Opening Quote: “So for the first time, myself and scientific colleagues around the world are forced to explore the following question, are we at risk? Are we at real risk of destabilizing the entire planet?”
Stephan Chambers: Johan, a very warm welcome to Philanthropy Bites.
Johan Rockström: Thanks. Great to be with you.
Stephan Chambers: I can't resist asking you this Johan since we are recording our conversation on the day that Klaus Hasselmann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Klaus is the founding father or one of the founding fathers of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. And I wonder if you might just begin our conversation by telling us a little bit about Klaus and the institute and that work.
Johan Rockström: Yes, of course, as you can imagine, that was a very significant confirmation of the tremendous scientific advancements in climate science over the past largely 50 years.
So we have so much to thank Klaus Hasselmann with, and of course this institute that I'm today co-directing is working in his footsteps.
Stephan Chambers: And confirmation of one of your views that we are at a moment, we are at a historical moment that is as potentially as significant as the Darwinian moment or the Copernican moment. And we are in that moment because of anthropogenic or human-caused climate change.
Johan Rockström: We’re now in the Anthropocene, Anthros, for us humans.
Johan Rockström: That's what we've come to, we're in the deep, deep end of the Anthropocene where we're taking risks of potentially crossing tipping points. So for the first time, myself and scientific colleagues around the world are forced to explore the following question, are we at risk? Are we at real risk of destabilizing the entire planet?
Stephan Chambers: One of the memorable phrases that I picked up from you is that there is a risk that we are very close to pushing the on button of irreversible change. How gloomy should we be about that? How far is our finger from that on button?
Johan Rockström: Well, to begin with, it's a bit more complicated than that. It's not one button, it's many buttons and they can add up to one big button potentially, we don't know for certain.
Johan Rockström: When we pass 1.5 degree Celsius warming, we are at risk of pressing the first set of buttons like irreversible loss of the Arctic summer, like dramatic changes in the west Antarctic ice shelf, like potentially even tipping over some of the big ecosystems like some of the rainforest systems and others. The buttons will come as we continue, if we continue in this unsustainable direction that we're following, but it's in the next decades that we approach the on buttons.
Johan Rockström: And the drama with the on buttons is that once we've pressed them, we cannot turn back. Then we cross thresholds, we cross tipping points and the earth system takes over from being a self cooling friend to becoming a self warming foe. And that is of course exactly what we need to avoid. And that's why we need to set science-based planetary boundaries to avoid pushing these systems too far.
Stephan Chambers: Is it fair to say that thanks to you and your colleagues and my colleagues at the Grantham Institute, that we know enough to know what needs to be done. The challenge now is the implementation of those measures or the political will required or the broadening of a consensus. Is that a fair assessment?
Johan Rockström: Well, yes and no. We absolutely have enough science to conclude that we have a global crisis, which means that we need to act very fast, no doubt about that. But I would also argue that science advances all the time, and if you would've asked me five years ago, I would not have been able to say that 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is a really serious, hard biophysical boundary. Now, even the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that approach 1.5 and we are at risk of irreversible commitments.
Johan Rockström: So as science advances so far, that the trend line is that the more we learn, the larger reasons for concern we have, and changes are occurring faster than we had anticipated. So in that sense, science is continuously advancing. But over overall, I agree with you that the challenge is no longer about settling the science. The challenge is actually not even about awareness among citizens.
Johan Rockström: Actually opinion poll after opinion poll shows that roughly 60, 70% of citizens across the world are really concerned about climate change and want climate action. The challenge is really how do we unleash the pathways towards solutions, and that this is in the political realm, it's in the business and economic markets, and it's also in the behavior of fellow citizens, values, choices, perceptions.
Stephan Chambers: Many of the listeners to this podcast will be our philanthropists, they're in a position to push on solutions. One of the things that the climate crisis has taught us is that sometimes problems are so big and so generalized that people don't know how to act or where to push. What would you say to those people who are listening to us and they're essentially thinking, "Look, I understand the problem. I understand its urgency. I understand the irreversible nature of inaction.
Stephan Chambers: I'm just not clear what I should be doing. Let's assume I wanted to give 100% of my net assets to mitigating this threat. What would I do?"
Johan Rockström: Well, luckily there's a lot that can be done on so many fronts at all different scales. And just to try to, let's say, make a bit of a hierarchy of priorities. The number one I would suggest, the number one investment is to really start gathering momentum on the new narrative of how sustainability, both decarbonization and zero carbon, a safe climate future, and a transition towards being within the safe operating space of all the planetary boundaries.
