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Human destabilization of the environment encompasses a range of critical natural systems and processes. In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Johan Rockström joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to set climate breakdown within the full picture of overall environmental breakdown, explore destabilization of natural systems, and assess the consequences. 

Professor Johan Rockström is a world-leading global sustainability scientist who led the development of the Planetary Boundaries framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change. Among many other positions, he is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam.



Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
Human destabilization of the environment encompasses a range of critical natural systems and processes. In this episode, we set climate breakdown within the full picture of overall environmental destabilization, exploring what this means and the consequences for the future.

To do so, I’m joined by Johan Rockström, a world-leading global sustainability scientist who led the development of the Planetary Boundaries Framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change. Among other positions, he is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a Professor in Earth Systems Science at the University of Potsdam.

Johan, welcome.

Johan Rockström 
Thank you.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
So first question from us how severe is human destabilization of the natural world?

Johan Rockström 
In short, it is serious. It’s just a year back that the scientific community, in a paper in Nature did a 10 year update on tipping points in the earth’s systems. So the risk of crossing threshold that could lead to irreversible, self-amplified warming in the world. And we found that nine of the known fifteen systems are on the move, they’re showing worrying signs of variability. And here are included systems like accelerated ice melt in West Antarctica, the slowdown of ocean circulation, and the Gulfstream in the ocean, amplified permafrost thawing, accelerated or amplified frequency and amplitude of forest fires.

All of this when you package it together—of course, with scientific uncertainties—when you add all these pieces together, you come to the conclusion that we, for the first time, have to recognize that we are at risk of destabilizing the whole planet. And destabilizing the whole planet means pushing biophysical systems—like life support from the water cycle all the way to global mean temperature and extreme events —across a point where we lose control, where things may start self-amplifying in the wrong direction.

And this is why we have, since just a few months actually, come to the conclusion that we have to consider declaring a state of planetary emergency. And we have over 100 countries that have based on science declare the state of climate emergency.

But when you put all the evidence together on climate, biodiversity, land degradation, overuse of water, air pollution, chemicals, plastics… If you put all the different planetary boundary challenges together, it becomes a more teleconnected, integrated planetary emergency position. And this is not to scare anyone. This is to unleash more action towards the transformation that can take us back to a safe operating space on earth. 

And just to close on the evidence of the challenges we’re facing. COVID-19, the biggest global slowdown of the world economies since the 1930s, a devastating human disaster, is a manifestation of this global trend—the Anthropocene that we’ve entered—because this virus is a spillover from wildlife. It is a risk that increases with our degradation of natural ecosystems. So deforestation encroaching natural habitats, agriculture expansion, interacts with a hyper-connected, globalized world.

So, you know, if you want to build resilience that everyone now talks about, we have to take a broader planetary boundary approach and really systemically start governing the entire planet.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton  
And could you just go into a bit more detail about the consequences of this emergency you mentioned? The coronavirus pandemic being one of those consequences. Could you give us a better idea of how the huge changes that are going on at the global level with natural systems and processes… What are the consequences of that for human societies?

Johan Rockström 
Well, at the fundamental level we’re losing natural ecosystems and biodiversity so fast. That is impacting on food production. It’s impacting on soil productivity. It’s impacting on water quality. It’s impacting on, on air quality. So these are local impacts hitting local vulnerable communities, predominantly, immediately, already today.

We have—at 1.2 degrees Celsius warming—we see extreme weather events amplifying, like droughts and floods. We have a situation, right as we speak, with drought conditions hitting parts of East Africa, which more and more evidence shows is linked to the desert locust invasions we see, right as we speak. Which interacts with the COVID-19 crisis, because it leads to food deficits and food riots in a situation where people, of course, cannot hold social distancing. 

You have these kind of perfect storms arising with climate impacts already today. So climate impacts and undermining nature, together affects predominantly, you know, the fundamentals that we depend on—water, and air, and food. And these hit already today.

But then we have slower variables—over-exploiting oceans, over-utilizing freshwater systems, destabilizing big ice sheets—that are kind of slow creeping crisis, that do not kind of hit in a big virus type disaster overnight. But they slowly undermine the ability for human development, societal development, and to have a chance of delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Then the problem here is that many of these processes are not only slow, but they are very difficult to turn around.  So we have more and more climate scientific proof to show that if we approach two degrees Celsius warming—we are today at 1.2—we’ve agreed to try and hold 1.5. But we’re, you know, continuing to rapidly move in the wrong direction.

You come to 2 (degrees C), we can no longer be sure of having a chance of stopping the loss of the West Antarctic ice shelf, which would commit humanity to another two meters sea level rise—not that it would, you know, increase sea levels overnight—which, of course, would hit hundreds of millions of people in coastal zones around the world. But it would be irreversible. And it would continue over centuries.

And I’m trying to plea with people all the time that… what is a century? A hundred years is nothing, even 200 years is nothing. I mean, when you think of it very carefully, we should, as humanity on earth today, feel a moral responsibility, not only for our children and grandchildren, but also for their children and their grandchildren. We should be talking of longer timescales. And this, the emergency point, is about, you know, taking responsibility for a livable planet over centuries ahead.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
I’m going to pull the generational card. Now, I’m a millennial, about 30 years old. And many people in my generation are becoming increasingly visible in the news, as stepping up to become campaigners when it comes to this problem.

