For Earth Day, 17 celebrated scientists on how to make a better world

Jeremy Hance
April 22, 2012

Observations of planet Earth from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on July 11, 2005. Photo by: NASA.
Observations of planet Earth from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on July 11, 2005. Photo by: NASA.

Seventeen top scientists and four acclaimed conservation organizations have called for radical action to create a better world for this and future generations. Compiled by 21 past winners of the prestigious Blue Planet Prize, a new paper recommends solutions for some of the world's most pressing problems including climate change, poverty, and mass extinction. The paper, entitled Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act, was recently presented at the UN Environment Program governing council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Blue Planet Prize is given for "outstanding achievements in scientific research and its application that have helped provide solutions to global environmental problems." Dubbed by some as the Nobel Prize for the environment, award winners have included such luminaries as environmentalist James Lovelock, biologist Paul Ehrlich, physicist Amory Lovins, economist Nicholas Stern, and climatologist James Hansen, all of whom have contributed to the report.

"The current system is broken," said climatologist Bob Watson, a Blue Planet winner in 2010 and the instigator of the report. "It is driving humanity to a future that is 3-5 degrees Celsius warmer than our species has ever known, and is eliminating the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and senses of self. We cannot assume that technological fixes will come fast enough. Instead we need human solutions. The good news is that they exist but decision makers must be bold and forward thinking to seize them."

Boys in the Republic of the Congo. Photo by: Nancy Butler.
Boys in the Republic of the Congo. Photo by: Nancy Butler.
The ambitious paper arrives only a few months before "Rio+20 Conference: The Future We Want," a global environmental meeting 20 years after the notable Rio Summit. However, expectations for real action at the Rio+20 summit have been dampened by the release of a draft agreement that lacks teeth and, according to critics, allows nations to once again make vague pledges that forestall actual action.

For their part, the Blue Planet laureates call on the world to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, switch out GDP (gross domestic product) for a more holistic measure of national well-being, decouple environmental destruction from consumption, drop subsidies for fossil fuels and environmentally destructive agricultural practices, put a market value on biodiversity and ecosystem services, work with grassroots movements to create bottom-up action, and finally address overpopulation.

"If we are to achieve our dream, the time to act is now, given the inertia in the socio-economic system, and that the adverse effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity cannot be reversed for centuries or are irreversible," the authors write.

Declaring that "the system is broken and our current pathway will not realize [the dream of a better world]" the authors point out that "civilization is faced with a perfect storm of problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, the use of environmentally malign technologies, and gross inequalities." Worsening the situation, according to the scientists and environmentalists, is the dangerous "myth" that "physical economies can grow forever."

A new economy for a new millennium

The current global economy must be re-fashioned from a growth model to a sustainable one that takes nature into account, argue the scientists.

"Since most goods and services sold today fail to bear the full environmental and social costs of production and consumption, we need to reach consensus on methodologies to price them properly," the scientists write.

Many of the world's natural resources are finite (minerals, fossil fuels, and water) and those that are renewable (forests, fish, and food) are easily exhausted when mismanaged and can even be destroyed entirely. Given this, according to the report, economists need to re-define the capital in question to reflect those that are nature-based and those that are human-based.

"Governments should recognize the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic activity and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built, financial, natural, human and social capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, environmental and social dimensions," the paper argues. The scientists admit that the transition will prove difficult, but it is necessary.

Girl in Egypt. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Girl in Egypt. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
"There is an urgent need to break the link between production and consumption on the one hand and environmental destruction on the other. This can allow risking material living standards for a period that would allow us to overcome world poverty. Indefinite material growth on a planet with finite and often fragile natural resources will however, eventually be unsustainable," they write.

Still, while such action may require phasing out certain industries and economic practices, other green industries could fill in the gaps, providing jobs and stability.

"Costing environmental externalities could open new opportunities for green growth and green jobs," the researchers write, adding that "efficient resource use (e.g., energy or water) saves money for businesses and households. Valuing and creating markets for ecosystem services can provide new economic opportunities. A green economy will be a source of future employment and innovation."

What's standing in the way of such a transition? The report warns that the current alliances between governments and big corporations is undermining the ability of society to change business-as-usual practices.

"The international nature of much of the corporate sector involved in natural resource use means that even the governments of the countries in which they are headquartered have limited ability to influence their actions and decisions," they write, adding that the on-going dependence on fossil fuels "underlies many of the problems we face today."

To succeed, government must be transformed at all levels, the researchers contend.

"At the local level public hearings and social audits can bring the voices of marginalized groups into the forefront. At national level, parliamentary and press oversight are key. Globally, we must find better means to agree and implement measures to achieve collective goals."

But while all stakeholders must be involved, the scientists argue that grassroots movements, bottom-up activism, and local programs should be given more clout.

"There is a need to scale-up the grass roots actions by bringing together a complementary top-down and bottom-up approach to addressing these issues."

The climate crisis

In order to tackle global climate change, the paper recommends a dual strategy of drastically increasing energy-efficiency while deploying renewable energy and carbon capture on a massive scale.

