This Is Humanity's Most Important Year Ever

"We can no longer operate at this scale and act as planetary stewards."

02/10/2015 9:58 PM AEST | Updated 18/11/2015 11:55 AM AEDT
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Deep in Western minds is a fixation with the classic Hollywood storyline that whatever the scale of disaster facing the world, a last-minute heroic act will save us from annihilation.

For those who believe we are nearing the tipping point of runaway climate change, the remainder of 2015 is being seen as perhaps our last chance to save the world as we know it.

With the United Nations' global climate talks in Paris in December and the adoption last month of the global Sustainable Development Goals, Johan Rockström, the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, tells me “this is the most important year for humanity ever.” 

Rockström, who developed the concept of mankind's "planetary boundaries," states that what scientists are now able to say with certainty, which was not the case even five years ago, is that as a species, we have the power to disrupt the entire planetary system.

Pointing out that “we can no longer operate at this scale and act as planetary stewards,” Rockström says we are coming close to tipping points on a local, regional and global scale.

He reiterates that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest climate forecasts, which warn of “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on humanity and the natural world unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced, represent a conservative assessment that does not include all risks, such as the release of methane from the Arctic. Rockström says there is already an inbuilt 1.6 percent chance of reaching a “universally catastrophic” six-degree Celsuis rise in global temperatures. This, he says, is equivalent to the risk of “1,500 fatal air crashes every day.”

 Here's Rockström speaking at New York City's Climate Week last week.

Rockström, a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University, is not the only one to be talking up the importance of this year. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now the UN’s special envoy for climate change, who is charged with helping to carve out an agreement at the Paris climate talks, told me earlier this year that 2015 is the most critical year since the end of the Second World War in 1945, when we saw the emergence of a new world order, supported by the charter for the UN and the Marshall Plan. 

Britain's Prince Charles has also upped the rhetoric, recently saying we are facing potentially the “last chance” to save the world from the perils of global warming.

While they are all feeling the desperate urgency of our sustainability challenges, this contrasts dramatically with the awareness of the average person on the street. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, most people just do not recognise there is a risk that the lives they are currently living could literally be swept away.

I raised this with Rockström, and he responds by talking about the need to engage more broadly with different communities, such as faith and youth groups, as well as building bridges between science and culture.

He says we need to change our language and refers to the Archbishop of Sweden, who has brought the message down to its core essence: We are disrupting God’s creation, we depend on a healthy planet, and therefore we need to ensure we stay within a stable system. This is similar to the message that was portrayed by Pope Francis in his recent trip to the U.S.

But given that we are unlikely anytime soon to see millions of people awaken to the dangers of climate change and demanding action from politicians, how are we to ensure humanity becomes planetary hero rather than villain.

Rockström says we need a new mindset. Not only must we move away from the idea of growth at any cost but also recognize the abject failure of those who have been promoting an end to economic expansion.

He believes the concept of planetary boundaries offers a middle path because it supports a new vision for prosperity.

“Changing the growth paradigm has not worked,“ he says. “But we are increasingly seeing an enormous opportunity from the rising evidence of disruptive technologies and the ability to decarbonize the economy. The idea of creating abundance within planetary boundaries may be very attractive to humanity, that business can thrive within a safe operating space."

“I get the reaction that this is a utopia and not feasible as there is so much need for development," he adds. "But the sustainable development goals are a framework that provides us with a basic infrastructure to operate within planetary boundaries, since it embraces the issues of water, oceans, climate and biodiversity.”

Rockström says the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which stopped the production of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer, offers a model of what is possible: Scientific evidence informing policy, which in turn creates disruptive technology as a result of business having to innovate to stay within certain boundaries. 

“There is a rising recognition that we have been navigating in the dark, and the work on planetary boundaries provides a navigational chart,” he says. “It is liberating as there are no normative assumptions on the perceptions and desires of human beings. It lays out how the world can develop. The key now is to move at speed and scale, going from theory into what is now the art of the possible."

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