Global Problems & Planetary Management
Humans are altering the planet’s biogeochemical cycles in a largely unregulated way with limited knowledge of the consequences. Without steps to effectively manage the Earth system – the planet’s physical, chemical, biological and social components – it is likely there will be severe impacts on people and ecosystems. Perhaps the largest concern is that a component of the Earth system, for example, an ocean circulation, the Amazon rainforest, or Arctic sea ice, will reach a tipping point and flip from its current state to another state: flowing to not flowing, rainforest to savanna, or ice to no ice. A domino effect could ensue with other components of the Earth system changing state rapidly.
Intensive research over the last 20 years has shown that tipping points do exist in the Earth system, and wide-scale change can be rapid – a matter of decades. Potential tipping points have been identified and attempts have been made to quantify thresholds. But to date, the best efforts can only identify loosely defined “planetary boundaries” beyond which tipping points exist but their precise locations remain elusive.
There have been calls for a better way to manage the environment on a planetary scale, sometimes referred to as managing “Earth’s life support system”. The United Nations was formed to stop wars and provide a platform for dialogue between countries. It was not created to avoid major environmental catastrophe on regional or global scales. But several international environmental conventions exist under the UN, including the Framework Convention on Climate Change, Montreal Protocol, Convention to Combat Desertification, and Convention on Biological Diversity. Additionally, the UN has two bodies charged with coordinating environmental and development activities, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In 2004, the IGBP published “Global Change and the Earth System, a planet under pressure.” The publication’s executive summary concluded: “An overall, comprehensive, internally consistent strategy for stewardship of the Earth system is required”. It stated that a research goal is to define and maintain a stable equilibrium in the global environment.