By guest blogger Bo Kjellén, SEI Senior Research Fellow and Former Chief Climate Negotiator for Sweden
The human species has never been here before. After 35000 years of struggle for survival, facing dangerous other species, an unforgiving natural environment, diseases and hunger on an immensely large planet, homo sapiens started to build civilizations, at the height of their power seemingly invulnerable – yet in reality ephemeral. Mighty buildings were constructed; but wars, diseases, and poverty destroyed generations. To seek answers to the meaning of all this, cultures developed, religions and philosophers appeared, science and technology paved the way for the industrial revolution and modernity two hundred years ago.
Yet the human species counted less than 1 billion people by the beginning of the 19th Century. Rapid technical progress and revolutionary improvements in medicine formed the basis for a new kind of civilization, with unprecedented wealth for parts of the populations, yet unprecedented gaps between rich and poor. Human culture flourished as never before; yet the 20th Century became the bloodiest in history.
After the Second World War multilateral cooperation entered a new era, with the creation of the United Nations, and we said: never more war. Also we created new global and regional economic institutions, and we said: never more depression. We saw democracy rise, human rights becoming universal.
Over the last fifty years, our species has also come to realize that global development, technological progress, and a rapidly increasing population, bring us into conflict with the immensely large natural systems. Environmental problems, which were local, national, or regional, have now become global. Our species is now the master of the planet; we have become a force of nature. This is the Anthropocene Era.
Our understanding of this predicament has grown gradually, reflected in the evolving character of efforts to tackle environmental change: when the first UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm 1972, the national and regional problems were in focus. Twenty years later, at the Rio de Janeiro Conference, the development issues were raised with the notion of sustainability; but it was also the time to tackle global problems such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, the United Nations moved from the establishment of norms to legally binding instruments, with the Rio Conventions, on Climate Change, Biological Diversity, and the Combat of Desertification. Now, in a few months, the Rio+20 Conference must face the emerging reality of the integration of all these global impacts in the Anthropocene.
Science and research have a special responsibility to make an essential contribution to the Rio+20 event: the curiosity of humans has been part of our mythology from ancient times, reflected in the tale of Dr. Faust. Modern technology has not made a deal with the devil, but in order to conquer the world we might have sold our soul to the use of fossil fuels, or to other products or practices which bring us into conflict with the global natural systems.
The major role of the Planet under Pressure Conference is to underline for decision-makers and the general public that there have to be significant changes in the way our societies and economies operate to avoid global problems due to major dysfunctions of global environmental systems. At the same time the London Conference must be able to critically consider the contribution of science and research over the crucial period until 2050. In particular, there has to be new and more efficient efforts by the social sciences, the humanities, and law, in providing the elements for societal change which would provide enabling conditions for the necessary international action to be successful. This means that the Conference cannot shy away from the social and economic difficulties at the present time.
Bo Kjellén has served on the Board of Patrons for Planet Under Pressure. He is a Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Senior Research Fellow, Visiting Fellow at Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and is a European Climate Platform (ECP) Co-Chair. He was former Chief Climate Negotiator for Sweden.