Trajectories of the Earth System Require Holistic Perspective on Threats and Cures

A crucial truth: while stand-alone effects could be observed as (non-)linear developments over time, the systemic inclusiveness of a contributing factor, say melting ice, means that trigger points are reached in a related, co-evolutive field, initializing irreversible systemic changes, say, by reducing the amount of sunlight reflected. This interplay between factors of the natural environment but also between the natural and the societal cum economic environment are of increasing concern to scientists. The alarm they sound is difficult to communicate: complexity, notwithstanding its stabilizing potential  - Gaia theory suggests the Earth has a self-righting tendency -, enhances the risk of domino-effects. It makes actions/interventions at an early point of development urgent, while rather complicating the dissemination of a simple narrative to facilitate political consensus and concerted action. Systemic awareness seems to constitute a quite current token of resilient research and policy, which brings scientists and policy makers closer together in epistemic networks that are based on a consensus that circumspect actions have to be coordinated and agreed on as soon as possible.

The 'Trajectories'-study was commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and is part of considerable efforts of the scientific community to communicate the grave of the situation to politicians in the US. Well-known co-authors are Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and upcoming co-director of the institute in Potsdam. The authors admit that even the possibility of a stabilization of the earth system at a temperature below 2°C (above preindustrial level) is not sure. Their analysis implies that 'runaway effects' could be already triggered now. But the  likeliness of such systemic dangers increases with specific primary tipping points that are known and that the study identifies: melting of polar glaciers and of permafrost soil (thereby releasing CO2 and Methane into the atmosphere), rainforest degradation, changes in ocean and thermal streams, rainfall (soil capacity to store greenhouse gases).

The authors stress the importance of changes in human behaviour and culture. They cite former UNFCCC Secretary Christiana Figueres ('Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia ') and continue to 'suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies is required.'

This exactly seems to be the core intention of a flagship report 'Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals' of The World in 2050 initiative. Among the coordinating authors are Nebosja Nakicenovic, Johan Rockström, Jeffrey Sachs and Dirk Messner, Co-director of the Centre, who with his colleagues presented findings at the United Nations in July 2018. The report states that

In view of the complexity and breadth of the changes occurring, and those to be expected, it is essential that we begin an effort to move beyond the sectoral and fragmented approach much sustainability research has followed thus far.

This study proposes a holistic perspective and is convinced that 'co-benefits' will be derived from coordinated actions that are required around six exemplary transformations:

  • Human capacity and demography
  • Consumption and production
  • De-carbonization and energy
  • Food, biosphere, and water
  • Smart cities
  • Digital revolution

The dimension of the report is global and a multi-stakeholder world is delineated, in which actions are motivated by core insights, realized on different dimensions by different actors in different environmental spheres. Side effects between SDGs must be considered ('holistic perspective'), synergies and tradeoffs resulting from particular developments must be taken into account, winners and loosers should be taken along. Transformation and justice, the report holds, are mutually interdependent. This transformation also needs positive visions of a future where social and economic goals are integrated. The ambitious and demanding task of an effective and inclusive governance is placed centre stage. The current models 'are ill-suited' but a convincing 'culture of cooperation' will have to secure and enhance the rule based order for the sake of its very own legitimacy. Multiple sustainable development pathways will intersect across scales. The more, systemic adaptability - of a second order, faresighted, so to speak - seems to be an essential expertise, across scales, to be developed further. 

The report speaks of 'Herculean governance efforts' that will be required for each transformation. But the authors are convinced that the transformations identified 'are necessary and potentially sufficient to achieve the SDGs if addressed holistically in unison.'


Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene
Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Sarah E. Cornell, Michel Crucifix, Jonathan F. Donges, Ingo Fetzer, Steven J. Lade, Marten Scheffer, Ricarda Winkelmann, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2018, 201810141; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810141115

TWI2050 - The World in 2050 (2018). Transformations to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative. Coordinating Authors: Elmar Kriegler, Dirk Messner, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Keywan Riahi, Johan Rockström, Jeffrey Sachs, Sander van der Leeuw, Detlef van Vuuren
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria. Available at: