Presenters in the Main Stage and Academic Science portions of the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit spoke of the challenges and opportunities facing the planet. Scientists, politicians, activists, and others shared views on the state of the planet based on their professional and personal experiences. This chapter summarizes presentations from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, as well as dialogues on biodiversity, human rights, inequality, sustainability, and technology. It also introduces several key inputs to the summit, including a 2021 white paper and highlights of a workshop on cutting-edge sustainability science.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, characterized the current time as filled “with abundant and legitimate hope that we are right now crossing the political tipping point on climate.” While world leaders have announced ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions, he noted the technology, business, and investment sectors have also made great strides in shifting to a sustainable future. In 2020, for example, 90 percent of all newly installed electricity generation worldwide was renewable, much of it coupled with battery storage that magnifies its advantages over fossil fuels. In the decades ahead, the International Energy Agency projects that number will rise to 95 percent. The advantages and health co-benefits of clean energy are leading to replacement and early retirement of existing coal and gas facilities, he noted, transforming the market. In 2014, solar and wind power was cheaper than traditional sources in just 1 percent of the world, he pointed out. In contrast, they are now cheaper in more than two-thirds of the world and are expected to be so almost everywhere in the next 5 years.
As other examples of innovations, Gore called attention to the work of Climate TRACE, a global coalition that uses satellite data and artificial intelligence, updated in nearly real time, to report on global greenhouse gas emissions.1 He predicted this “radical transparency”
will likely have a profound effect in holding polluters accountable to their governments, customers, supply chain partners, nongovernmental organizations, and others. Electric cars and trucks will achieve price parity with internal combustion vehicles in the next 2 to 5 years in key market sectors, and many governments are beginning to mandate electric vehicles by the end of the decade. Regenerative agriculture, sustainable forestry and fishing, the circular economy, and other innovations are also gaining momentum. “We are living in the early stages of a sustainability revolution empowered by machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and the biotechnology revolution. It has the magnitude of the Industrial [Revolution] coupled with the speed of the Digital Revolution,” he said. Investors are taking note of this ESG (environmental, social, and governance) business opportunity, although he warned against “greenwashing,” in which companies convey misleading information about their environmental performance. Moreover, he said, people around the world, especially the rising younger generation, are demanding change.
The journey ahead is difficult, Gore cautioned. To limit global temperatures to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gases must fall 7.5 percent every year for the next decade.2 But, he said, market forces are powering this transition forward, and the opportunity to create tens of millions of new jobs is irresistible. Gore cited a paper published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy that shows that green stimulus measures have both short-term and long-term advantages, and they generate 3 times as many jobs as fossil fuel investments, dollar for dollar (Hepburn et al., 2020).
Gore extracted several lessons from COVID-19. First, when the world’s scientists join in unison to warn of a major threat, it is wise to listen and respond. Just as they warned about the need to mobilize and put safeguards in place to address a pandemic, their warnings based on climate science should be heeded, he said. The pandemic has made it easier to stretch “our moral imagination” to understand how the interconnected world can be knocked off kilter. Also, advances in science and technology have provided new tools to respond to global threats, and can be marshalled to respond to the climate crisis. However, COVID-19 also harshly revealed the dangers of growing inequalities and inequities. “Like the pandemic, the climate crisis is a global threat that must be addressed urgently in all nations,” he said. One billion people may cross borders as climate migrants in this century, and this flow has led to xenophobia in many of the countries to which they are fleeing.
“We have the solutions we need, and we are gaining political will to implement them in time,” he concluded. “Moreover, new scientific findings give us hope about the speed with which we can halt global warming if we act. For those who doubt, I would say that the will to act is itself a renewable resource.”
Thomas Lovejoy (Amazon Biodiversity Center) coined the term “biodiversity” in 1980 to convey the rich variety of life on Earth at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels. In dialogue between him and Sandra Díaz (Córdoba National University), the connections between biodiversity loss, climate change, and inequality took center stage.
