Nature rolls onto the sustainability bandwagon

Ever hear of Mark Stafford Smith, before? No? Neither had I until today. Evidently, he is the Co-Chair of the upcoming London confab, “Planet Under Pressure” – and he’s also “science director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Climate Adaptation Flagship in Canberra”. This organization is more commonly known as CSIRO, definitely a “heavyweight” in the climate change game downunder, but not exactly a hotbed of impartial or objective “science” – although they would probably say otherwise!

Anyway, in today’s issue of Nature, Smith has a “Worldview Column” in which he sets forth his views on what needs to be done to cure the ills of the world; quite possibly providing some insight as to what we might expect as “outcomes” of the Planet Under Pressure conference, as well as Rio+20. Some excerpts:

Change the approach to sustainable development

Conventional environmental assessments are not enough — it is time for some joined-up global thinking

As the world heads towards the next big environmental summit — the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June — officials and politicians are calling for further assessments of our global ecological plight.

In January, for example, a panel on global sustainability set up by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recommended a “periodic global sustainable development outlook report that brings together information and assessments currently dispersed across institutions and analyses them in an integrated way”.


[…] It is not clear that another conventional assessment will catalyse swifter action. So, although the research community should rally behind an integrated analysis, it must be done differently.

First, the focus must shift from documenting problems to supporting solutions. This requires strong and continual interaction between those working in strategic applied research and decision-makers in policy, industry and civil society, both on specific decisions (such as how to frame a particular trade agreement) and on the wider context (interactions between national well-being, environmental outcomes and economic flows).

Second, the process must promote responses at all scales, from national governments and regional groups to UN institutions. Appropriate solutions will differ from region to region, be they specific technologies for energy production or carbon sequestration, or analyses that jointly address water, energy and food.

Finally, the process must work across sectors, through simultaneous analysis of the impact of a migration policy on environmental and social well-being, for example. To do this comprehensively, the research must also become more integrated, encompassing natural and social sciences and the humanities to understand the implications of changes.

[he gives an approving nod to the IPCC and concludes:]

It is time to embrace a global innovation system to support better-coordinated and more nimble decision-making on global sustainability at all scales. Much work needs to be done on the details, but if science is to be genuinely useful to society, this is what we must fight for. [link and emphasis added -hro]

Translation: Forget about clearly documenting the “problem”, we need solutions and action now!

5 thoughts on “Nature rolls onto the sustainability bandwagon

    • Yes, it is rather alarming. And there’s nothing in that video as far as I can tell that cannot be found in the actual document. See link in my sidebar.

  1. At the “Planet Under Pressure” event next Monday, one man who will be speaking is Professor Frank Biermann, who is apparently a “pioneer of the concept of earth system governance”:

    Here he is, speaking in a podcast for Science Magazine last week:

    Click to access SciencePodcast_120316.pdf

    He is describing something called the “Earth System Governance Project” – page 3 of the transcript has the details of what his group are proposing. A sample:

    “We also argue for the upgrading of the existing U.N. environment program toward full-fledged specialized U.N. agencies, which would give this agency better possibilities, better mandate to influence norm setting processes, a better source of funding, and a higher influence in the international governance.”

    He also wants “stronger consultative rules [possibly a typo – “roles”?] of civil society in the U.N. system or in global governments in general”. Civil society sounds vaguely like a good thing, but further down the page, he mentions this:

    “Civil society organizations should gain more rights in getting information and assessing information and also a stronger right to be heard in international norm setting procedures.”

    When Biermann talks about “civil society organizations” in the context of “sustainability”, is this really going to be anyone other than the usual array of environmental NGOs and activists? Somehow, I doubt it.

    Interesting video, Brian, by the way; Agenda 21 is something I’ll have to look into!

    • Alex, “civil society” is definitely UN-speak for “NGOs” (particularly those that have been “accredited” with “consultative status“).

      Those of us whose organizational affiliations do not include one of “the chosen” are presumably not worth hearing from!

      Bierman’s “arguments” are far from unique. Similar noises (about “strengthening the UNEP” and greater voice for “civil society”) can be found in the plethora of platforms, papers and pronouncements leading up to Rio+20.

      Even as I type, there’s yet another series of (UN sponsored) pre-Rio+20 meetings going on in New York:

      First Round of ‘Informal-Informal’ Negotiations on the Zero Draft of the Outcome Document and Third Intersessional Meeting of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20)

      And there are “Side Events” for this as well; most are NGOs pushing for their particular sphere(s) of concern to be incorporated into the “outcome document”.

      From my reading, this is quite the 3-ring multi-ring circus that the UN seems to be orchestrating! Although these are not unique to this process; it’s a pattern that gets repeated at IPCC and UNFCCC meetings as well!

      One of the things that is quite unclear is how many “Government” representatives doing all this “negotiating” are actually designated from amongst the favoured NGOs … thinking of Mark Lynas, for example, who as I recall has (or at least had) some official status with Maldives, does he not?

      Transparency, as we know, is far from being a hallmark of UN deliberations!

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