Johan Rockström: Meaning nature and chemicals and air pollutants gives better outcomes for the economy, for jobs, for security, for health. Quite frankly, for essentially all parameters that matters for society. And we can put resources behind this in order to get companies and cities and communities to help gather all the evidence, the proof that investment sustainability gives better outcomes, both economically and socially.
Johan Rockström: So this is, I think one of the first things we need to start, really let's say basically vacuum cleaning the world. Because we're starting to see how renewable energy, how sustainable food systems, how clean air has such a large indent on the determination between success or failure. Just to give you one statistic here, seven million people per year die prematurely of air pollution.
Johan Rockström: And what is air pollution? Well, air pollution destroys your lung capacity. So you are subjecting people to worsened human health and lung capacity, which makes you much more susceptible to pandemics like COVID-19. Where is this caused? Fossil fuel burning. So you get rid of fossil fuel burning, you go to electric mobility and public transport in cities, you can clean up New Delhi, you get better loan capacity, you get basically healthier people, more resilience, more robust, better handling of future pandemics.
Johan Rockström: Overall, the whole society gains on all accounts. We need that narrative and we need that scalable proofs. So, that's the number one. But then you have a few immediate actions that we actually need to rally around today. We need to rally around stopping investment in coal. Many NGOs are working on this, more hands on deck are needed to really help in banning... It's such an urgency point today that we need... That the strong alliances of, let's say science-aligned good forces to help with the phase out dates on the internal combustion engine, on coal fire plants.
Johan Rockström: Even on the long run, oil extraction in the Arctic, and of course also natural gas extraction. And all of these cannot be done on the barricades by environmentalists. They play a role, but it also has to be done by actors that can show the constructive solutions. How do you rise? How do you develop next stage in modern, democratic wealth-creating societies in that transformation? So I would argue that there's a lot of big line items immediately requiring support.
Johan Rockström: And then of course, on top of all that you have sector by sector. We need to find ways of transforming the food system in the world from being the single largest to emit greenhouse gases today to becoming the single largest absorber of carbon dioxide, to go from foe to friend. We have the solutions, it now needs to be scaled, nature-based solutions for food production. We have the investments in conserving and protecting and restoring nature.
Johan Rockström: I could go on with a long list, but fundamentally, it all has to be wrapped around the alliances for a sustainable future to have this momentum created in the financial sector, among companies, all asset managers, that the people, particularly those who are close to the big investment schemes to start changing the direction of where for financial flows are going. And once that flow changes direction, as we know, that can in the end create its own social tipping point in the sense that making that flow unstoppable. And that's what we need to start seeing.
Stephan Chambers: It's very interesting, Johan that you talk about countries dragging their feet, because we are talking a couple of weeks ahead of COP26. How will we know whether COP26 has been a success or a failure? What should those of us who are not climate scientists and not engaged on a daily basis with policy, how should we judge the success or failure of the Glasgow meeting?”
Johan Rockström: Yes, thanks. That's a really good question. There are a few points to keep an eye on, and the number one point is actually the legal obligation of Glasgow, because already in the Paris Agreement, which is legally-binding agreement signed by all countries, there is a text there saying that five years after Paris, which now is Glasgow, it's six years, but because of the pandemic, it's one year delayed, all the countries are obliged to upgrade the national determined contributions, their national plans in line with science.
Johan Rockström: And what has happened since Paris is as you know, we have the 1.5 degree Celsius report, and we have the six IPCC assessment. So we now have unequivocal evidence that we have to have net zero by 2050 and cutting emissions by half by 2030, and also keeping all the carbon sinks in nature intact. Every country in the world must exit Glasgow presenting a plan that makes us align with science on the emission pathway so that we can hold the 1.5 degrees Celsius line, that's number one.
Johan Rockström: Number two is of course, money on the table. We need to fill up the global climate fund, but we also need to have additional investments particularly on nature climate solutions. Because the third line item, which I'm so excited about is that the UK government has really decided, which is urgently needed to make the Glasgow COP the first nature climate COP, that the climate negotiations that really integrates forestry, soils, sustainable agriculture, all the carbon sinks in one agenda.
Johan Rockström: The fourth point is that, and this is a bit more questionable, but it's more urgent than ever, we need to have end date on coal investments. I really hope that we will see big economies coming to Glasgow and making critical and open pledges on phase out dates on coal and phase out dates on the internal combustion engine. And then finally, I really hope that we'll get more countries stepping on board a price on carbon, to really recognize that we need to price carbon so that we can speed up the phase out of fossil fuels.
Johan Rockström: That I think are those five I would have a look at, the NDCs, money on the table, nature, phase out date on coal, and a price on carbon.
Stephan Chambers: Brilliant. Thank you.
