Tipping Points Revisited – 2- Swedish And Depressed Planetary Boundaries

Is that a Masada I can see in Stockholm? Introducing another group of scholars interested in exploring new (and sad…very sad!) depths of environmental science: the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC), and its scientists-authors of famous research and policy framework “Planetary Boundaries” (see also J Rockström et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”, Ecology and Society, In Press 14th September 2009).

SRC have identified nine Planetary Boundaries (PB):

  • Climate change
  • Ocean acidification
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading
  • Biogeochemical flows: interference with P(hosphorus) and N(itrogen) cycles
  • Global freshwater use
  • Land system change (to cropland)
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Chemical pollution (eg persistent organic pollutants (POPs), plastics, endocrinedisruptors, heavy metals, and nuclear waste)

(yes there is a reason why SRC do not list then in alphabetical order)

I have several criticisms about the above (I am not alone). What “stewardship” can we provide to the planet if we consider our existence as under siege? Do Planetary Boundaries exist, and even if they do, what can they scientifically tell us about the real world? And even if they are really, mostly useful as a policy tool, is it prudent to take any decision based on them?

-1- A PLANET UNDER SIEGE, or THE MASADA MENTALITY
The “joyous and optimistic” (not my words) goal of SRC appears to be computing the limits of essential resources (essential to us, that is), in order to help better manage those same resources better.

Crucially though, those “limits” are considered “boundaries” in the sense of “thresholds”: once a certain threshold is passed, SRC say, the tipping point (“non-linear changes in the functioning of the Earth System”) starts looming. That is, passing the limits means risking “unacceptable, potentially disastrous” changes, jumping into the dark, most likely straight into a ravine.

In this respect, SRC’s all-too-desperate attempt of communicating a “message” (“The Planet is in peril! It’s all our fault!”) is just too blatant to convince the unconvinced. Consider for example the way they describe PBs in their website. From the PB homepage, aptly titled “Tipping towards the unknown”:

Within these boundaries, humanity has the flexibility to choose pathways for our future development and well-being. In essence, we are drawing the first — albeit very preliminary — map of our planet´s safe operating zones. And beyond the edges of the map, we don´t want to go

Look also at the video “Whiteboard seminar with Johan Rockström: Introducing Planetary Boundaries”. Here’s what you see Rockström drawing around 3m20s:

Going down...
Going down…

Just like that graph, every diagram invariably goes downwards. For some reason, it is taken as given that every change wll mean thing are going to worsen.

Fast forward to 8 minutes and 30 seconds:

Planetary fortress
Planetary fortress

What does that resemble, if not of a fortress on top of a mountain, as beyond the boundary everything goes sharply downhill? And there it is: Masada.

Masada (1)
Masada (1)
Masada (2)
Masada (2)

What good could ever come out of this “siege mentality” in managing the planet (no less!), I simply cannot understand.

For the record, in 73AD all 960 inhabitants of Masada “committed suicide rather than face certain capture“.

– 2- DO PLANETARY BOUNDARIES EXIST?
According to SRC, no tipping point has been reached so far. That is, simply none of the expected “non-linear” changes of state has happened. What are we talking about, one wonders? Every “unacceptable environmental change” that would “drive the Earth System[…] abruptly into states deleterious or even catastrophic to human well-being” is firmly in the future.

The PB framework is only loosely connected to reality. In fact, too many of the foundations of the PB framework are taken for granted rather than demonstrated. Are we really in the “Anthropocene”? Only if we believe so. Can we seriously link Arctic ice extent and the increase of atmospheric CO2? (more about this later). Etc etc.

And in any case…do planetary thresholds/boundaries exist?

It is true that the simplest spinning top can show what a tipping poin is. On the other hand, is there anything about the environment or any of its aspects that suggests they behave like spinning tops? That is, do we have any example where a minor perturbation has resulted in a major shift from one relatively stable status to another relatively stable status?

Say, has the temporal evolution of any environmental indicator about the now-mostly-dry Aral Sea followed a similar path to the graphs used by SRC?

