Governing a Complex Earth System

Victor Galaz • Oct 4th, 2011
Governing a Complex Earth System

What do we want global environmental governance to achieve? “Sustainable development” might seem like an obvious target for the coming discussions at Rio+20. But this would be a much too simplistic answer. At least if we are interested in taking the dramatic institutional implications of recent insights from Earth system science seriously.

One recent Earth system science synthesis seems to have caught considerable attention from the international community: the notion that there is a “safe operating space” within which the global human community can act, without seriously challenging the continuation of the current planetary state. These so called “planetary boundaries” defined by Johan Rockström and colleagues [1] remain debated within the wider Earth system science community. But it would be a huge mistake to discard them as irrelevant for policy. On the contrary, the framework captures a fundamental insight from the Earth system science community: that global environmental change unfolds in complex ways between multiple bio-geophysical systems. And that Earth system changes can be rapid, negative and practically irreversible.

Hence any discussion on how to reform global environmental governance, should not only focus on how to reach static global targets - such as the target to limit the global temperature rise to 2 °C above the average temperature before the industrial revolution. It should also focus on our ability to deal with complex, non-linear and interacting bio-geophysical thresholds at the planetary scale.

This might sound like an attempt to heap buzzwords on top of each other. It isn’t. On the contrary, this insight has several tangible implications for what we need global environmental institutions to achieve in the next few decades. I see at least three emerging topics for researchers of institutions and global environmental change.

The first issue is related to our global capacity to deal with global surprise – that is situations in which the behaviour in a system, or across systems, differs qualitatively from expectations. While some of the impacts of global environmental change can be predicted or at least estimated through modeling and scenarios, other events will unfold as surprise events. Recent examples here include the 2008 “food crises”; outbreaks of novel infectious human, animal or plant diseases; or extreme weather events that trigger social turbulence and political instability.

Many of these surprise events will unfold within the coping capacity of institutions. Others can propagate, and create severe threats to human well-being. The problem is of course that we know little of the phenomena - social, economical or ecological - that act as amplifiers. We do know however that institutional capacities tend to be severely outstripped when amplifying feedbacks in social-ecological systems do not match previous experiences; embed scientifically and socially contested cause and effect relations; and when information integration are challenged by organizational silos, and geographical and temporal gaps in ecological monitoring. So the first question is: how do we build stronger international capacities to detect and respond to surprising global events of great importance to human well-being? [2]

The second is not related to crisis events, but rather underlying drivers of global change [3]. The fact that several Earth system processes (say climate change, biodiversity and land-use change) interact in ways not fully understood by science, poses difficult challenges. Not only because scientific uncertainty is often used as an excuse for political inaction, but also because Earth system interactions are affected by an opaque set of international institutions rather than by a set of simply-defined international institutions. Hence, we cannot take for granted that international institutions will emerge to deal with planetary boundaries and their interactions, despite their possible critical impacts on human well-being. In essence: which tangible complements to international institutions are able to address complex Earth system interactions? Should we instead put our faith on the emergence of global partnerships and networks, polycentric systems, or alternative multilevel governance initiatives? [4]

The third issue relates to the role of innovation and emerging technologies in building global resilience. Calls to support technological innovation as a strategy to achieve sustainability are increasingly common in the debate. The question is what the role of international actors - such as the UN system and public-private partnerships - should be in this discussion. Despite an increasing interest in green innovation by international actors, current focus tends to have bias towards technical systems, rather than on innovations that address social-ecological feedbacks, and support the stewardship of ecosystem services. In short: shifting the discussion about innovation from technology to ecology is a critical yet poorly explored issue as we enter the Anthropocene. [5]

But innovations have another dimension. A suite of emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology and geo-engineering pose difficult and unprecedented challenges to Earth system governance. The reason is their novelty, and possible yet hard-to-estimate risks. These technologies highlight the need for not only supporting local innovation - such as community-based climate adaptation projects - but also for establishing overarching governance principles that facilitate scientific and societal debate about high-risk technologies in institutionally fragmented settings. [4]

What is it really that we want global environmental institutions to do? I believe that we need to elaborate at least three issues: our global capacity to cope, recover and learn from global surprises; our ability to address complex Earth system interactions; and our need to support, as well as to regulate innovations that have great implications for the resilience of ecosystems. Only then will we be able to govern a complex and changing Earth system.

[1] Rockström J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson et al. (2009) A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461: 472-475.
[2] Galaz, V., F. Moberg, E-K Olsson, E. Paglia and C. Parker (2010). "Institutional and Political Leadership Dimensions of Cascading Ecological Crises", Public Administration, 89 (2): 361-380.
[3] Walker, B., S Barrett, S. Polasky, V. Galaz et al. (2009). “Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions”, Science 325:1345-1346.
[4] Galaz, V., F. Biermann, C. Folke et al. (in review). Planetary Boundaries – Exploring the Challenges for Earth System Governance.
[5] Olsson, P. and V. Galaz (in press). “Social-ecological innovation and transformation”, in Social Innovation: Blurring Sector Boundaries and Challenging Institutional Arrangements. A. Nicholls and A. Murdoch (eds). Palgrave MacMillan.

