Planet Earth, planet of change.
Science in support of Rio+20
In March 2012, the Planet Under Pressure conference brought together 3000 leading experts– including CSIRO scientists– to provide scientific leadership for the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development - Rio+20. (10:01)
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Listen to Part One of this podcast, the planet's under pressure.
Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I'm Glen Paul. Back in late March of 2012 some 3000 delegates attended the Planet Under Pressure conference in London, making it the largest gathering of global change scientists in the lead-up to the United Nations conference on sustainable development, RIO+20.
The conference acted as a platform for scientists, policy makers, and industry leaders from across the globe to work through solutions big and small to move societies onto a sustainable pathway.
Joining me on the line to discuss outcomes is CSIRO's Dr Mark Stafford Smith, who co-chaired the conference and the State of the Planet Declaration, which was delivered at the conference's end. Firstly Mark, how satisfied are you with how the conference panned out?
Dr Stafford Smith: Well, you know, you can always do things better, but I think we had some fantastic turn-up there, and in terms of the two major objectives, the two sort of high level objectives of the conference, which was to really try and think about the priorities for the next decade of global change research on the one hand, and on the other hand try and have some concrete and useful input into the Rio+20 conference that’s coming up in a month or so, I think both of those were achieved pretty successfully, and we had some fantastic global reach.
As you mentioned we had 3000 or so delegates there, but another 3500 or so listening online. We’ve so far mapped about 400 or so media stories, original stories, and probably into the thousands in terms of ones that are syndicated from that, which have gone out to well over 40 countries and 15 languages.
So there’s been an enormous reach, and a whole stack of other statistics which one could reel off like that.
Glen Paul: Hmm, and speaking of reach you certainly achieved that with the State of the Planet Declaration, which reflects the key messages that emerged from the conference. And in reading the first part, there’s not a lot there that we didn’t already know, but I was intrigued by the growing consensus that we’ve driven the planet into a new era, the Anthropocene – what is that exactly?
Dr Stafford Smith: Yes, I think there’s a number of things which if you’re following the science closely you wouldn’t say are exactly new, but which I think have come together over the last decade with a deeper understanding, and one of them, as you say, is this idea of the Anthropocene. The idea of it, we now as a human race are influencing the planet at the same sort of scale as geological forces, and that some imaginary geologist in a few million years will be able to pick out the time in history at which the rocks of the earth start to show that, and it will show things like the nuclear explosions from back in the – nuclear tests – back in the '50s of course.
But actually today, you know we’re doing things like together we – collectively – we move more sediment, the human race moves more sediment today than all the rivers and other erosion processes around the world. I mean that is an immense statistic, if you just imagine how much stuff we’re shifting around.
Obviously we’re having impacts on things like the climate, where the CO2 levels are rising, and are at levels which haven’t been seen for a long time; we’re having an effect on ocean acidification; we’re having a whole series of effects like this which are literally at a planetary scale, and the significance of that, along with the fact that some of those changes may be pushing us through thresholds, the significance of that I think really is actually something which is a social thing, not a science thing, which is a social shift in understanding to appreciate that we’re now at the point where if we want the world to continue operating in a way which continues to deliver the services which we’ve had in terms of being able to live on the planet comfortably, if we want it to continue doing that in the way that it has for the last 8000 years or so of the Holocene, then it’s our responsibility to do that, we can’t sort of hop off and go somewhere else instead.
And it leads directly, I think, to this idea of planetary stewardship, which was talked about quite a bit at the conference, which I think has got a science element to it, but it’s actually as I say almost more of a social concern, a thing which we might see as being a bit of a social tipping point looking back in the future I hope, that this was the time when we came to realise that we collectively have got to take responsibility for how the planet operates.
Glen Paul: Hmm, well hopefully that will be the case. In developing these ideas, how much involvement did industry and policy makers have?
Dr Stafford Smith: Well I think one of the really encouraging things about the conference was we made a big effort to reach out to non-scientists, to decision makers in policy, and industry, and civil society, and you know we could always do this better, but we had a pretty substantial turnout of those, particularly in the fourth day of the conference, which we badged as a sort of high level policy, and industry, and decision making sort of day.
