Day three at the Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability had a high-level start with the arrival of the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf. But the dialogues and relationships forming behind the scenes of a gathering of some of the world’s most brilliant minds are unseen turning points of the event, reports John Francis, the National Geographic observer at the conference.
By John Francis
Stockholm--With the arrival of King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a presentation of “Only One Earth” by Andreas Carlgren, Minister for the Environment, the morning of day three at the Symposium on Global Sustainability had a high-level start. But my head was still buzzing from the conversations with Nobel laureates in the 20-minute bus ride from downtown Stockholm. Indeed, beyond the product of the Memorandum to be signed today at the Academy, the dialogues and relationships behind the scenes are unseen turning points of the event.
In one discussion with a laureate, we lamented the challenge of mapping how significant change takes place on the global and local stages. And were we to more deftly track the levers of public opinion and policy, how much more effective might we be in avoiding the downside of what is being promoted here as the “Anthropocene” period in Earth history? Humans are turning the planet and approaching 9 billion strong this century.
Among these many, the laureates and friends have come to know each other, some over now three symposia, and their countervening force depends on rich dialogue. The key topic in today’s sessions was resilience — our capacity to cope with shocks to our earth systems. There is perhaps no more important concept when we tackle how to protect and preserve some semblance of life as we know it.
Presenters emphasized that we must embrace change and allow, figuratively and literally, small fires to occur to prevent catastrophic ones from overtaking. Much of the discussion focused on understanding threshold effects and the need for systems to have effective feedback mechanisms. Indeed, in this meeting, creative thought and discourse serves such a role in societal planning. Members of this symposium, keen on insuring we have everything working in our favor, also considered factors promoting resilience, including good governance, diversity, broad focus. And though we can and might prevent shocks, as from climate change, there was a clear bottom line. We must prepare for changes and, most importantly, avoid denial.
The symposium attendees, rich with natural and social scientists as well as leaders in literature and politics, were not shy about crossing disciplines. A physicist talked about change toward attractors, but in this case looking not at his field of chemistry, but at a bubble of recent unrest and revolt in Tunisian society. Riots arise, others commented, from slowly changing factors and poorly understood tipping points. How such transitions occur is key to anticipating and reducing catastrophe in response to global change.
By the end of a morning of intense dialogue about bracing for change, the symposium members put final touches on the Stockholm Memorandum and its priorities for action. Proceeding back to the the main hall of the Academy, Nobel Laureates signed and presented the document to representatives of the United Nations high-Level Panel on Global Sustainability. The Panel is preparing the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio +20).
“We are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations.”–Stockholm Memorandum
The Memorandum strikes a new path on several fronts, most importantly with its emphasis on environmental sustainability as a precondition for human well being, on the call for food production which maintains healthy global ecosystems, and on the primacy of scientific literacy especially among the young. Most exciting is a recognition of the shortcomings of Gross Domestic Product as a monitor of planetary well being. This was a concern voiced throughout the symposium — we are consuming ourselves to death and should not equate consumption with quality of life.
Handing over of the Stockholm Memorandum. From left: Staffan Normark, Permanent Secretary, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Gunilla Karlsson, Minister for International Development Cooperation, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, Co-Chair of UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability and 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)
Press conference after the official handing over of the Stockholm Memorandum. From left: Gunilla Karlsson, Minister for International Development Cooperation, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, Co-Chair of UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability and 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)
Despite the hard messages and difficult tasks ahead, like helping people rise out of poverty in the face of limited natural resources, the air was more optimistic than I can ever remember after such a gathering of international leaders. On the steps of the Swedish Academy, laureates and leaders and UN panelists combined for their photo op and the smiles felt quite genuine. Enough to break business as usual? Time will tell.
In the coming day a rather fresh step in the Royal Dramatic Theater will unfold. The public will hear from the Symposium, the laureates, the High-level commission, and by their request will tweet and text their questions to complete the most important step– communicating and then taking action with the billions at our planetary well.
A Great Transformation may be indeed on the rise, but it will depend on planetary will.
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.