Stephan Chambers: I'm just thinking now specifically about philanthropy and philanthropic capital. By some estimates, no more than about 2% of global philanthropic capital is allocated to specifically climate-related action. Why do you think that might be so slow? And do you think that we are in a position to make a call as it were for that number to be dramatically different?
Johan Rockström: I think that the fundamental mistake we do is that we still classify climate action and biodiversity protection as the environmental budget line. It's kind of doing something for the environment, and then philanthropy or governments do great stuff on human rights, on health, on food security, on democracy. But then when you back off one step and you realize, wait a minute, can you really separate these things?
Johan Rockström: Because today, we've come so far in terms of risks, in terms of amplified and severity of droughts, fires, forest degradation, floods. That we're seeing food insecurity, dis placement of people, social instability, unhealth caused by us having pushed the climate system and the environmental system too far. In fact, we don't have environmental problems in the world anymore. We have only security, stability, health, democracy, human rights challenges and the sustainability dimensions is an integral part of this.
Johan Rockström: So I would like to see a whole new logic in both public funding and philanthropy to say, "Look, the only thing that matters for us is human wellbeing. It's the resilience of societies, the resilience of the world, stability of the planet and human wellbeing." Well, how do I build that in the best way? How do I recover from COVID and avoid the next pandemic? Well, we know that the pandemic is a zoonosis. It's a virus spilled over from wildlife, probably through domestic animals to people.
Johan Rockström: And we know that this is caused by unsustainable over exploitation of natural ecosystems. You want to be resilient and avoid the next pandemic? You better invest in nature. So there's no such thing anymore like just a parallel environmental line of investments that receives then like a sliver. You have to think of it much more as a broad societal investment. I think that may help at least as one item.
Johan Rockström: But of course the other one is the urgency point. Just to say that this is the decade when we need all hands on deck and now is the time. If there's any time to invest, it's now. Because now we determine whether or not we'll be able to manage this on the long term.
Stephan Chambers: My last question, and it's probably impossible to answer is the question about intergenerational justice. It's about people who are half your age, half my age, or a third of our age, or only just born and our responsibility to them in respect of climate.
Johan Rockström: It's a huge issue. It's almost like the elephant in the room, actually, because we've allowed ourselves to build up an economic system in the world, all our institutions, a political system, even a business logic that basically is unable to factor in any responsibility for anything that happens beyond 10 years or 20 years. It's basically the shortsightedness drives everything that we do.
Johan Rockström: Now, what I feel, my conclusion of this and what I think we in the scientific community increasingly recognize and try to communicate is that we have to prolong our moral timeline of responsibility. We have an intergenerational responsibility that should be not just one generation into the future, our children, not even our grandchildren, but it should be centuries to thousands of years.
Johan Rockström: Of course, we have to think 2,000 years into the future, and course we need to leave, you and I, we are the adults on earth today, so we are on watch. We are custodians of the planet today and I think we have the more responsibility of handing over that planet to our children in at least as livable state as the planet where you and I was born ourselves.
Johan Rockström: Now, unfortunately we are the first generation ever to likely fail that moral responsibility, because we are the ones right at this time step that are coming close to those on buttons. We have the window still open to avoid it, but the window is shutting very fast. So I think there is a very dramatic moral obligation to future generations, and this is what the fighters for future movement have understood.
Johan Rockström: They've seen this so, so clearly that what right do you have to hand over a planet to us that irreversibly will just drift off into worse and worse conditions? That's unacceptable, and I fully agree with them. And I think the science agrees with them, but also morality increasingly does.
Stephan Chambers: That is a great note for us to end on, Johan. Thank you so much. I strongly commend Breaking Boundaries, it's an important work. And thank you for the work that you have done and are doing. It's been a great pleasure to talk to you today.
Johan Rockström: Thank you so much to having me.
“We are custodians of the planet today and we have a moral responsibility of handing over that planet to our children in at least as liveable a state as where you and I were born ourselves.”
Professor Johan Rockström,
Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Prof. Johan Rockström is the Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor at the Institute of Earth and Environmental Science at Potsdam University.
Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist on global sustainability issues, who led the development of the new Planetary Boundaries framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He is a leading scientist on global water resources, with about 25 years of experience from applied water research in tropical regions, and more than 150 research publications in fields ranging from applied land and water management to global sustainability.
Aside from his research helping to guide policy, Rockström consults several governments and business networks. He also acts as an advisor for sustainable development issues at noteworthy international meetings, such as the World Economic Forum, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conferences (UNFCCC). Supplementary, he chairs the advisory board for the EAT Foundation and the Earth League.