“As we increase our pressure on Earth, there is a danger that… we will break through Earth’s boundaries, causing the stability that we depend on to collapse.” Sir David Attenborough
“Scientific discoveries have defined Earth’s boundaries but may also provide the roadmap to guide humanity out of its current crises,” stated Sir David Attenborough in a video to open the Nobel Prize Summit: Our Planet, Our Future, convened by the Nobel Foundation, National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Stockholm Resilience Centre/Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics. He described how warming global temperatures, steep loss of global wildlife over the past 50 years, overuse of fossil fuels and nitrogen, and other impacts point to large-scale changes on the biosphere. “As we increase our pressure on Earth, there is a danger that … we will break through Earth’s boundaries, causing the stability that we depend on to collapse,” he warned. The 2020 wildfires in Australia and the COVID-19 pandemic may be necessary wake-up calls to “rebuild in a new direction,” he suggested, including by reducing carbon emissions to zero and stabilizing global temperatures through sustainable agriculture and other practices. Balancing optimism and concern, he told participants, “It’s a remarkable time to be alive, but it also carries great responsibilities to act decisively to ensure our planet remains healthy and resilient.”
Attenborough’s opening statement was followed by a set of public and science sessions held virtually from April 26 through April 28, 2021. It brought together Nobel laureates and other leading scientists with thought leaders, policy makers, business leaders, young people, and others to explore solutions to three immediate and interrelated challenges (see Box 1-1):
- Mitigate and adapt to the threat posed by climate change and biodiversity loss;
- Reduce inequalities and lift people out of poverty, made more urgent due to the economic hardships posed by the pandemic; and
- Harness science, technology, and innovation to enable societal transformations while anticipating and reducing potential harms.
Although there were multiple challenges in organizing the summit due to implications of COVID-19, the availability of experts, and different time zones, a virtual format allowed the summit to reach a larger global audience, including 27,838 registered for the summit and more than 21,500 unique visitors to the platform during the 3 days. The summit was reported by media in 42 countries, and the top articles had a potential reach of more than 71 million people.
The Main Stage session was moderated from the Beckman Center of the National Academies by Christiane Maertens (DoGoodery). The Academic Science session was moderated from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences by Karolin Johansson (Stockholm Resilience Centre). The convening partners had planned to bring scientists and civil society together in person in Washington, DC, in April 2020, as related by Maertens in her opening remarks. The original 2020 meeting would have coincided with the start of what many experts believe is a milestone decade to ensure humanity’s future on a prosperous, stable, and resilient planet. While the pandemic required cancellation and subsequent rescheduling in 2021, it also served to both deepen and broaden the summit objectives. As Johansson noted in her introduction, COVID-19 showed more clearly than ever that “people and nature are intertwined and embedded in the biosphere.” An additional advantage of the summit’s online format was that attendees from 147 countries could watch and participate.
The summit was scheduled with a Main Stage session on April 26, overlapping Main Stage and Academic Science sessions on April 27, and a second Academic Science and 12 concurrent Solution sessions, sponsored by diverse organizations, on April 28 (see Figure 1-1 for an overview of the schedule). The sessions addressed cross-cutting themes of climate
change, biodiversity, inequality, and scientific and technological innovation. The following chapters combine highlights across the sessions structured around three common threads: Our Planet (Chapter 2), Breakthroughs (Chapter 3), and Our Future (Chapter 4). Appendixes A through C provide the full agendas and speakers for each session; video recordings of most of them are also available online.1Appendix D provides the text of a Call for Action inspired by the summit and issued by more than 125 Nobel laureates and other experts. In keeping with the guidelines of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, this proceedings was written by the rapporteurs and does not represent the views of the planning committee or host institutions.
The Main Stage session began with short welcomes and discussion from representatives of the Nobel Foundation, National Academy of Sciences, Potsdam Institute, and Stockholm Resilience Centre.
As Vidar Helgesen (Nobel Foundation) noted, this first-ever Nobel Prize Summit brought together “the sciences and the arts, business and policy, the young and the old.” He called attention to the fact that “never have so many Nobel laureates met such a large global audience to address our biggest global challenges.” Harkening back to Alfred Nobel’s
1 Videos of most Nobel Prize Summit presentations are on the event’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJE9rmV1-0uAEyeeX_SjUhBK6swU00wVo.
internationalist legacy and concern about the greatest challenges of his time, Helgesen pointed to the need for leading minds across disciplines to come together to address urgent and complex challenges facing the planet. “We want this summit to be a platform for critical thinking, discussion, and action,” he stated.
