, if you’re not planning on just popping over to London at the time, the whole plenary part of the conference will be live streamed on website.
And excitingly as part of that a couple of things are really interesting. One is that the International Association of Science and Technology Centres is running a host of activities around the world that are happening – I think it’s something like 80 events that are happening at the same time as the conference, trying to build on it in a variety of countries.
And equally importantly we’ve actually taken the decision that the plenary hall will have no microphones, so people won’t be popping up there and seizing the microphone, and belabouring the audience for hours from there. People from anywhere will need to ask questions in the plenary panel discussions through social media, so that means that it’s just as easy to ask a question from your dinner table here in Australia, which will be about the time it will be happening, as it would be if you were sitting in the plenary hall there.
So I hope people around the world really will get engaged in that sense.
Glen Paul: Now that’s very 21st Century. So do people just Google 'Planet Under Pressure'?
Dr Stafford-Smith: If you Google that you’ll find it easy enough, but the website in fact is planetunderpressure2012.net.
Glen Paul: Well it certainly sounds like it’s going to be a red letter event, and I’d be very keen to catch up afterwards to discuss the outcomes, and some of the other surprises that might come from it all, so thank you very much for discussing it with me today, Mark, and best of luck with the conference.
Dr Stafford-Smith: Thanks. It’s looking very exciting.
Glen Paul: Dr Mark Stafford-Smith. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au. You can like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at CSIROnews.