Humanity needs to take 'giant leap'

Humanity needs a project with the vision and budget of the Apollo space programme if it is going to make the necessary giant leap towards sustainability, says Owen Gaffney. In this week’s Green Room, he says researchers from all scientific disciplines are developing a project that may just fit the bill.

“One small step for man,” began Neil Armstrong, 384,000km from Earth, on 20 July 1969.

Armstrong’s speech marked the culmination of the $25bn Apollo mission.

It all began in May 1961 when US President John F Kennedy, under enormous political pressure, announced that his grand challenge was to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.

” At night, the heart, arteries and organs of humanity are laid bare, and humanity is revealed as the prime driver of change at the planetary scale ”

The Apollo mission had three decisive factors in its favour: a clear goal, strong leadership and shed-loads of money.

Armstrong returned to Earth two months before I was born, yet the Apollo programme had a profound effect on my life.

Like many children, then and now, space posters covered my bedroom walls. I wanted to become an astronaut (I still do).

Remarkably, every aspect of my professional work today relates directly to one of the posters stuck to my bedroom wall all those years ago. The poster is made up of hundreds of satellite photographs of the Earth at night.

Astronauts at the time said the only signs of humanity visible from space were the Great Wall of China and the wakes of ocean liners passing between continents.

On my poster, what hits you like a fist is that - far from feeling humbled by humanity’s small role on the planet - every town, city, settlement and burning oil well blazes out.

Apollo vision

At night, the heart, arteries and organs of humanity are laid bare, and humanity is revealed as the prime driver of change at the planetary scale.

Forty years since Armstrong planted a flag on the moon, the International Council for Science (ICSU) says the world needs a second “Apollo” mission, but this time to manage the planet sustainably.

The council convened a meeting in June to bring together some of the world’s leading specialists in climate, biodiversity, political systems and global change.

The group was there to put in place the final part of what will become a 10-year research programme to put society on track towards a (metaphorically) brighter future.

Instead of one grand challenge, ICSU has five. These range from the mundane - making environmental forecasts more useful and developing observation systems - to the truly inspirational and essential.

The third challenge is to anticipate, avoid and cope with dangerous global environmental change, while the fourth is to change the behaviour of people and organisations.

The fifth outlines a plan to develop new technologies. We desperately need technologies to wean ourselves of fossil fuels, feed a growing population, and supply our demand for fresh water.

Thinking big

The new Apollo will also look at the risks of geo-engineering - intentionally manipulating the Earth’s climate by, for example, erecting giant sunshades in space, or adding small particles to the upper atmosphere to reflect heat away from Earth.

The architects of the new programme aim to go beyond the traditional boundaries of Earth-system science, and corral experts from other fields to tackle the technological, institutional and behavioural changes required if we want genuine global sustainability.

The scale of this challenge alone cannot be underestimated.

The Apollo mission was an engineering feat; engineers talk the same language.

After 20 years of coercion, some social and natural scientists speak to each other, but not always in the same language.

The case for international co-operation is a no-brainer: everyone needs the research findings. But who will stump up the money?

Presently, four sprawling acronym-laden international programmes research various aspects of global change. In one guise or another, they all fall under ICSU. More than 40 nations provide the cash.

The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) began in 1979 to determine if the climate was changing and if so, what was causing it.

The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) kicked off eight years later when it was realised climate change was really part of a much larger issue: global change.

The term “global change” refers to the rapid growth since the 1950s in the human population, the economy, resource use, energy use, the transport sector, urbanisation and communication.

This “great acceleration” has led to a knock on effect on the planet’s carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, sea-ice loss, sea-level rise, food webs, extinction rates, deforestation, pollution, fish stock collapse, and more.

When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last year that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss,” this was the accelerator he was talking about.

Big money

Two others programmes, the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and DIVERSITAS, co-ordinate research on global change that focuses on social and economic impacts and biodiversity.

All of these programmes have spawned dozens of international projects to piece together the jigsaw that is the Earth system.

ICSU argues the four programmes should combine, refocus and grow considerably to become a mega-programme on global sustainability research. This would, in theory, attract serious money.

The money, as always, is an issue, particularly in an age of austerity. An Apollo mission requires Apollo-like funding.

If the money hurdle can be overcome - and it can - then another prerequisite, leadership, is on hand.

Stockholm Resilience Centre director Johan Rockstrom, who is directing ICSU’s new vision for global change, is emerging as a strategic and visionary leader on the international stage.

In 2009, he published “A safe operating space for humanity”, in the journal Nature, in which he and others argued that to live sustainably on the planet we must remain within nine boundaries.

But their first assessment of those boundaries states that we have already crossed three: climate, biodiversity and nitrogen.

While the concept needs considerable refinement, it does provide the beginning of a blueprint for effective planetary management, going way beyond the carbon issue.

Humans are a territorial species; we understand boundaries. A reason why many societies function so well is enforced respect for boundaries.

With some radical thinking, Professor Rockstrom could bring the international programmes together under one roof, and maybe even unite the world’s top 20 research institutes that study issues like global change, climate, sustainable development and resilience.

If successful, this would lead to a formidable intellectual powerhouse.

Earth focus

But with all large science projects, there is a danger of wading in the mire as you untangle one set of projects and begin others.

The last thing the world needs now is a 10-year hiatus in global-change research. If the timing is right, the new programme for global sustainability research could be launched at a major international science conference, Planet Under Pressure, to be held in London in 2012.

The conference will help the world focus on global change science in the run up to the 2012 Earth Summit, Rio +20.

If the Moon landings did anything, they demonstrated the ingenuity of humanity’s brightest sparks. But at this level, brains are not always enough.

What of the final decisive factor for success, a clear goal on par with the first Apollo mission?

Forty years on, all evidence indicates that to live on Earth sustainably, humanity needs to overcome inertia: the goal should be nothing less than a giant leap for mankind.

Owen Gaffney is director of communications at the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP)

IGBP is funded by 40 nations and has its headquarters at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

VIEWPOINT - Owen Gaffney

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