Podcast: Katherine Richardson, Professor of Biological Oceanography and leader of the Sustainability Science Center at the University of Copenhagen

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Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75

February 10, 2021

Kimberly White
Hello and welcome to Common Home Conversations. Today we’re joined by Katherine Richardson, Professor in Biological Oceanography and leader of the Sustainability Science Center at the University of Copenhagen, and one of the world’s leading experts on climate change. Thank you so much for joining us today, Katherine.

Katherine Richardson
Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kimberly White
So you teach biological oceanography, and you’re the leader of the Sustainability Science Center at the University of Copenhagen. You were also Chair of the Danish Commission on Climate Change Policy. Can you tell us more about these experiences and the focus of your current research?

Katherine Richardson
Yeah, well, first of all, you introduced me as being a biological oceanographer. And it’s absolutely true. I got my PhD in biological oceanography, and universities are such that you then get professorships in whatever you have your PhD in. But although I still do research in biological oceanography, I really am much more, much more taken up with this idea of Earth System Science and have been contributing for the last 30 years or so to trying to understand the role of the ocean and the biological processes I look at in the ocean in a larger context than just the ocean. So I would say I’m more of an earth system expert on how do physics, biology, especially biology, chemistry, and people interact to make the conditions here on earth. So my experiences are very, I mean, I’m getting old, so I’ve had a lot of good experiences, and fortunately not very many bad experiences. The really rewarding experiences have been talking to people, either with different scientific backgrounds, or even with different kinds of policy backgrounds, and finding a common understanding and seeing where the interactions are between our fields, and our interests and how we can learn from looking at those interactions. So the focus of my current research is really understanding what causes differences in marine plankton ecosystems and how these differences may actually influence climate development on the planet as a whole. And I have a really, really exciting new project, which is what I really think is my first really truly Earth System Science project, in which we’re taking sediment cores in the ocean sediments near Iceland and bringing them up and analyzing them for ancient DNA. So we can describe not just what fossilized organisms we find in the course, which people have been doing for years. But with the help of ancient DNA, we can describe whole ecosystems and what they looked like. We’re then also doing it on land in lakes so we can describe the climate changes that happened that we can also see in our sediment cores. How the climate changes that happened were transported to land via the ocean? How did the nature change there, because of the climate change, and also because people were there? And then we have some social scientists involved as well, who are looking at how people responded to these changes in the nature around them, so the indirect effects of climate change on human populations. So I’m using a lot of time and energy and not to speak of money on this project, which I find very, very exciting.

Kimberly White
That is fascinating. I’m looking forward to learning more about that and following along with your research as it goes on. So human development has grown exponentially since the mid 20th century, and so much so that the state of the planet that can support contemporary human societies is now being destabilized. You are one of the renowned scientists that developed the planetary boundaries framework. Can you tell us more about this framework and how it can benefit sustainable development?