"Generally, developing countries located in the tropical areas of the world can benefit most from solar energy technologies [...] In industrialized countries with very high energy consumption per capita, energy efficiency measures can be very effective," the authors write adding that in developing countries, "economic progress can be achieved by adopting early in their growth trajectory energy efficient technologies rather than adopting obsolete technologies that will generate problems that will have to be fixed later."

They note that clean energy could provide 75 percent of power in many parts of the world, and 90 percent in the tropics, by 2050.

"The main task is to scale-up, reduce costs and integrate renewables in future energy systems. Carefully developed, renewable energies can provide multiple benefits, including employment, energy security, human health, environment, and mitigation of climate change," the paper reads.

Dani child on his mother's shoulder in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Dani child on his mother's shoulder in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
As for carbon capture and storage, the authors still hold out hope despite a number of difficulties: "the main task is to reduce costs and achieve rapid technology improvement," adding that, "a number of pilot projects around the world will, we hope, soon demonstrate their viability."

While the scientists acknowledge that adaptation to climate change impacts is a necessity, they write that "the most effective adaptation strategy is mitigation in order to limit the magnitude of climate change."

Interestingly, the researchers note that one can be a self-subscribed climate change denialist and still see the major benefits of clean energy.

"A transition to a low-carbon economy makes sense and makes money for many other compelling reasons [beyond mitigating climate change]. China, for example, is leading the global efficiency and clean-energy revolutions not because of international treaties and Conventions but to speed her own development and to improve public health and national security," the authors write.

Life on Earth

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions rapidly is the overall solution to climate change, but saving life on Earth from extinction is less clear-cut.

"Biodiversity—the variety of genes, populations, species, communities, ecosystems, and ecological processes that make up life on Earth—underpins ecosystem services, sustains humanity, is foundational to the resilience of life on Earth, and is integral to the fabric of all the world’s cultures," the paper's authors write. Biodiversity and ecosystem services also underpin the global economy, they note, though this has been almost wholly neglected by our current economic model.

"The benefits that ecosystems contribute to human well-being have historically been provided free of charge, and demand for them is increasing. Although the global economic value of ecosystem services may be difficult to measure, it almost certainly rivals or exceeds aggregate global gross domestic product, and ecosystem benefits frequently outweigh costs of their conservation," write the scientists.

They suggest a rapid move from "the resource exploitative method of conventional development to resource enrichment method of sustainable development" in the developing world. Currently, development in poorer countries usually implies large-scale industrial projects with massive environmental footprints: mining, logging, dams, fossil fuel exploitation, highway building etc.

"The value of ecosystem services and natural capital must be incorporated into national accounting and decision-making processes across all sectors of society, access to ecosystem benefits and costs of ecosystem conservation must be shared equitably, and biodiversity and ecosystem services must be seen as the most fundamental component of green economic development," the scientists write.

Boy in mokoro boat in Botswana. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Boy in mokoro boat in Botswana. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
According to the paper, loss of ecosystem services will soon hit the global economy to the tune of $500 billion every year. Given this, the scientists call for all countries to adopt a "national inclusive wealth accounting system, including accounting for ecosystem services imported and exported, which could stimulate further approaches to ecosystem service marketplace development."

The authors also note that winning the battles on climate change and mass extinction aren't mutually exclusive, because what aids biodiversity will often mitigate global warming, and vice-versa. For example, the scientists throw their support behind the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) program, which proposes to pay tropical nations to keep their forests standing.

Another issue that underlies the rest is overpopulation. The dramatic explosion of population over the past century has put increased strain on biodiversity, natural resources, food production, and the climate. Targeting overpopulation through non-draconian or compulsory means could provide a multitude of societal benefits in addition to lessening our overall environmental toll.

"The population issue should be urgently addressed by education and empowerment of women, including in the work-force and in rights, ownership and inheritance; health care of children and the elderly; and making modern contraception accessible to all," the scientists write.

The Blue Planet awardees argue that nations must stop seeing environmental issues as disconnected, stand-alone problems since, for example, protecting ecosystems, such as forests, will mitigate climate changes, lessen the difficult of climate adaptation, and preserve biodiversity, amid a host of other benefits.

"A comprehensive, integrated ecosystem approach is a powerful 'tool' for identifying, analyzing and resolving complicated environmental problems, rather than the piecemeal approaches to multifaceted environmental problems that don’t work," the researchers conclude.

A better world

The report doesn't sugarcoat the scale of the problems facing societies today nor the heavy-lifting it will take to transform the global economy, however they say the future will be far worse if action is not taken quickly and decisively.

Girl in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Girl in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
"In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization," the scientists write. "Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us."

At the end of the tunnel, however, is a better world.

"We have a dream—a world without poverty—a world that is equitable—a world that respects human rights—a world with increased and improved ethical behavior regarding poverty and natural resources—a world that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, where the challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and social inequity have been successfully addressed."

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (April 22, 2012).

For Earth Day, 17 celebrated scientists on how to make a better world.