Marcia McNutt (NAS) noted the mobilization around COVID-19 has put science in the spotlight in unprecedented ways through advances related to public health interventions, therapies, and vaccine development. “We need to bring this same sense of urgency to the coupled problems of climate change and inequality,” she stated. “Can we reduce inequities to safeguard the long-term potential of all of humanity, and can we rapidly become effective stewards of Earth’s climate and biosphere?” She expressed optimism that science can provide solutions. She noted that each institution brings strengths to the collaboration: The Nobel Foundation engages Nobel laureates and amplifies the message of the summit; NAS is recognized for its convening power and as a trusted purveyor of accurate information; and the Potsdam Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre have international renown in taking on the coupled problems of climate instability, resilience, and sustainability as grand challenges.
Johan Rockström (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) stressed the need for action. Today’s youth, he said, are urging policy makers and the public to listen to and act on the science, and he explained the summit was structured so that scientists could share findings around the summit themes (see Box 1-1). He likened the urgency of confronting the pandemic over the past 18 months with the emergency affecting the planet. “We can no longer act incrementally, we must act exponentially, collectively, and in parallel,” he stressed. The next decade is critical to cut global emissions by half, although, he commented, this reduction will not be sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement targets on climate change and the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals.2 With a loss of 68 percent of wildlife since 1970 as a clear example, “we’re slicing, dicing, and simplifying Earth’s biosphere and systematically stripping out resilience. The scientific message is that this has to end,” Rockström stated. He also observed that those who have done the least to undermine Earth’s resources are those who are hardest hit. While the Fourth Industrial Revolution promises to change health, employment, and other aspects of human culture, he cautioned, “it is still not clear if on aggregate, this revolution will address societal and environmental goals or make the goals harder to achieve.”
Given the challenges, Rockström expressed optimism that the decade ahead could be transformative. “We are a resilient species, and cooperation is our superpower,” he said. He noted important global meetings taking place in 2021, including the UN’s upcoming conferences on biodiversity, climate change, and food systems, as opportunities to come together to act with speed and at scale.3
Picking up on the message of “realistic optimism,” Helgesen observed, “We are seeing an unprecedented confluence in the right direction.” He lauded the growing recognition of the
2 For background on the Paris Agreement, see https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement. For the Sustainable Development Goals, see https://sdgs.un.org/goals.
3 The United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Conference is scheduled for October 2021 in Kunming, China; the UN Climate Change Conference is scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland; the UN Food Systems Summit will take place in New York in September 2021.
need to listen to science to understand the problems and find the right solutions at scale and speed, as well as positive movement in financial markets, industry, and politics. “But we have to give that movement further momentum,” he stressed, and said the Nobel Prize Summit was organized to contribute to the momentum. McNutt said as a scientist, it is hard not to be an optimist, noting science has helped find a way out of difficult situations in the past. “Science is the one tool we have to allow more people to lead better lives without some being put back and living worse lives,” she said. Examples she cited included the Green Revolution in agriculture, development of fiber optic cable for communications to overcome widespread worry that the world would run out of copper, and research to explain the reasons behind and effects of a hole in the ozone layer that led to the 1972 Montreal Protocol’s ban on chlorofluorocarbons.4
“Science shows we must act, and science shows we can act,” Rockström concluded. “We see clear signs of social transformation with sustainability as a path to a new modernity on Earth. This is what I would call evidence-based optimism. It requires realism and a sense of urgency. Above all, we need collective action, a sense of togetherness, and a collective coalition for change.”
The Academic Science portion of the summit launched with remarks by Göran Hansson (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences). “We live at a critical time in the history of the planet and are uncomfortably close to a tipping point,” he said. Changes are human-made and humanity can and must act to improve the situation. While daunting, he said, it is possible, as demonstrated when the impending crisis of a hole in the ozone layer was handled through the Montreal Protocol in 1972. Scientists played a key role; opinion leaders, decision makers and people were mobilized; and the ozone layer was protected. To change conditions for the better, he concluded, knowledge is the best weapon.
Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden extracted a lesson about human-nature interconnections from the blockage of the Suez Canal by a container ship.5 For almost a week, she recalled, an excavator and other machinery were deployed to extricate it, but it took a rising tide to finally free it. “Despite human efforts, in the end, we depend on nature to help us,” she said.
“We are now at a moment of time when humanity is the dominant force for change on planet Earth, causing increasing turbulence in our biosphere,” she said. “That can be a frightening thought; however, we can also choose to see it from the opposite angle. Humankind is at the steering wheel of our planet. We have science, we have technology, we have an interconnected global economy and that means we do have a choice. We can stay on the current course with devastating consequences, or we can choose to take a safer, more resilient path to turn the ship around before it is too late. The choice is ours and this is our window of opportunity.”
4 For more information, see Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, available at https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVII-2-a&chapter=27&clang=_en.
5 In March 2021, a container ship went off course and was wedged across the canal, blocking one of the world’s major trade routes for 6 days.