2 For more information on the Paris Agreement, see https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.
Life on Earth is a living fabric that, taken together, drives great global cycles of carbon and nitrogen, Lovejoy explained. The carbon cycle is an important contributor to climate change, which is why, he commented, “climate change is a biological problem.” As much carbon from destroyed terrestrial nature is in the atmosphere as survives in current ecosystems. A good ending to climate change will require ecosystem restoration. “For a satisfactory outcome, we need to manage ourselves,” Lovejoy said.
Díaz noted people ask her how she views the biodiversity crisis compared with the climate change and poverty crises, as if they are separate entities. “Some see biodiversity as plants and animals, out there, separate from us. But science tells us that living nature is much more than an inventory of species,” she said. All living things, including humans, are intertwined. This living fabric is essential to the functioning of the planet. “Runaway climate change, massive biodiversity loss, and intolerable social and environmental inequality are the three most serious problems. There cannot be an appropriate solution for these three existential challenges without tackling them together in a coordinated way and without realizing the living fabric of the earth is at the core of the three challenges,” Díaz emphasized.
Drawing on his study of the Amazon since 1965, Lovejoy noted the region provides moisture to every country in South America except Argentina. Deforestation has to stop, accompanied by reforestation, to back away from a tipping point that affects the continent. Díaz said this is an example of a “distant connection” between ecosystems far apart from each other, known also as telecoupling.3 Natural telecouplings occur around the world; once disrupted, they are hard to restart. Human-made connections rapidly exacerbate telecoupling through
3 For more information on this concept, see the 2018 special issue of Ecology and Society, “Telecoupling: A New Frontier for Global Sustainability,” available at https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/view.php?sf=125.
global exchanges of goods, waste, information, organisms, and people. “This is why today nobody on Earth is fully local,” she said. “First, we are receiving influences from distant places. Second, what we choose to eat, support, and buy has impacts on remote systems and people despite the fact that we will probably never see them in person.” For this reason, she suggested, the classic slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” has become a bit outdated. Instead she said, thought and action must occur at both global and local levels; similarly, action and coordination are needed at all levels.
Every species (microbes, plants, and animals) represents close to a 4-billion-year evolutionary lineage that must be respected, Lovejoy observed. These species constitute a gigantic library of the life sciences, and each represents a potential solution to a set of biological challenges and opportunities. The variety of life provides ecosystem services, Lovejoy said, which should be treated as assets and tracked in national accounts, a suggestion echoed by others throughout the summit. In moving toward a better future, Díaz said, “We need to act urgently in the shape of practical local measures where the physical impact is felt. But that is not enough. We also need to make fundamental changes at the social, economic, institutional levels…. They are more difficult to tackle but indispensable for a better future for all.”
Actor, writer, and science enthusiast Ahmed Best moderated four panels that brought scientists together with whom he called “provocateurs” to discuss human rights, inequality, sustainability, and technology.
Article 27 of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes language recognizing that all people have the right to participate in and benefit from science,4 explained Martin Chalfie (Columbia University), chair of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The committee advocates for the rights of scientists, engineers, and health professionals around the world.5
A 1966 covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights further elaborated on the concepts embodied in Article 27. In addition, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights published guidance in 2020 on how to measure and monitor implementation of the right to science.6 Access to science, it specifies, is not just access to the fruits of science but to participation. Chalfie noted that global access to COVID-19 vaccines serves as a test to these ideals. Scientific progress also raises rights-related challenges and questions, Chalfie said, and scientists often lead the way in calling attention to the human rights and ethical implications of scientific discoveries. For example, he called attention to Rafael Yuste and others, who have called for an expanded concept of human rights based on new neurological knowledge, with the elaboration of five new “neuro rights”: personal identity, free will, mental privacy, equal access to mental augmentation, and protection from algorithmic bias.
5 For more information about the committee and to view an online exhibit created by the committee for the Nobel Prize Summit, entitled “Advancing Rights and Freedoms: Science, Human Dignity, and the Nobel Prize,” go to https://www7.nationalacademies.org/humanrights.
Connie Nshemereirwe (Uganda National Young Academy) commented while science should be a human right, sometimes the advancement of science threatens other rights. “Knowledge itself is not intrinsically dangerous,” Chalfie responded. However, he agreed that people can use knowledge inappropriately against others, and this is why laws and respect for human rights are necessary.
Picking up on Chalfie’s concern about equitable vaccine distribution, musician and activist Gingger Shankar asked how to implement human rights into science when many communities are being decimated. Chalfie said the UN has tried to address this and has urged governments to look to laws to eliminate bias and ensure participation so that everyone gets these rights.
Gatwal Gatkuoth (Upper Nile Institute of Public Health) asked about global equal access to education to become a scientist. Chalfie noted that access to scientific information can be expensive, but there is an increasing effort to make scientific manuscripts freely available to the entire world. More broadly, he said, equal access to education is challenging, especially for the more than 80 million people who are displaced, but is critical to move forward. “In my experience, research progresses much more quickly when several people and multiple perspectives are involved,” he commented. “For science to progress, we need a diversity of interests and perspectives—and that means bringing everyone in.”
Gary Hoover (Tulane University) shared data that show inequality has accelerated both within and between countries over the past several decades. The richest 1 percent of the population has seen their share of global wealth grow from 28 to 33 percent, while the lowest 75 percent’s share has remained constant at just 10 percent. The poverty in countries rich in natural resources remains stubbornly high, while other countries have exploited those resources and widened the wealth gap.
Hoover noted some people argue that innovators and entrepreneurs take the risks to bring new products to the market and should receive the benefits and, consequently, a wealth gap occurs, but that these new products will eventually sift through society to decrease the inequality gap. What they miss, he countered, is that when inequality violates the social contract such that a person cannot advance and move up the economic ladder, it is harmful. In the United States, some argue that anyone who does not take advantage of the U.S. educational system must be satisfied with their situation in life. But, Hoover said, what if people do take advantage of available opportunities but are still underprepared compared with their peers. “It’s a violation of the social contract when the quality of the education one receives is tied to their zip code,” he said. In addition, to be an innovator or entrepreneur requires access to financial markets, which is not equal. Finally, he said, no economy works well without a well-functioning court system to adjudicate differences. Violations of the social contract do not occur in a vacuum, he stated, which could lead to instability. “We’re standing on the knife’s edge,” he concluded. “We can have sustainable, long-run, and reliable economic growth when we appeal to the social contract or we can continue with the inequity we have now, which is going to see a destruction of the entire economic system.”
Simon Levin (Princeton University) connected inequality with global sustainability. The West has been living in privileged societies for a long time, he commented, and developing countries want the right to engage in activities that may close the equity gap but may also threaten environmental sustainability. Hoover recognized the need to resolve this conflict, but said nations can choose to follow models that provide for economic growth without being destructive and that adhere to the social contract. Regarding the value of expanding access, he noted, “When we allow everyone to be innovative and come up with new ideas, how do we know there isn’t a new technology that would allow us to close the wealth gap but also find climate sustainability? We don’t know that when we block people from entering the discussion.”
Film director Joe Robert Cole asked about historical context, in which the past affects current conditions. When there were fewer people on Earth, there were fewer inequities, Hoover said. As the world continues to increase, the margins for error are decreasing. New technologies (such as social media) make inequities more easily seen. Zoë Jenkins (Get Schooled) commented that some people profit from inequality, with slavery as a clear example. She questioned how to incentivize to strive for equity rather than just the highest profit possible. Hoover said some inequality will always occur—there will always be first movers and innovators—but opportunities must exist for everyone. He added that greater opportunities result in higher economic returns. “Every time I get ahead by holding you back, I am losing a consumer,” he observed. “I want to make a product that enhances your life so you can enhance mine.” The challenge is to reimagine the social contract that builds in equality, Hoover concluded.
The changes that humans have imposed on the planet call for a redefinition of new ways of living, said Brigitte Baptiste (Universidad EAN). “We have to design options in the short term to deal with climate change and the loss of biodiversity without creating more inequity and social injustice,” she said. A new and emerging global ecosystem has resulted because of human activity, with increased awareness about risks to survival heightened in the last century or so. “We have to realize we live in a shared world with ecological and cultural diversity,” Baptiste said. “No single person, community, or nation will be able to adapt isolated, much less impose solutions for others.” Framing nature’s contributions to people as “ecosystem services” allows for humans’ interconnections with nature to become more visible. Management options that encompass new ways of doing and thinking are needed. “To become stewards, we have to become ecosystem engineers, artists, and biological thinkers at the same time,” she said. Some changes, such as population growth and extinction of some species, are irreversible. The building of cities represents an interesting ecological experiment. We need to deal with the ugly consequences of global change but also recognize human capacities for change, Baptiste concluded.
Nobel Prize laureate Klaus von Klitzing (Max Planck Institute) noted both long-term and short-term changes to the planet are occurring and asked about priorities on which the public should focus. Baptiste responded that people are experiencing conditions exacerbated by climate change, such as more frequent storms, fires, and intense heat. These experiences may provide the entry point to address transitions in agriculture, coproduction, and other areas, she suggested.
Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins University), a fellow Nobel Prize laureate in physics, observed that decades of getting people to cut back consumption have not worked to meet targets. He suggested focusing on targeted geoengineering solutions as a way to address climate change and other impacts (NASEM, 2021b). Baptiste concurred with experimenting with all options, but for many developing countries, she noted, the most feasible option must be to rebuild resilience to deal with current conditions.
Anne Muthoni (Youth Arts Mentorship Initiative) asked about balancing the priority to limit temperatures by 2030 with adaptation. Baptiste observed that “it depends on which country you live in.” In more industrialized countries, mitigation should be the goal of research and investment, she suggested. In countries that do not contribute significantly to global warming but are nonetheless vulnerable, their more limited research and innovation capacity may instead need to prioritize adaptation.
In the last “dynamic dialogue,” Nobel Prize laureate Stanley Whittingham (Binghamton University) pointed out that the technology and tools to get around the fossil fuel economy exist, and they could mitigate climate change and improve resilience to natural disasters. Renewable energy is economically viable, he explained, although the intermittency of wind and solar power requires better systems of battery storage. Battery production is currently not sustainable; it takes 60 to 80 kilowatt hours of energy to produce 1 kilowatt hour of a lithium ion battery. Improvements include more localized supply chains, such as happening in Europe and could happen in North America. “We have the technical solutions in place; now we have to educate the politicians and public to get them on board,” he stressed. Furthermore, “We cannot do it alone.” As an example of the benefits of interdisciplinary, international collaboration and investment, he noted the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for development of the lithium ion battery was awarded to him and two other scientists whose work spanned three disciplines and three countries.
Musician Beatie Wolfe agreed that complex issues do not lead to a one-size-fits-all solution. Given the breadth, she asked Whittingham for the main takeaway for the audience from his research. Whittingham responded, “The message is that we can do it if we want to do it, we should do it, and don’t let others get in our way of doing it.” Ahmad Mobayed (Syrian Youth Assembly) asked Whittingham for ideas about connecting transformation and youth movements. Whittingham urged youth to speak out, pointing to the impact of climate change activist Greta Thunberg.
Nobel Prize laureate David Gross (University of California, Santa Barbara) questioned how to spur the development of technologies that are not part of multinational corporations’ strategies or business models. Whittingham acknowledged that the United States is set up to operate on the profit motive. He noted solar voltaic and lithium batteries were invented in the United States, but commercial production moved to Asia when U.S. companies did not envision a profit. If the United States does not get involved, foreign companies will step in, he warned. Wolfe suggested finding ways to reflect real costs and learn from mistakes. Whittingham agreed and said, as an example, there needs to be a way to estimate costs of generating carbon dioxide (see also Nordhaus, 2017).
At the Academic Summit, a synthesis of challenges was presented by four members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: Carl Folke, Pamela Matson, Sir Partha Dasgupta, and Jane Lubchenco. Three leading journal editors reflected on their presentations.
Carl Folke (Stockholm Resilience Centre/Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics) and colleagues developed a white paper on the Anthropocene biosphere that was used as the basis of planning the Nobel Prize Summit (Folke et al., 2021). Folke summarized the paper, and noted a main message is that science can serve as a guide for a better future. He described the biosphere as a thin layer, only 20 to 25 kilometers within a huge universe, where all life is concentrated. “We are part of the biosphere, we are living in it, we have emerged within it, we have evolved with it, and we are embedded in it,” he said.
The climate is one reflection of human impacts, he noted. In the last 11,000 years, civilizations have emerged, but a more dynamic period has occurred more recently. Fires, droughts, and excessive rainfall are part of an intertwined system of people and nature. At the same time as temperatures have risen, he noted, homogenization of the planet and simplification of landscapes have caused loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity is important to buffer shocks and disturbances.
The paper looks at challenges of potential tipping points, Folke said. Places that are critical greenhouse gas sinks may become sources of it, for example. Another dimension explored in the paper relates to inequality and global sustainability. Environmental changes hit poor and marginalized people disproportionately, and inequality shapes the biosphere. Collaboration requires trust and collective action; inequality works against such actions. Connecting the ongoing technological revolution to global sustainability has enormous potential but has not been fully realized. Social innovation is also important to discover how to shift from old to new ways of doing things. New narratives are emerging about how to develop in synergy with the planet, he added.
“It has become quite clear that if we think climate issues or the biosphere are marginal issues, the likelihood for a prosperous future is not high,” he said. Instead, he said, it is necessary to shift development pathways to improve stewardship of global commons7 and to organize society in relation to the planet, to find ways for collective action and really move forward. Folke introduced the concept of “revitalizing biosphere resilience to strengthen the capacity of the biosphere to deal with shocks and climate change so that we can live and prosper peacefully for a long time into the future.” He concluded, “Whether humankind has the collective wisdom to navigate the Anthropocene to sustain a livable biosphere for generations to come and for the rest of life with which we share the planet is the most formidable challenge facing our species.”
7Appendix D, “Our Planet, Our Future: An Urgent Call for Action,” defines the global commons as the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils, and rich diversity of life that regulate the state of the planet, and combine to create a unique and harmonious life-support system.
In December 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a workshop to share cutting-edge sustainability science. Workshop Co-Chair Pamela Matson (Stanford University) shared highlights of the workshop, which was designed to update the scientific community on sustainability science and to provide scientific input to the Nobel Prize Summit (NASEM, 2021a).8 She elaborated that the six themes discussed at the workshop are capacities necessary for pursuing sustainability, no matter the issue, and that cutting-edge, research-based findings related to them can be used by decision makers (see Box 2-1). Underlying all six capacities is the recognition that “nature and society are intertwined in a single, coevolving complex system. Efforts to guide development must embrace that complexity.” Frameworks to do this exist, she said, and those frameworks can be helpful to decision makers as well as researchers.
The first capacity described by Matson relates to adapting to shocks and stresses. Research has shown that the ability to respond effectively requires not just economic but also social, political, cultural, and biophysical resources. Focusing on just one asset may limit effectiveness of responses; building up of missing resources may help. In addition, she noted, adapting in the short term may be maladaptive in the long term and what works in one place may not work in another. Matson quoted a workshop participant, who said, “Adaptive capacity includes the ability to make and remake relationships across biophysical and social parts of the system over time.”
Second, in addition to adaptation, structural transformations are likely to be needed to address sustainability challenges. Interventions are needed to break down the economic, social, and political drivers of lock-in, and bottom-up experimentation as well as top-down policy interventions can help destabilize established regimes and diffuse innovations. Frameworks have been developed to help actors understand the roles they can play in doing so, Matson said. Research also shows that transformative change rests on imagination and the engagement of all kinds of traditional and nontraditional participants and multiple cultures in creating alternative visions.
Third is the capacity to measure progress. While there are new tools and approaches to measure and share data about the system, practical and complete measures of the whole system, now and into the future, do not yet exist. One promising set of metrics is the Inclusive Wealth Index—tabulated by the United Nations, World Bank, and others—which aims to capture not just economic but also biophysical, social, and other assets.9 Expanding these approaches is a top priority for sustainability science going forward, Matson said.