Katherine Richardson
Oh, yes, absolutely. We all know that in the Brundtland report in 1987, this was a great step forward because people began to think of sustainability as not only being economic sustainability but that there needed to be an environmental and a social component as well. Unfortunately, in 1987, they couldn’t really define what the environmental component was all about. We can do that today. And interestingly enough, I think we pretty much had the seeds to do that even in ‘87 because, in 1972, we got a picture of the Earth from space. We’ve all seen that picture. I’ve been told it’s the most downloaded picture from the net, and it shows the earth alone out in space, and it shows clearly that there’s no umbilical cord. And what that means is that the earth’s resources must be limited. And we use those resources; those resources are what makes us rich. And the fact that there’s no umbilical cord tells us that, once we’ve used the resources that are here, we’re simply not going to get any more. So when politicians say that we’re not going to let human-caused global warming be more than two degrees in comparison to the pre-industrial time, then they have set a limit, they’ve said, okay, we this is the size of the garbage dump that we can use in the atmosphere. And you can take two degrees, and you can translate it to the size of how much can we put out. We know exactly who’s used the first half of the garbage dump, and the whole political exercise is about who should get the rights to use the last half of that resource. But we all know, this isn’t only about climate. It’s also about biodiversity. It’s also about an ozone hole. It’s also about water use. It’s also about the felling of forests and the use of land. It’s about pollution, contaminants, it’s about particles in the atmosphere. So what we try and do with planetary boundaries is to for all of these important processes in the earth system, like the biosphere, the living component, the climate, the water, and so on, try and examine, with scientific-based evidence, try and examine what would be the limit in terms of if we didn’t want to push this biodiversity or water or whatever we did, we didn’t want to push it so far globally, that we risk changing the overall conditions on Earth, what’s the safe operating space? What’s the limit for how far we can actually push these different processes in the earth system. I actually regret we call it planetary boundaries because people tend to equate it then with tipping points or thresholds. That’s not what it’s all about. It’s more like blood pressure. If your blood pressure is over 120 over 80, that’s no guarantee you’re going to have a heart attack, but it does raise the risk. So we put it down. And that’s what we’re saying about the way that we’re pushing some of these important processes in the earth system. In order to be able to and the importance for planetary boundaries in something like policy development and sustainable development is that it helps us recognize the biophysical constraints within which we have to get, for example, our food production or our energy production to fit. So we talk about transforming the global food system, for example, and planetary boundaries can tell us that we need to transform it in such a way that we produce nutrient-rich food for nine to 10 billion people without using any more land by reducing the amount of water that we put into it by reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus, and so on. So it tells us we need a green revolution on essentially the same land area that we have today. Fortunately, lots of scenarios are making it look like this will be possible if we push all of the buttons that we have available. But my point is that the value of the planetary boundaries framework or something like it is that it’s absolutely essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and for defining the constraints within which we have to make critical human infrastructure and services fit.

Kimberly White
So, Earth System Science helps us understand that what we do anywhere and everywhere impacts our shared global commons. When we think of the ocean, it connects all of humanity, and ultimately, it operates as one interconnected system. Can you please explain some of the connections and interactions between the planetary boundaries, such as between the ocean and the earth system?

Katherine Richardson
Oh, yes. That’s what I work on. That’s what I love. Well, you know, the planetary boundaries identifies two core boundaries, and one is climate, which is only all about how much heat energy does the earth get from the sun? How much stays here? How does it move around? What is it get into contact with? So it’s all about energy flux. The other that it identifies is the biosphere, that is to say, all living organ organisms, what we usually refer to is biodiversity. And we don’t think about it very often, but what makes our planet special and different from every other planet that we know is that there is life. We don’t know what life is, but we know what it does. And what it does is it transforms, and it transports elements and molecules. So at any point in time, in the earth system, the conditions that you have here are the product of the interaction between life and this energy that comes into the system. So why do we have oxygen in the atmosphere? Thank you very much, biology. Why do we have an ozone layer that protects us from UV radiation? Thank you very much, biology. So biology is incredibly important. And where did life start? Life started in the ocean, and those little organisms that made the oxygen that we got in our atmosphere, they came from the ocean. And in fact, the only place on this planet where you have enough free and active co2 to be able to explain the large differences that we’re seeing in the concentration of co2 in the atmosphere between ice ages and non-ice ages that has to have come at least in large part from the ocean. And biology had a tremendous role in terms of moving carbon from, you know, land to ocean and from putting carbon from the ocean to the atmosphere. So the biosphere is incredibly important. Living organisms are incredibly important in terms of moving around co2. The ocean covers two-thirds of the planet over two-thirds of the planet, 71 percent, and life started in the ocean. Obviously, life in the ocean is incredibly important to the conditions that we have here on land.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. And in our past interview with Will Steffen, we learned that crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large scale, possibly irreversible environmental changes and that we may have already crossed some of these boundaries. In your opinion, which planetary boundaries have been crossed? And what are some of the consequences we could face?