We had some great sessions where industry really got involved in collaboration with the science – that wasn’t every session, and it wasn’t intended to be – but there were some really good ones like that. We had a great input from what we called our Board of Patrons, which were sort of very senior people in industry and policy and elsewhere, who weren’t going to have time to be part of the sort of weekly meetings of the organising committee, but who nonetheless helped us a great deal to make a number of sessions happen, which brought along some of their colleagues.
I think the major thing from that will (indistinct words – 5:03), and we’re trying to track this now, will be some new collaborations and new networks that need to be followed up over the coming years really, but certainly over the coming months, and I certainly know of one or two of those myself specifically, but hopefully there’s quite a lot of those happening out of the conference in all sorts of little nooks and crannies.
Glen Paul: Hmm. OK, now the United Nations Rio+20 Conference is coming up in June, and there are a number of recommendations listed in the State of the Planet Declaration that some may consider a little radical, such as the fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions. What’s the reasoning behind that?
Dr Stafford Smith: Well I think, you know, one of the other core science understandings that’s developed further, again not completely new, but I think we’ve got much deeper understanding of in the last decade, is the degree to which a lot of the issues that we face are really interconnected, so the environment, and the economy, and social issues, are just deeply interwoven in so many cases, and it remains that at the global level, despite various attempts to overcome this, by and large those things are dealt with as silos, we still talk about those things as the three pillars of sustainable development, as if they can stand independently.
And I think we have to deeply reconceptualise that, you almost have to imagine a sort of triple helix, a bit like our DNA but with an extra strand where the economy, and the environment, and social issues are just profoundly entwined, and we need institutions that can facilitate that. So I mean one of the suggestions which came partly out of some of the work early on in the conference development, which had been picked up and is certainly being discussed in the negotiations for Rio, and which the conference re-endorsed strongly, is having some sort of sustainable development council, or some sort of high level body that – Politicians should work out exactly what it is – but some sort of thing, with the authority of the general assembly at the UN, to really try and draw out these intertwined threads, and make sure that they’re not just dealt with as silos which then come in conflict with each other.
And you know that the idea of having a body there is one element, you have to have something that that body is working towards, so the proposal for a suite of universal sustainable development goals which add up, we believe, to global sustainability, and which might eventually take over from the millennium development goals, is another thing being talked about a lot, and again science has something to offer here in terms of helping think through how those goals can genuinely integrate across these silos, rather than deal with them independently and then find they’re in conflict.
And then lastly, I think it’s also really important that we have the mechanisms for sort of science policy interface, the way in which science can contribute in a more regular analysis sort of way, around these sorts of issues, and there’s a proposal in there for an integrated assessment. Maybe it’s a bit more of an ongoing analysis engagement process which could be managed by the council, targeted the goals, but have a process which brings science and other players into the discussion to assist with providing the basis for decision making in these complex areas.
Glen Paul: Hmm. It certainly is a comprehensive document, and widely available on the internet simply by Googling 'State of the Planet Declaration'. Now Mark, next on the agenda of course is Rio+20, do you feel confident it will deliver, to use the slogan, the future we want?
Dr Stafford Smith: Well, no (laughs). I think in as much as the conference has a role to play, it has worked hard to identify things that science really can contribute to the debate there, and it’s certainly tried to contribute to the sense of urgency, which is perhaps one of the most important elements in that. I believe, and the efforts continue, there’s work going on right up to the conference, and after no doubt, talking to negotiating teams and keeping these ideas going.
I think the real question for Rio now is whether that sense of urgency – and opportunity too by the way, because I think we're at the point where we actually have a better idea of what to do than we did perhaps ten years ago – but whether that sense of urgency and opportunity translates through into leadership by nations' leaders basically at Rio, and taking on some of these potential options.
There's a lot of goodwill potentially to do that, but there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge in terms of negotiations that may water things down between now and then. So I think anyone listening to this who has a chance to continue to promote the need for us to really collectively as a globe make a significant step in this significant year, anything you can do is worth doing.
Glen Paul: Absolutely. And hopefully we can achieve some real goals. Thank you very much for discussing it with me today, Mark.
Dr Stafford Smith: OK, no worries. Great to talk to you again, Glen.
Glen Paul: Dr Mark Stafford Smith. And just to let you know, there'll be a couple of weeks break with CSIROpod. I've been fortunate enough to receive a study scholarship, so I'm heading off to the US to visit NASA, amongst others, and check out their multimedia operations, so I’ll catch up with you then.
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