Our day to day lives are punctuated by profound events, some positive – landing on the Moon, fall of the Berlin Wall – others less so – Gandhi’s assassination, 9/11. In retrospect, these turn out to be turning points in the path the world then follows. The UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was such an event – the world got together and made quantum changes in agreeing to develop global treaties on climate change, on biodiversity and on desertification: major steps towards concerted action on sustainability.
Since 1992 we have come to understand the pressures that humans are putting on our planetary life support system much better. Twenty years on, our science tells us that the Earth has entered the ‘Anthropocene’, a geological era in which human impacts are now as important in driving how the planet operates as geological and astronomical forces have been in past eras. And 20 years on, 2012 is the year that Rio will once more host an Earth Summit of all the world’s nations – Rio+20.
Will 2012 be as special as 1992?
That all depends. It certainly needs to be. These are days of gloom and of hope.
The gloom is all around. The planet is under pressure in so many challenging and hard-to-imagine ways:
- Our climate is warming, with decreasing optimism that there is any chance of staying below the 2C of warming that is associated with ‘dangerous levels of warming’
- Our oceans are acidifying, and fixing the climate without reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere won’t help this
- Our waterways and oceans are flooded with nitrogen and phosphorus, depleting oxygen and creating dead zones for higher organisms like fish
And many more – ozone, aerosols, land use change, degradation, loss of biodiversity, globalised trade that doesn’t account for the value of ecosystem services, increasing consumption trends, and so on. In fact, our science tells us that the combination of these pressures means that we really have very little time to act.
On the other hand, our science – and many other sources of ideas – also gives us great hope:
- We know what needs to be done to de-carbonise our economy and start to control greenhouse gases
- We know a great deal about how to manage many of our global cycles, like water, nitrogen and phosphorus
- We know how important it is to stop uncontrolled rainforest destruction
And again, many, many more. In reality, we have many solutions, but we are not applying them fast enough.
This is why we need 2012 to be as much of a turning point as 1992 was. World leaders at Rio+20 need to commit to act on the evidence – both of risks and of solutions – before them.
And the science community has a role to play in continuing to inform the urgency and options for this action. This is the purpose of the Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge towards Solutions conference in London next March.
Mark Stafford-Smith is co-chair of the conference and Science Director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at CSIRO, Australia.