Katherine Richardson
Well, I don’t know that any of the boundaries have been crossed yet. But it is possible that some of them have been crossed. And the problem with tipping points is that you’re not going to wake up one morning, and it’ll be in the headline, okay, now, we crossed that tipping point, because very many of them will get to the point, for example, where it’ll be so warm that you cannot stop the melting of ice on Greenland. But it’ll take thousands of years before the ice is gone. So you don’t really know for certain on the day when it actually happens that you crossed a tipping point. What we can say about tipping points is, we know for certain that they exist because we know there are elements, that can be the Amazon forest, it can be ice, Arctic sea ice, it can be ice on Greenland, it can be the West Antarctic ice sheet, it can be Alpine glaciers, it can be coral reefs, we know there are certain things on earth or components on earth that are either there or not there, depending on the temperature, depending on the climate conditions. So we know tipping elements exist. And we also know that it’s temperature that gets them to go from one state to another. So we know tipping points exist. What we don’t know is exactly at what temperature the tipping points become crossed. We can say, however, that when the IPCC, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, first began bringing tipping points to our attention in 2001. They said, well, we really expect that you’ll have to have about a five-degree of centigrade increase before we need to worry about them. And by their next report in 2007, they said, well, maybe a three-degree increase would be enough. And by the time they got to 2013, they said, well, two degrees, and some of the reports that came out in 2019, said, Hmm, maybe in terms of the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, we’re already there. So we do also know for certain that the more we understand about the earth system and how it works, the greater the apparent risk is of us crossing tipping points at relatively low temperatures and temperatures that are very close to or maybe even where we are today. So I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that we’ve crossed tipping points. But I can put my hand on my heart and say, for every incremental temperature increase, that happens, we come closer to crossing tipping points.

Kimberly White
Now, how can we prevent crossing some of these tipping points? What are some things that governments can do, and what can be done at the university or the organizational level?

Katherine Richardson
I think there are lots of things that can be done. The first thing, of course, is that we simply have to get our emissions down, and we have to get technologies to be able to take co2 out of the atmosphere. But the second is really a communication issue. I mean, we deal with the climate risk much differently than we do many other risks in our society. I don’t remember having to have 100 percent agreement about the fact that everybody wanted to have airport security in order to ensure that terrorists don’t find our most remote airports. And yet, society was unable to take the risk that a terrorist might find these very remote airports, and it’s universal now that we have this security system. I’m not complaining about it. I’m just fascinated by the fact that society felt that it was necessary to react so aggressively to that kind of a threat, when the threat of climate change and the crossing of tipping points is so, so much, much more dangerous for society in the long run. So I think we need to have better communication in society, a discourse in society, about how we deal with risks. Fortunately, I do feel that this discussion is starting in lots of different circles, not least of which in the financial circles.

Kimberly White
Yeah, we’ve definitely seen an increase of the big banks starting to recognize that, to ensure their survival, they need to shift their investments. And that’s been, I think, a positive change that’s come out of the last couple of years.

Katherine Richardson
But it’s not everywhere yet. There are if you look at, I just had a student who did a network analysis looking at impact investment and where it is that it’s done, and for what purpose and it’s primarily North America and Europe that do climate change impact investment, and really only in Europe, that you’re seeing biodiversity impact assessment. So, so it’s very interesting seeing where it evolves, and where it’s evolving in Europe is where you have a very strong political discourse in those countries regarding biodiversity and climate, of course. So it’s interesting, you know, we talk about the earth system, but you know, there we’re in a social system as well, where there are feedbacks between the government discourse and the societal discourse and the financial system and, and the science.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. And I think, you know, with Europe, we’ve been seeing a lot of positive climate action come forward and a lot more discussion, which has been really encouraging to see. And I think that’s something we need to have a lot more of everywhere. And I’m really interested to learn more about that biodiversity impact fund that you were speaking of because I think so often with climate finance, we talk about climate, but we don’t really talk about biodiversity. And that’s something that’s so important because, in addition to a climate crisis, we are in the midst of a massive crisis with biodiversity loss.

Katherine Richardson
Well, then you would be interested to know that in this very week that you know, the government of the United Kingdom in 2019 commissioned a report on the economics of biodiversity, and the report came this week. It’s called the Dasgupta report. And it’s very, very interesting, although depressing reading. And note as well that the report actually takes up the planetary boundaries and shows a figure of the planetary boundaries in it. So science gets into the economics reports as well.

Kimberly White
I had seen something about it right before our interview. It needs to be there. We really need to have science at the forefront of everything we do. Especially if we’re going to make it through these converging crises we have with climate, biodiversity, and even the coronavirus pandemic.