Tags: adaptiveness,planetary boundaries
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Need utilitarian definition of "system" and the big surprise.

Second order cybernetic assumptions obscure understanding.  You can get a grasp on what these are by considering all proper nouns, words that are capitalized in the midst of a sentence, as being proclaimed sets of beliefs rather than resulting from first-hand observation.  If a system does not sustain its components the word has no utility.  We've been brought up with seeing things as existing on the basis of their having been forced on us rather than the result of non-coerced first-hand consideration.  

One surprise that we are approaching quickly due to decades if not more than a hundred years of corruption, is that increase of greenhouse gases appear to be the main driver of the collapse of interglacials.  John Hamaker came up with a theory of how and why ice ages come and go(mid 1980s ) that does not serve the fossil fuel robber barons that believe they rule the world, murder many and suppress information and spread propaganda every day to avoid our understanding.  Hamaker noticed that plants growing in his fields did better near gravel roads.  His theory is that during the interglacial plants use up essential trace elements in soil then die and release their carbon dioxide and that this somehow leads to collapse of the interglacial into the longest lasting and more stable climate condtions for the planet, ice ages.  The glaciers grind rock and after about 100,000 years this rock dust gets spread by wind around the planet and the plant life comes back to secure the interglacial for its brief and precarious existence.  The Devil's Hole studies of 1989 were designed to give the best and most accurate dating of past ice age cycles and it found that ice ages start at peak concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  For many years a web page on the US NOAA web site had speculation that ocean sediment samples were dated using the Milankovitch theory of how ice ages come and go and then used to support that theory which with its inclusion of gravity influence by stars seems tantamount to astrology.  That web page dissapeared during the last Bush administration.  The Milankovitch theory is the accepted explanation of why ice ages have come and gone quite regularly over the last million years or so.  It totally absolves greenhouse gases as having any complicity in the cycle, favorable to these highly vicious and strong fossil fuel vested interests that murder many every day to sustain mass dependency and keep the tokens flowing in the same direction.  2008 studies of coral deposits found that the end of the last two interglacial periods was when the polar caps melted.  Their melting is apparently part of the process that brings on the ice age conditions.  What appears to be a key factor that Hamaker was unaware of are noctilucent clouds, first seen at the start of the industrial revolution and basically increasing in their incidence and persistence since then.  At the top of the ocean of air, at the top of the mesosphere, these ice crystals become coated with sodium and iron ions from meteorite dust and become first surface mirrors, said to possibly block as much as one percent of incoming solar radiation, ten times more than the observed variation of the sun's output.  Though the ice of noctilucents is thought to come from moisture driven up that high by more violent storms, they are thought to result from methane which is thought to mainly come from earthquakes and volcanos.  Maybe the changes of stress on the crust due to the changes in water and air cycles, temperatures, etc, as the 2008 earthquake in China is thought to have resulted from a recent large reservoir, is the cause for the data presented of an increase in earthquake activity as noted here: .  Increasing greenhouse gases appear to collapse interglacials and it happens fast.  There are things we can do as experiments by John Hamaker found, seeing that remineralizing soils leads to greater biomass growth and sequestering of carbon dioxide but there is a point where the cold will come on faster than humans ability to cope especially with the proclivity to wage war for resources when stressed.  Jared Diamond investigated why human social experiments fail and found that unforeseen climate change appears to be the main reason.  Hard to see though that we have a collection of failing social experiments when we call them systems.

I like your 3 topics Victor -

I like your 3 topics Victor - thanks for this!

1: Wondering if it's being generous to ourselves when speaking of our human and institutional capacity to cope - perhaps set this alongside our capacity for self-delusion and for setting things up to inevitably generate system-wide surprises?

2: International institutions both arise from and perpetuate existing priorities and habits of thinking - so we could focus most effort on the quality of the dialogue (like software) that runs on and between the institutional hardware. If the dialogue succeeds to change the thinking then the institutions will be able to evolve. Science can inform the dialogue by showing how the uncertainty of complexity is intrinsic and need not obstruct policy to manage Earth system processes as a whole.

3: Yes innovation has been hijacked by technology. Governance debate can help but high-risk ventures will happen anyhow so long as they look sexy to funders and the alternative social-ecological-economic stewardship innovations look alien. Geo-engineering for example is pushed centre-stage by the continuing (avoidable) failure of climate policy.  

From planetary ceilings to social floors

Interesting related but PB critical blog contribution "From planetary ceilings to social floors: can we live inside the doughnut?" at