People must collaborate with the planet to stay out of trouble: scientists

By Reuters/Megan Rowling   August 21, 2017 | 08:27 pm PT
'If we are serious about our human wellbeing - from local communities to the global world economy - we need to now reconnect our entire world to the planet.'

People are testing the limits of the Earth and its resources, and to achieve a good life for everyone on the planet, they will have to share things like food, water and energy in a more equal and sustainable way, scientists said on Monday.

Nearly 1,000 researchers have gathered in Stockholm this week to work out ways to halt deforestation, protect coral reefs, avoid the collapse of fish stocks, make food healthier, and build cities that can cope with climate change.

The Resilience 2017 conference aims to chart a path through today's turbulent times, by bolstering "resilience" - which means becoming more adept at living with pressures like a financial crisis or a flood, and using that ability to transform societies and economies for the better.

"If we are serious about our human wellbeing - from local communities to the global world economy - we need to now reconnect our entire world to the planet," said Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), one of the organizations hosting the conference.

There are signs this is starting to happen among different groups, from policy makers to businesses, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

For example, the global seafood industry has been forced to think about how to look after the oceans and sea life, as about 70 percent of the world's fish stocks are on the verge of collapse, he noted.

The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by U.N. member states in 2015 as a route to end poverty and hunger, among other key challenges, signaled the "first roadmap" towards a more responsible approach to stewarding the planet, Rockström added.

But there will always be actors who want to disrupt progress, he warned. Today, they include U.S. President Donald Trump who has said he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement to curb climate change, and plans to use fossil fuels like coal to drive his country's economic growth.

Rockström described Trump as "the voice of a dinosaur".

Under the Republican's leadership, the U.S. administration is saying "we're only concerned about our own short-term success, and ... we're not taking planetary, ethical responsibility for everyone's right to have good lives", the scientist said.

Energy and food

The two urgent transformations that must happen in the coming decades are to decarbonise the world's energy system, and to make its food system healthier for people and the environment, Rockström said.

"If we don't succeed on the climate change agenda, we risk getting feedbacks that undermine everything else," he added.

He noted the need to peak planet-warming emissions by 2020 to meet the Paris agreement's goal of keeping the rise in average global temperatures to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Scientists say this could avert some of the most disastrous predicted effects, such as rising seas swallowing island states.

It could also prevent triggers that would warm the planet further. These include permafrost in Siberia thawing and adding to potent greenhouse gases, forests dying and releasing carbon, and ice melting that would leave the planet with a darker surface that absorbs the sun's heat instead of reflecting it.

While the world has started to level off the rise in its emissions, the pace of action must not slow, Rockström said.

Even front-runner Sweden - which has said it wants to be one of the first countries in the world to become a fossil fuel-free economy - is struggling, he added.

Opening the conference, Katrina Brown, professor of social science at Britain's University of Exeter, warned against resilience being used as a buzzword, or being understood as little more than recovering from disasters or taking a "business as usual" approach to development.

Other researchers emphasized the need to open up Western science to incorporate broader world views, including the perspectives and knowledge of indigenous people and local communities - to find out how they protect bees and other pollinators, understand extreme weather, or use folklore to interpret and work with nature, for example.

Stockholm Resilience Centre's science director, Carl Folke, said resilience work must focus on grappling with complexity and change in uncertain times, when the world could tip rapidly in either a positive or a negative direction.

"We can't just incrementally adjust, we have to transform to be in tune with the Earth," he said. "It's really a recognition that if we don't start to collaborate with the planet we are living on, it will be really difficult."

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