Fourth, governance systems today need to anticipate and respond not just to single problems but to interacting changes and stresses, all happening at once. Research suggests that 20th century governance processes often are not able do this well, and instead must become ongoing collaborative processes that engage different people and communities with different visions, values, capacities, and concerns. New forms of cross-scale collaborative
8 For a video of the workshop, see https://www.nationalacademies.org/event/11-30-2020/progress-challenges-and-opportunities-for-sustainability-science-a-workshop.
“polycentric” governance, rather than top-down systems, are now being tested and used (see Ostrom, 2010).
Fifth is the need to link knowledge to action. Scientific knowledge is often “too little, too late” or not relevant to the problem at hand. Research and practical experience over the past several decades have clearly demonstrated the inadequacies of “pipeline” or “loading dock” approaches to usable knowledge. Matson noted that the development of trusted and useful knowledge in support of decision-making requires ongoing conversation, collaboration, and, often, coproduction that includes both researchers and decision makers. Matson expressed optimism that the next generation of researchers is learning how to link more effectively with a broad range of actors.
The sixth capacity calls for fostering equity in the well-being of people, now and in the future. “Justice, equity, fairness, and inclusion are essential to meet sustainability goals. Research has indicated the need to engage a broad range of people and a diversity of types of knowledge, experience, and values in order to work successfully toward the solution of sustainability challenges,” Matson said. She noted that workshop participants said this capacity remains the least well understood and developed, yet essential, and a recurring message throughout the workshop was to “embrace plurality and equity.”
In The Economics of Biodiversity, Sir Partha Dasgupta (2021) (University of Cambridge) and colleagues observed, “It is not often that economy and nature are in the same sentence
although they are heavily intertwined.” Previous economic analysis has excluded nature to focus on produced and human capital, he said. After the devastation caused by World War II and the emergence of new independent nations, perhaps it made sense then, he acknowledged. However, the resulting macroeconomic models directed how economists collected data, and it became commonplace to bypass nature and its role in economic life. Dasgupta characterized this as “profound error, as nature is our most precious asset.” Today, people live longer and healthier. Life expectancy and per capita income have increased, and the world economy has grown. But in achieving this growth, the demands made on nature have exceeded its capacity, he said. The difference between demand and sustainable supply has degraded nature and threatened future lives. Biodiversity is declining faster than ever before. By one estimate, it takes the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to meet current demands.
Nature is an asset, like produced and human capital, although it is not just an economic good. It also has intrinsic, even sacred, value, Dasgupta stressed. “Once we include these aspects of nature in our lives, the economics of biodiversity becomes a study in portfolio management, similar to how companies, households, and others manage assets in line with motivations and constraints.” A central reason for failure to do so, he said, is because nature’s worth to society is not reflected in market prices, and consequences for mismanagement are hard to trace. Also, there are no incentives to conserve. The oceans and air are global public goods from which all benefit but do not pay rent or other costs. Governments subsidize the use of nature at a rate of $4 to $6 trillion annually, he said. “In effect, we pay ourselves to exploit, not protect, our home,” Dasgupta stated.
A transformative change is needed, Dasgupta said. He suggested three transitions: (1) address the imbalance between demands and supply on nature, which involves setting meaningful conservation targets and investing in nature to increase quality and quantity; (2) change measures of economic success beyond current gross domestic product measures; (3) transform institutions, especially financial and educational systems, to enable changes to take place at a global scale. After World War II, he noted, the community of nations had the courage to establish the World Bank and other institutions. Similar organizations with authority are needed to monitor and manage global goods like the open seas and the atmosphere, according to Dasgupta.
Because much of nature is silent, mobile, and invisible, no institution can eliminate all the negative impacts, Dasgupta concluded. Citizens must serve both as judges and juries of their own actions. They must demand needed changes and make informed decisions about their own actions. “Education is needed to understand nature, and understanding is the basis for science,” he said.