Limnologist Marten Scheffer has written a whole book on the topic of tipping points in environmental and social contexts, and IMNSHO we are none the wiser, in the realm of the environment including climate. Mr Scheffer for example has “discovered” that there are more than just two stable states a lake environment can switch to, thereby invalidating the Rockström “Masada” diagrams.

– 3 – WHAT COULD PLANETARY BOUNDARIES TELL US ABOUT THE REAL WORLD?
SRC admit that they can do quantifiable work in only seven out of nine PBs. In other words, discussions of PBs for “Biodiversity loss” and “Chemical pollution” are on the threshold of being science-free.

Among the remaining seven PBs, SRC state that only in three cases they have solid data to estimate the “threshold” has been “transgressed”. In other words, even if thresholds exist, there is little indication we are near danger for “Atmospheric aerosol loading”, “Biogeochemical flows”, “Global freshwater use” and “Land system change”.

Among the remaining three “transgressed” PBs, regarding “Ocean acidification” and “Stratospheric ozone depletion” the tipping point “into states deleterious or even catastrophic to human well-being” is still far away in the future.

Finally, for Climate Change, the one remaining PB where the threshold has been (perhaps) transgressed and the tipping point (perhaps) reached, all the SRC work appears to be pivoting around a single published work:

Johannessen, O. M. Decreasing Arctic Sea Ice Mirrors Increasing CO2 on decadal Time Scale, in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Letters, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 1 (1): 51-56 (2008)

From the abstract (my emphasis):

The author presents an empirical relation between annual sea-ice extent and global atmospheric CO2 concentrations, in which sea-ice reductions are linearly, inversely proportional to the magnitude of increase of CO2 over the last few decades

Hopefully the esteemed Johannessen will be magnanimous with whomever will state that his findings are contrary to other research, e.g. done by NASA.

Who knows, perhaps there is a case for awaiting more analysis and confirmatory studies? It is not one swallow that bringeth in summer.

– CONCLUSIONS – WHAT ARE PBs GOOD FOR?
Based on unremittingly pessimistic and undemonstrated assumptions, observation-free, with admittedly shaky foundations, and the one promising application based on a single article… would it be wise to follow SRC and base public policy on the concept of “Planetary Boundaries”?

One can expect the usual criticisms…who am I to dare critically reading some scientist’s work…

Let’s hear it from some experts then (a collection of comments is in Nature’s “Climate Feedback” blog).

These are the views of William H. Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York:

Thresholds are comforting for decision-makers […] But is a threshold really a good idea at all? […] Waiting to cross the threshold allows much needless environmental degradation. […] Unfortunately, policymakers face difficult decisions, and management based on thresholds, although attractive in its simplicity, allows pernicious, slow and diffuse degradation to persist nearly indefinitely […]

Schlesinger’s insight is important. The concept of “Planetary Boundaries” is written in the language policymakers will understand. On the other hand, under PB scientists and anybody caring about the environment become second-class players, in this paradoxical locking up of the study and preservation of our planet to the service of those who make “policy“.

That’s the way of the worst kind of management techniques, geared up to handle not what should be managed, rather just whatever happens to be measurable. A quick look at the proverbial efficiency and low costs of the British National Health System (NHS) will be enough to understand what can this all end up as.

Obviously, the PB concept is not unadulterated rubbish to be thrown away. Just as obviously, it is not (even remotely) the ultimate solution to our problems. My wild guess is that PB is valid and useful in two out of seven of the listed “boundaries”, but the thresholds need to be understood in terms of the range of possible scenarios (some good, some bad) that the reaching of the tipping point may bring.

And I realize that these questions do not have as much sense to most of the catastrophiliacs now, but let me ask their selves, reading this in 2029:

(1) Why were you scared silly of the future?

(2) On what logical basis did you take any possible change as something necessarily negative?

(3) Why did you fill your “scientific” thoughts of “tipping points” before having ever experienced even one of them?

(see also : Tipping Points Revisited – The Impossibility Of Action Between Rare Examples And Complex Behavior)