Will Steffen on living with climate change

24 August 2017

Will Steffen is an Emeritus Professor of Earth system science at The Australian National University, and a Senior Fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He is also a Councillor on the Climate Council of Australia. He argues that we must develop societies that are in sync with Earth's natural cycles.

Video Transcript


It's very easy to be pessimistic when you see the trends that are going on now. Emissions still going up – certainly CO2 concentration is still going up, biodiversity is still being lost. However, I think there are some extremely optimistic signs. When you look at complex systems – and I am thinking about human societies as complex systems – when you approach a tipping point you often see a lot of chaotic behaviour in the system as it is getting ready to reorganise. Whether it is a natural system, an ecosystem, or whether it is a planetary atmospheric circulation system – that's happening, by the way, in the Northern Hemisphere jet stream for example, it's very chaotic at the moment. But, it happens in human systems too, before we change.

Just in the last two years I see a lot of real excitement, a lot of stuff bubbling up in the private sector, in a lot of government sectors around the world. Unfortunately, not quite yet in Australia – although, underneath, at the state level and lower jurisdictions, there is a lot happening.

1:06 We are at a tipping point

We are approaching a tipping point where people internalise climate change and the bigger planetary issue. Particularly with younger people, it is going from being an intellectual problem that is so vast and so far in the distance that you can't get your head around it, to something that people are starting to internalise conceptually and starting to feel. Part of that is because we start to experience it.

In terms of the biosphere we have had two mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef. And I think that shook up a lot of Australians who were complacent and said this isn't going to happen, or it will be so far in the distance. Well, in two years you have wiped out 50% of the world's biggest marine ecosystem.

But people also feel it in terms of bush fire threats. I have talked to firies, for example, out in Perth. And they said, "For the first time we are seeing fires that we have to give up and run for our lives. They are so intense, so threatening, that even with the best equipment, we can't fight them." And so now we have a new category in our bush fire rating system in Australia – 'Catastrophic' – which means get the hell out of there, whether you are a resident or a firefighter. And that is only because we have higher temperatures, hotter days, drier vegetation.

The tipping point we need to get over now is for people to realise that there are solutions on the other side. This isn't: we've got to give up everything we have and go back to the Stone Age or whatever. And the biggest positive there is the renewable energy boom, because not only is this clean energy, it is undercutting the incumbents economically as well.

Rather than this being doom and gloom, rather than this being impossible, this is turning into a challenge, an opportunity, and a chance for humans to do what we are best at, which is to be really, really innovative.

3:02 We must manage ourselves

The thing we have to understand is to get out of this notion that we are somehow going to be massive geo-engineers and manage this planet, because we don't understand this complex system enough. We are disturbing it, but we can't manage it top down. And the most important thing we have to understand is that we have to manage us.

By "us" I mean our societies, I don't just mean individuals changing a light bulb. I mean we have to think of the structure of our societies. Beyond that, we have to think what is most valuable in our societies. Particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world we have narrowed down so much of life and tried to stick it in a market-based economic system, that we are headed for failure if we don't realise that. We have to put limits on what is in an economic system and what we manage elsewhere, outside, based on fundamental principles and values. So, we have to understand that we have to manage ourselves in such a way that we take pressure off the Earth system.

For example, indigenous Australians – their main goal in life was to manage the cycles of life that they came into. And they modified Australia. They built structures, and they had fishing systems, and they grew grains and so on. But they did it within the cycles of the Australian system. And when Europeans got there, this place was like an incredible garden on the most arid continent on Earth.

So, I think that really is our challenge now – to say, how do we develop thriving societies, where there is a high level of human wellbeing, that are in sync with the cycles of the planet. And, I emphasise, that is not managing the cycles of the planet, it is managing us, so that we fit in with the cycles of the planet. And that is a very big difference.

4:56 New Zealand can make a difference

When I look around the world – and I had the great pleasure of being director of an international global change research programme that had 50 countries on every continent – so, I got to see a fair spectrum of how countries, cultures, people are thinking about this. And you have got the big gorillas out there. You have the United States, which is hugely important economically, and a very vibrant scientific community as well. And you have got the European Union, and China. But you have also got really innovative, small countries. I'm thinking here mainly of the Nordic countries, who are incubators for really innovative ideas. And they can do that because they are small, they are nimble, there is a lot of connectivity across disciplines in science and so on because they are small.

Knowledge does not scale with the size of your economy, it scales with your education level, your social systems, and the cleverness of your people. So, maybe there are opportunities for New Zealand to come up with approaches to carbon-neutral aviation fuels, for example. Certainly, we have to have new systems for managing agriculture to reduce the pressure of agriculture, not only on the climate but on the water systems and so on. Agriculture is big in New Zealand, but New Zealanders are innovative. Maybe some new thinking about how we manage agriculture then could be a huge knowledge export from New Zealand.

So, this is a way we need to think – of becoming an incubator for innovative ideas. And that, a small country can do.



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