The ocean is a critical part of the global environment and requires stewardship, as discussed by Jane Lubchenco (advisor to the U.S. president; Oregon State University). She agreed with her co-presenters about the compelling need to harness knowledge and action to enable a transition to a sustainable and resilient future. “The challenges are real and daunting, but they are not insurmountable,” she stressed.
Even though most people do not see the ocean on a daily basis, it is part of all humans’ past and future, Lubchenco explained. It serves as a grocery store, pharmacy, highway, and playground. It regulates climate and produces weather, provides a sense of wonder, and offers an unfathomable library of still-undiscovered treasures and inspiration. In addition to tangible benefits, she noted the poetry of Pablo Neruda and the documentary film My Octopus Teacher as examples of the power of the ocean for the human spirit (see Ehrlich and Reed, 2020).
But, she said, the living ocean is at risk and so are humans. Through ignorance and arrogance, its beauty and bounty have been squandered, and the ability of the ecosystem to provide essential life support systems, especially over last half century, has been undermined. Significant inequities have been exacerbated. Climate change, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, overfishing, mining, oil and gas exploration and extraction, and pollution from the land have all taken their toll. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) documented the massive effects of climate change and acidification on the ocean in its 2019 report (IPCC, 2019). It is warmer, more acidic, less productive, and less predictable, and coral reefs, mangrove forests, and kelp forests are in danger.
Ocean ecosystems can recover if stressors are removed soon enough, she said. People who depend on the ocean can also be resilient. For example, depleted fisheries and habitats have recovered, with science-based policies and the right incentives and conditions providing the “secret sauce” for success. Thousands of such efforts are under way and they are powerful, but they are not at the scale and pace needed now. Novel partnerships demonstrate the power of holistic approaches to achieve the “triple bottom line”: protect effectively, produce sustainably, and prosper equitably.
The ocean has not been a go-to place for climate mitigation and to address the food security crisis, but it can and should be, Lubchenco suggested. New analysis suggests that managed protected areas can address climate, food, and biodiversity issues. She disputed two prevailing narratives. The narrative for thousands of years was that the ocean is so immense and bountiful, it would be impossible to deplete or disrupt it. That mindset persists today and drives exploitation. The folly of “too big to fail” is becoming evident. A second narrative is that the ocean is massively and fatally depleted and is “too big to fix.” That narrative, she said, can lead to depression and inaction. However, she sees hints of a third narrative: “I believe the new emerging narrative could be quite powerful to reset expectations and inspire ingenuity. The ocean is not too big to fail or too big to fix, but it is too central to ignore.”
Richard Horton (The Lancet) agreed that the film My Octopus Teacher makes a powerful plea to rethink human relationships with all forms of life and urged people to use the present moment to question long-held assumptions. Despite the toll, the COVID-19 pandemic provides the greatest opportunity of a generation to redefine goals of humanity, including considering people who have been most marginalized in society and are also now at the center of the political stage. The importance of cooperation and multilateralism to solve global challenges has been underlined, Horton said. Trust, integrity, and truth-telling have been at the foundation of good governance; when they have been absent, terrible consequences are also revealed.
But, he warned, this opportunity is contingent on accepting
that COVID-19 was not a pandemic, but rather a syndemic:
that is, a virus that exploited preexisting biological
vulnerabilities across societies and social fragilities.
But, he warned, this opportunity is contingent on accepting that COVID-19 was not a pandemic, but rather a syndemic: that is, a virus that exploited preexisting biological vulnerabilities across societies and social fragilities. Forty years of neoliberalism and reliance on market mechanisms, he said, must be seen as a failed experiment that has created a culture of personal misery and undermined human dignity for billions of people. The response has proven the interdependence of science and society. Science must be strengthened and integrated into policy making and politics. “Let’s use the new age of humility to redescribe who we are, what we want, and how we will achieve it,” Horton urged.