As we look out over the next couple of decades, the time in which mine and other generations will increasingly come to the political fore, how do you see these problems—the consequences that you’ve described—playing out over the next couple of decades? We’ll go on to the kind of things you think need to happen—the response from people—but could you just talk a bit more about how these consequences play out in the next couple of decades in your mind?

Johan Rockström 
Yeah, I think here it is really important to keep to two factors in the air at the same time. The most important one is actually not the impacts that will be felt over your next 10 or 20 years as a millennial generation on Earth. The number one issue is that—as far as we know, today—it’s over the next 10-20 years that we determine together—we who live here now—whether or not we press the on button of irreversible changes.

To give you one concrete example, the climate science shows quite clearly that we have to cut global emissions by half over the coming 10 years. We have to bend the global curve of emissions no later than this year—2020—and then cut emissions by half. Why? Because if we do not succeed in that turnaround—it’s such a short time scale—we have no chance of staying below two degrees Celsius warming.

And that may, you know, in 30 years time have the impact of crossing critical points on permafrost and forests that would then not allow the second half of this century to be manageable. So that is where, where the urgency lies and why the action is needed. Now. 

Then, on the second ball in the air, absolutely. As temperatures rise from 1.1 to 1.2, from .2  to 1.3. You know, we may be reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 20 years. From what we know today, the impacts of that is that we will gradually have more extreme events, more droughts, more floods, more disease, more heat waves. It will get gradually tougher. We’ll have worse winters, more problems with disease outbreaks, more bark beetles killing forests, more forest fires. But that will be along a linear trendline over the next 10-20 years.

We don’t foresee any collapse is occurring, but it will get, you know, more expensive, and tougher, and have stronger health impacts. But my worry is that we need to understand that, just because that will occur linearly and feel manageable—I mean, at least for the for the rich, developed countries in the world—that doesn’t mean that we’re not in an urgency point, because it is during that time that we determine whether or not we will be able to handle what happens beyond those 20 years. And that’s the that’s the big lesson we have to learn from, from, you know, navigating the situation we’re in right now on earth.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
And you spoke earlier about the need to adopt this stance of planetary emergency in countries across the world. What actions then are a part of that emergency response, that you would see as typifying this full scale emergency stance beyond the climate approach that you described before?

Johan Rockström 
Yes, so the number one challenge is that 195 countries have to realize that they add up to being a very big world on a small, small planet, and that we now have to understand that we have to collaborate, all hundred 195 countries, to avoid that this emergency turns into unmanageable risk. So that is the challenge number one, in a situation today where we are, you know, you could argue at an all time low in terms of trust between countries.

We have a weak United Nations, we have the US just leaving the WHO, we don’t have high levels of capacity for collaborative governance at the global level, when we need it more than ever. So that that’s challenge number one, to put the planetary emergency agenda right at the General Assembly of the United Nations, at the Security Council of the United Nations, and make clear that this is not an environmental issue.

This is about security, about economics, about jobs, and about dignity and fundamental development. And then to put it right where it belongs, at the at the heart of the heads of states governing the developments for the world. I mean, that’s number one. 

But number two is… I’m quite excited about one opportunity that that is arising very quickly, which is that after the Paris Climate Agreement, City Mayors and business leaders were among those stakeholders that stepped forward most actively to say “Yes, we will listen to science. We will, we’re willing to implement the Paris Agreement. And we do that by adopting science based targets for climate.”

So basically, we say, we translate the science into operational numbers, that gives us a pathway for decarbonizing and reducing emissions. Now, this has been so successful, that we’re now working very actively to develop science-based targets for all the planetary boundaries.  So, basically, having a global Apex target on nature, on nitrogen and phosphorus, on land, on water, to be translated as kind of guiding posts for businesses, for cities, for communities.

And I think that is something we also can see as very concrete tools for this transformation. I mean, it doesn’t replace economic policies like carbon taxes, it doesn’t replace laws, it doesn’t replace, you know, politics in any way. But it’s one of those complements that we have not had in the past.

And then third, I think, we simply have to, you know, put end-dates on doing wrong. We have to put an immediate end-date on taking away the 500 billion US dollars on annual subsidies for fossil fuel burning. We have to put an end-date on the combustion engine, to something like 2040. We have to put end-dates on coal-fire plants in the world. I mean, we’ve seen positive trends in many places, but not so positive trends in other places. We need to, you know, accelerate that trend line. 

And then the final and perhaps most important factor is to start documenting all the benefits of a zero carbon, sustainable future just to show that sustainability, again, is not an environmental issue anymore. It is really about quality of life. It’s about a better economy. You can earn more money. You can you can stay healthier. You’re better placed to deal with future pandemics because if you breathe clean air, your lung capacity is better prepared for the next lung infectious disease.

We need to start being much better at communicating the narrative that sustainability is—as I feel that the youth movement is much better at doing to show—this is the desirable future. This is this is the cool future I want. This is the future I want. 

I’m not suggesting like the environmentalist did in the 1970s, that everyone should go back to the caves and kind of stop doing things. Now, I think we are at this quite exciting moment that we can show that sustainability can be the path towards better cities, better lives, better lifestyles in general. I think these are kind of pieces of the puzzle that we now need to immediately start acting on.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
I think that’s a great note to finish with. Yeah, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Johan Rockström 
Thank you.