Over four days in Stockholm this week, the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability has convened dozens of thought leaders to address the theme of “Transforming the World in an Era of Global Change.” John Francis, the Vice President for Research, Conservation, and Exploration at the National Geographic Society, is an inside observer. In this second dispatch from the proceedings, Francis reports on a mock trial: Planet Earth vs. Humanity, and the verdict rendered by the jury of intellectuals.
Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, Judge during the Nobel Court Case: Planet Earth vs. Humanity. The hearing was arranged at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with a jury of Molina and other Nobel Laureates. The verdict will be handed over to the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)
By John Francis
Stockholm–I came to the challenges of this convention with a bias, especially concerned about how effectively laureates and academicians might generate the Great Transformation proposed for the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability. The objective was to gather in Stockholm some 20 Nobel laureates and, as it turns out, another 40 experts who care deeply about global sustainability. They have three days to seek solutions. Many have already devoted a lifetime.
The mood through the first day varied, and the conceit was to put the human species on trial, literally. In the opening press conference, Johan Rockström (Symposium Chair and Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University) set the stage. He and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of Potsdam Institute of Climate Action Research, talked about how business as usual will no longer suffice and common sense must prevail to carefully manage the Earth in this new “Anthropocene” or age of man.
Johan Rockström, Chair of the Nobel Laureate Symposium and Executive Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stockholm Environment Institute. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)
The Swedish Minister for the Environment, Andreas Carlgren called attention to our natural capital being used up as though we could rely on multiple planets, and Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate and chemist, took on the practicalities of effectively presenting scientific evidence to this effect. Indeed, the debate began on what is tractable, and knowable, and indeed sensible, in climate change and other effects on our diverse life systems.
All agree at this symposium that the evidence is firm on what is happening. Humans are impacting the Earth and profoundly. The question is how badly and what can be done about it.
Gretchen Daily, of Stanford University, provided some hope, with details of China and Costa Rica investing in a healthy planet by protecting forested land, replanting, and mitigating costly flooding and downstream calamity. Crises have precipitated large investments, planting orchards on highly erodable slopes, vegetation can be managed to prevent loss of carbon to the atmosphere and such lessons can travel worldwide.
More effective land use is now empowered through Google Earth and other global systems. Kroto placed faith in innovation through information access, positing a distributed network of students who could compete for the best solutions to our common maladies.
Finally, Mario Molina, a Nobelist in Chemistry from the University of California, San Diego, emphasized that the time is limited and the greatest challenges were in accurately assessing and communicating the risks at hand.
On this dramatically cloudy, but intensely beautiful spring day, the amassed minds carried a potent, deliberate optimism. HRH Crown Princess Victoria envisaged us receiving a “911 call” from the future and, key to the day, expected that the seeds must take root to allow for this winter to be followed by spring and summer. In Stockholm, where an international discussion in 1972 first raised a discussion of global sustainability, we were feeling that very course. “Optimism is the most valuable when the challenges are overwhelming,” she declared — and the body assembled was up for no less.
Despite such grand objectives, I worried that the discussion on how much human enterprise has dominated our planet would be a snore. But the proceedings were designed otherwise. A mock civil trial ensued testing various propositions: that humanity has pushed Earth to a new age, that we risk passing catastrophic tipping points, that we cannot continue with business as usual, and that we can still prosper within our earth systems. Rigorous cases unfolded for Earth as the plaintiff and humanity in defense, with a conclusion that all is not lost and that though we are not sure about how close we are to tipping points there is confidence that humans are up to the challenge.
Part of the solution is embedded in the enterprise, that of designing a Stockholm Memorandum to present to a UN High-level Panel serving as a roadmap for change. The group identified high level points of concern on the draft document, focusing on length, tone (too alarmist), hot buttons (is 1.5 degree cap on climate change too rigorous, should cap and trade language be avoided), the posture of science and imposing adequate humility, the links between poverty and inequalities in the solutions, highlighting consumption and waste, developing more trust between nations and people, the need for drastic change and the need of bridging science and policy — and I would add communication. The tone was surprisingly agreeable with substantive and positive direction to increase the efficacy of the document.
Jury members discuss the verdict during the Noble Court Case: Planet Earth vs. Humanity. Jury members (from left): Nobel Laureates James Mirrlees, Werner Arber, Carlo Rubbia and Peter C. Doherty. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)
At the center of the afternoon dialogue was the need for innovation. Examples of the Chilean loco fishery, where collapse in 1988 created a need for elevating preexisting local solutions and led to fisheries stability. And the Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia which enjoyed a perfect storm of local entrepreneurs, cooperating with government and extractive industry, and during an economic turning point to lead to increased resource protection.
Presenters recommend promoting creative settings to predispose creativity and design and this was not lost on a body of people recognized for their remarkable achievements in science and literature. Beyond this, cooperative enterprise in response to the SARS epidemic encouraged a rapid discovery of the responsible virus. Delegates also emphasized that innovation has to reach governmental and policy positions. The inventive interface which at the heart of this symposium, including a trial, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit encourage even more inspiration in the time to come.
I happily note that day did not end in panels and discussion rooms at the Swedish Royal Academy, but rather on the water and then in the Eric Ericson Choral Hall Though rain descended in the late afternoon the clouds then glowed and rainbows graced a trip around a National City Park, with it’s wild nature square in the middle of the Stockholm. Perhaps this is symbolic of the enterprise on Global Sustainability altogether too unique on this planet.
In the concert hall the community of Stockholm enjoyed with conferees a delightful and inspiring juxtaposition of the arts and sciences. Matthias Klum’s photography of challenge and optimism in the natural world played duet against Johan Roskstrom’s perspectives on global sustainability, Nobel prize laureate Nadine Gordimer read from her stories of human challenge and change, and choral performances including a special composition by Sven-David Sandström based on Nobel Laureate Seamus Heany”s poem entitiled the Human Chain provided emotional, ethereal and for me, tearful portrayals of the beauty of nature and the complexity of human plight in this difficult time.
Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate in Literature 1991, reads her short story The Ultimate Safari on the challenges facing a family fleeing Mozambique for South Africa, as told by a young black girl. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)
The laureates, many scientists, the convenors, and their partners in the community certainly have the right elements in place. And I think in the right place.
As I made my way back to the hotel in the late evening, again struck but the gorgeous high-latitude light and sculpted sky, I await the final day of hopeful innovation.
The third Nobel Laureate Symposium, which follows from previous meetings in Potsdam and London, is focusing on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change. The meeting is taking place at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm May 16-19.