The key to solving the climate crisis is cooperation – or so thinks Future Earth, the global community facilitating research, networking, innovation and knowledge transfer between scientific and non-scientific bodies. Research Features found out more about how the organisation came to be, its strategy and its goals in this interview with Interim Executive Director Josh Tewksbury.
In 2012, the plan for Future Earth was announced at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development; it was to be a global initiative to strengthen the interface between policy and science and was born of the recognition that in order to address the now urgent climate crisis, scientists across the disciplines needed to work effectively and consistently with policy-makers worldwide.
In this interview with Research Features, Future Earth Interim Executive Director Josh Tewksbury explained why cooperation between scientists and decision-makers on a global scale is so critical to tackling the Earth’s most pressing issue: sustainability.
What’s the story behind the foundation of Future Earth?
The second half of the 20th century saw almost exponential growth in human activity all over the globe, no matter how you measure it – from energy use and fertiliser consumption, to air-conditioner units sold or miles of cement laid. At the same time, we are also seeing exponential changes, caused by humans, in the Earth itself: everything from atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, land surface temperatures, ocean acidification levels and more. Taken together, this is known as the Great Acceleration, and this unprecedented period has landed us squarely in the Anthropocene, a new era in which human beings are now the dominant force of planetary change.
For more than four decades, countries around the world have been supporting the study of the Earth, as well as its inhabitants, as a system, to better understand how human activities are reshaping vital natural processes. This support was formally organised into the Global Change Programs, with one focusing on the Earth and dominated by earth scientists, one focusing on biodiversity and dominated by ecologists and other living system scientists, and a third focusing on humans within a changing world, dominated by social scientists. The story of the foundation of Future Earth is a recognition by leading funders and scientists that these communities need to work together and with leaders across other sectors of society – including businesses, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) community and governments – to ensure that the very best integrated science finds its way into the hands of decision-makers.
How did you come to be involved with the organisation personally?I became a scientist because I was convinced that the best way to help people and the planet was to contribute to our understanding of how our planet works, broadly, with all the intricacies of physics, biology, ecology, and the massive influence of social norms, structures and behaviours. Over the first decade of my career, however, I came to realise that not enough effort has gone into ensuring that this is actually the case. We tend to focus on the information gaps, forgetting that information alone does not create change, and we also, as scientists, tend to treat all science as equally important – but right now we have a planetary emergency on our hands, and science communities are simply not organised sufficiently to respond effectively. Over the past decade, I have been 100% focused on that problem. What can I do to ensure that research communities are incentivised to solve the sticky multidisciplinary problems decision-makers are facing today? What is the best way to make sure that the very best data, knowledge and understanding gets to the right places, with the legitimacy it needs, to maximise its impact on the future of our world? Before joining Future Earth, I helped a major university create bold structures that would allow them to address critical sustainability challenges, and I launched a global research institute within one of the largest global NGOs. When Future Earth was launching, I saw the opportunity to continue that work on a global scale.
Your projects focus on earth system science – what does that mean?
Our projects tackle the full spectrum of issues in sustainability. Future Earth is an initiative that seeks to organise, connect and support sustainability science. Sustainability science pulls together an exceptionally broad array of disciplines – from Earth science to social sciences – as well as scientific modalities – from disciplinary research to transdisciplinary research conducted hand in hand with stakeholders and partners at multiple scales – and boxes all of that up into what is known as Pasteur’s quadrant, a science that seeks to provide generalisable knowledge for use in practical decision-making.
Are there any ongoing research projects you’d like to tell us about?
Future Earth has 19 active Global Research Projects. These programmes play a critical role in defining, advancing and forming the field of earth system science – which considers how all parts of the planet, including human societies, connect to and shape each other.