“Guided by the science” was an often-heard phrase in 2020, observed Magdalena Skipper (Nature). The context was the pandemic, and everyone watched strategies succeed or fail depending on whether policies heeded the science. While she recognized the summit audience would agree with the role of evidence-based science at the center of solutions, “The real question is how to harness scientific guidance, which at times seems at odds with other priorities.” She called for collaborations and partnerships to break down the silos across sectors, as well as within the research ecosystem, from anthropology to zoology, to address issues such as climate change, poverty, and habitat loss. Educational systems must be reimagined to train a new generation of researchers who identify as true interdisciplinarians, she added, and noted that interdisciplinary journals provide a platform for dissemination. Research is needed from academia and industry, with lessons from microscale to global experiences and collaborations that extend beyond research.
Skipper lauded countries’ pledges of carbon neutrality, but noted they occur without a common understanding of what “net zero” means. Different definitions and pathways can have different outcomes, including whether the Paris Agreement target is met or not. Tensions between governments and industry can be ameliorated when trust is placed in neutral evidence, she commented. “Science is helping to find synergies where previously the world saw only tensions,” she said. Harkening to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls science an expression of human dignity that belongs to everyone, she urged, “Let us make it our goal that our discussions resonate with everyone on the planet, and the theme ‘Our Planet, Our Future’ rings true to everyone, regardless of who they are, where they come from, and where they live.”
Holden Thorp (Science) referred to previous presenters’ messages about linking knowledge and action, fostering equity, and developing and installing new narratives. He issued a special appeal to scientists who are university faculty to educate a population that is more cognizant about science information and process. The “digital monster” of misinformation
issued by autocratic politicians and enabled by tech companies poses a great threat to the public’s appreciation for scientific expertise, Thorp said.
But, he warned, those threats cannot be effectively countered “unless we get our own house in order.” To Thorp, that means recognizing that the traditional university science model of lecture teaching and high-stakes testing is optimized for European males, and not for women and people of color.10 He pointed to studies that more inclusive teaching will expand the diversity of the people in science, yet lamented these methods are rarely used. Traditional teaching methods and curricula raise barriers to entry and crowd out courses in social sciences and humanities that place science in a larger context. “It makes no sense to bemoan the lack of science literacy in the world when we still play such a large role in excluding people from science,” he charged. Rather than accept excuses for the status quo, he said, “We have the collective power as a scientific community to stop weeding people out of science and start weeding them in. COVID-19 has been a reset point on so many things—including the way to teach science.” He suggested that a populace more enlightened about science will partner to find solutions for climate change.
Dasgupta, P. 2021. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. London: HM Treasury. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/final-report-theeconomics-of-biodiversity-the-dasgupta-review.
Ehrlich, P., and J. Reed, dirs. 2020. My Octopus Teacher. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix. Released September 7, 2020, on Netflix. Available at https://www.netflix.com/title/81045007.
Folke, C., S. Polasky, J. Rockström, V. Galaz, F. Westley, M. Lamont, M. Scheffer, H. Österblom, S. R. Carpenter, F. S. Chapin III, K. C. Seto, E. U. Weber, B. I. Crona, G. C. Daily, P. Dasgupta, O. Gaffney, L. J. Gordon, H. Hoff, S. A. Levin, J. Lubchenco, W. Steffen, and B. H. Walker. 2021. Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere. Ambio 50:834–869. Available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-02101544-8.
Hepburn, C., B. O’Callaghan, N. Stern, J. Stiglitz, and D. Zenghelis. 2020. Will 20 COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change? Oxford Review of Economic Policy 36(Supplement_1):S359–S381. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/graa015.
IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2019. Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, and N. M. Weyer, eds. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc.
NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). 2021a. Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Sustainability Science. Proceedings of a Workshop—In Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available at https://www.nap.edu/read/26104.
NASEM. 2021b. Reflecting Sunlight: Recommendations for Solar Geoengineering Research and Research Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available at https://doi.org/10.17226/25762.
Ostrom, E. 2010. Polycentric systems for coping with collective action and global environmental change. Global Environmental Change 20:550–557.
Nordhaus, W. D. 2017. Revisiting the social cost of carbon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114 (7):1518–1523. Available at https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1609244114.
“The youth and the generations
of tomorrow demand that you use your
knowledge and power of innovation
to prevent runaway climate change.”