Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Reflections on Global Change

Nicky Grigg

September saw the publication of two important articles by prominent Canberra scientists Will Steffen and Brian Walker. The titles of these articles are confronting: “Looming global-scale failures and missing institutions” and “A safe operating space for humanity”. Global change is the topic common to both, and in both cases these authors have collaborated with impressive teams of international scientists to offer insights into a bleak set of problems.

Firstly, what is “global change” and how does it relate to climate change? Global change refers to the entire suite of changes humanity making to the planet. Climate change represents only part of this broader picture. The ‘safe operating space for humanity’ article focuses on nine aspects of global change:

  1. Climate change
  2. Ocean acidification
  3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
  4. Changes to global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
  5. Global freshwater use
  6. Land-use change
  7. Loss of biodiversity
  8. Atmospheric aerosol loading
  9. Chemical pollution

In a particularly bold move, the authors have sought in their paper to set boundaries defining limits beyond which humans risk pushing the planet into an entirely different way of functioning; crossing these boundaries would jeopardise the natural systems we depend upon.  For example, they suggest the boundary for climate change is an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of 350ppm.

In setting these boundaries they propose the notion of a ‘safe operating space’ in which humans can carry out their daily activities with a reduced risk of crossing critical thresholds in the functioning of the Earth system. Significantly, they suggest that three boundaries have already been crossed: those for climate change, biodiversity loss and global nitrogen cycling.

It is clear from this article, and the rich body of research it draws upon, that within the community of international Earth system scientists there is very little argument that human activities are having a rapid, detrimental impact in many crucial parts of the Earth system. This article seeks to synthesise that viewpoint boldly and succinctly. It is also evident that frighteningly little is known about how far these systems can be changed without causing irreversible damage – the authors readily admit that some of their proposed boundaries are highly uncertain and speculative, and I suspect only the collective international experience of these authors and the importance and urgency of the topic allowed them to publish such speculation.

Brian Walker is the lead author on the “Looming global-scale failures” article. Where the “Safe operating space” article dwelt on the biophysical picture, Walker’s article takes an even broader view and includes human health and social phenomena: nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, human population growth, increasing antibiotic resistance, and the interconnectivity of everything that comes with globalisation.  The focus of the paper is the failure of international institutions (such as international agreements) to tackle these intertwined global problems. The authors explain that cooperation in international agreements is difficult to achieve in situations where nations stand to gain from collective cooperation, but can gain more by not cooperating and “free-riding” on the cooperation of other nations. Furthermore, they point out that all too often international agreements focus on single issues, ignoring system-wide interactions. The authors spell out elements of change that would enable international institutions to be designed so that individual countries are better off participating than not, and so that complex interactions between interconnected issues are handled in an intelligent manner.

How are these papers relevant to us? I’ll offer two angles: the emotional and the rational. On the rational side of things, the papers are a reminder of the need to consider the entirety of human impacts; tempting though it may be to focus narrowly on carbon alone, both these papers point the importance of keeping the whole picture at the forefront of our minds. Given the global boundaries proposed, I wonder whether these boundaries can inform more local guidelines – if Canberrans wish to ensure their activities do not contribute to pushing humanity closer to these boundaries, what would our lives have to look like? We can be sure that our daily choices are contributing to global biodiversity loss, disruptions to the global nitrogen cycle, and patterns of land-use change across the world (we shop in a global market after all).  We can change that. Similarly, when talking and writing to decision-makers in our workplaces, parliaments and communities, we can draw on the insights from these papers and encourage our leaders to brave the global change picture and contribute to building those missing institutions Walker refers to.

As for the emotional response, it is mixed. I feel enormously grateful to these authors for having the determination to put such bold pieces out there into the international science literature. These are difficult messages for people to hear, and the discomfort triggered by such topics has led to a lamentable history of denigrating and discrediting authors who bring clarity to the issues. And that brings us to our own individual discomfort. We cannot read such articles without feeling stabs of sorrow, anxiety, frustration, anger and despair. As we erode the systems upon which humans depend, we simultaneously erode those fragile wells of hope that live within us. So there’s a humble but important thing we can each do – find those persistent points of hope in each other and make the most of them; while it may feel like there is little hope it is a surprisingly persistent human emotion and can endure the most challenging of times.


Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Asa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton, Marten Scheffer, Carl Folke, Hans J. Schellnhuber, Björn Nykvist, Cynthia A. de Wit, Terry Hughes, Sander van der Leeuw, Henning Rodhe, Sverker Sörlin, Peter K. Snyder, Robert Costanza, Uno Svedin, Malin Falkenmark, Louise Karlberg, Robert W. Corell, Victoria J. Fabry, James Hansen, Brian Walker, Diana Liverman, Katherine Richardson, Paul Crutzen, and Jonathan A. Foley. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263):472‚Äì475, September 2009.

Brian Walker, Scott Barrett, Stephen Polasky, Victor Galaz, Carl Folke, Gustav Engstrom, Frank Ackerman, Ken Arrow, Stephen Carpenter, Kanchan Chopra, Gretchen Daily, Paul Ehrlich, Terry Hughes, Nils Kautsky, Simon Levin, Karl-Goran Maler, Jason Shogren, Jeff Vincent, Tasos Xepapadeas, and Aart de Zeeuw. Looming global-scale failures and missing institutions. Science, 325(5946):1345, September 2009.

With thanks to our


  • ACT Government Environment and Planning
  • The Association of Independent Schools of the ACT (AISACT)
  • Catholic Education Office (Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn)
  • Education and Training Directorate
  • ACT Government