Given that Future Earth is the world’s largest network of sustainability scientists, one of the ways we leverage the power of our community is through synthesis products like our Risk Perceptions Report, which provides the first overview of the global change science community’s perceptions on global risks, involving more than 200 scientists from 52 countries. We are also constantly looking for ways to engage global partners in science. Recently we teamed up with the European Space Agency (ESA) to see if better access to climate information can help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change on coastal communities and major cities. Four projects have been selected to develop online demonstration tools that tackle the threats posed by increasingly frequent cholera outbreaks, storm damage and flooding and extremes of urban heat. We’re also very excited about the launch of the 2020 edition of our 10 New Insights in Climate Science series, which synthesises the latest research findings for the international science-policy community.
What does your work with early career researchers look like?
We’ve fostered a close collaboration with the Early Career Researchers Network of Networks, a global initiative focused on sustainability research and policy that consists of more than 40 individual networks with over 10,000 early career researchers. Since 2016, we’ve supported this community through national and global conferences, capacity building webinars and more.
Within Future Earth, we have committed to integrating early career researchers, especially from the global South, more deeply into our governance structures to ensure that the voices of the next generation help shape our organisation. We’re also looking at ways to establish these representatives as contributing editorial members for our flagship communications products so that their crucial perspectives can shape the public conversation on sustainability transformations.
How do you facilitate cooperation between scientists, policy-makers and businesses?
This is a critical area of work for us. With fewer than ten years left to reach the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goals the world is not any closer to achieving global sustainability. Scientists and science institutions will need to work much harder to integrate information across disciplines if we are going to effect change at the pace that is needed. One arm of this effort is our close collaboration with the Global Commons Alliance, a growing partnership of more than 50 of the world’s most forward-looking organisations in philanthropy, science, business and advocacy. Future Earth hosts the Earth Commission, which provides the scientific cornerstone for the Alliance’s work – including the production of science-based targets tailored for businesses and cities to empower them to take sustainability transformations into their own hands.
We’ve also recently launched the Earth Leadership Program, designed to help a new generation of science leaders transform scientific knowledge into policy impact. And, this year we’ll be kicking off the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress series, an annual event bringing together global sustainability leaders, experts, industry and innovators to inspire action and promote a sustainability transformation around the world. Registration is now open, so check out this important opportunity to connect.
You work with different funding organisations. What does this cooperation look like?
Sustainability challenges are huge and connected. How can we ensure reliable access to nutritious food and clean water for the more than nine billion people that will inhabit this planet without devastating natural ecosystems, draining our aquifers and destabilising the planetary life support systems? How can we ensure that electricity is available to all without polluting our air and causing run-away climate change? How can we best support development while protecting biodiversity today and for the future? Tackling challenges like these requires not only shifts in how science works, but also big shifts in how funding communities work. Future Earth works directly with public sector funders around the world, including national science foundations and similar entities in dozens of countries, as well as development organisations, multilateral financial institutions like the Global Environmental Fund, and a wide range of private foundations to support the development of a more cohesive ecosystem of research funders. For me, this work involves building strong trust-based relationships with funders and supporting them to work together to achieve shared goals.
What do you wish everyone knew about climate change?
Climate change is here, and its effects – from more frequent and extreme storms, heat waves, global fires, to permanent damage to ecosystems around the world – are taking their toll on communities already. We are learning more about the climate system every year, and new information brings more predictive power to our models. For example, a study on the impact of COVID-19 on greenhouse gases, led by our Global Carbon Project, found that emission levels fell by nearly 17 percent globally during peak confinement in April 2020, but quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels as the global economy resumed. Researchers now predict only a 7 percent drop in emissions for the year compared with 2019 – a sobering reality, given that greenhouse gases must fall by more than 7 percent every year through to 2030 to stay within the limits outlined by the Paris Agreement. However, cutting-edge research like the above can also show us the low-hanging fruit of climate mitigation efforts. Transport, for example, which accounted for half the decrease in emissions during confinement, is one sector that could lock-in lower emissions through smart policy making in areas like electric vehicles and the future of work.