Katherine Richardson
Right, which I think really shows a problem with resilience in our society that, you know, we knew perfectly well that there was going to come a pandemic at some point. And yet, we didn’t really do anything to invest in making sure that our value chains were resilient, that we had enough layer capacity or storage capacity in our countries for critical medical equipment, and so on and so forth. Because it’s too expensive to have facemasks lying around that you don’t use. But maybe it’s not that expensive after all.

Kimberly White
Exactly. And, you know, recent research has shown that more than 70 percent of the emerging infectious diseases that we see now are zoonotic in origin, which is all connected to, you know, our impact on the environment, our environmental degradation, human encroachment into these wild spaces. So it just continues to show how interconnected everything is and the impact that we can have, whether it be for the negative or the positive.

Katherine Richardson
The Lancet committee working on the COVID-19 epidemic reported to the last general assembly and, and on the very first page, it says, we simply need to protect biodiversity, we’ve got to stop cutting down forests. And that’s a medical report. But the link to the way we treat the rest of the living biosphere and the zoonoses is pretty clear.

Kimberly White
Exactly at this point, it really should just be common sense for people to realize, you know, if we continue to destroy our natural resources, we’re going to destroy ourselves. We’re at this point where we really need to have this mindset shift. And I think we are starting to see it in a lot of places, but I think we need a continued momentous shift. And we can’t just get distracted by the current pandemic going on. We need to make sure that to prevent future pandemics, we take into account the need to focus on all these other things that are, you know, coming down the line, which is with climate, with biodiversity, and with all of the impacts and cascading effects that those are going to have, which will compound what we’re currently dealing with.

Katherine Richardson
I couldn’t agree with you more. And I was fortunate enough to be chosen by Ban Ki-moon, along with 14 other people in 2016, to be responsible for the preparation of the quadrennial global sustainable development report that came out in 2019. And in that, we went in and looked at how’s it going with the goals in the Sustainable Development Goals, and some of them the ones that have to do with people, at least before the COVID crisis, we were doing pretty well on in terms of infant mortality and neonatal mortality, and getting food to people and all that sort of stuff, we were doing actually pretty well. But there is a group of goals where the trend is in the wrong direction. It’s negative, and that means that we get farther away from achieving those goals for every day that goes. And what are those goals? Well, it’s inequality between people. It’s, it’s malnutrition, not because people aren’t getting enough to eat but because we have an obesity epidemic, which has just gone wild. It’s our material footprint, our ecological footprint, its climate, and its biodiversity. And you can say, well you know, it’s going okay for people, why should we worry if it’s going in the wrong direction for those other things. And in fact, it’s the other things; it’s the climate and the biodiversity, the natural resources that actually pay for the party. And we all know that you can continue partying, even though the balance on your bank account is going down. You just can’t do it forever. And that’s the situation that we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Kimberly White
I think that’s a great analogy. So as an earth system scientist, can you explain why the earth system and its software are global, indivisible, and should be addressed as a single unit?

Katherine Richardson
Oh, yes, it’s very easy. It’s just like when you go to the doctor, and he or she is going to prescribe some medicine for your head, they will always make sure that it doesn’t interact with something that’s happening in your feet, or your stomach, or your reproductive system. So we recognize in our own bodies that it’s the interaction between the different parts that make us what we are; it’s just exactly the same way with the earth. The earth is also a system, and we won’t understand it, by having a Department of Physics, Department of Chemistry, Department of Economics, Department of and everybody going in, and, and studying details in that box. And then we get all the details worked out, and we dump all of the details into a big pot and stir it up, we’re not going to understand what the earth is or how the earth works. We have to be looking at the interactions between the different parts in order to be able to understand its function and our role in it.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. And how can recognizing the earth system as an intangible global common without borders, as proposed by the Common Home of Humanity, help us to better address the issues facing our global community?

Katherine Richardson
Well, the way I look at it, our ancestors, when they stopped their nomadic life and got a permanent address, they probably started out by dumping their waste products, wherever they were produced. And by taking whatever they thought they needed from nature, be it game to eat or trees to burn and get energy. And then they realized, hey, this isn’t working, we’re getting sick from polluted water, and we’re running out of game, we have to make some rules, we have to manage our relationship with the local environment. And then we realized when we got to be even more people that it wasn’t enough to do it locally. If we want clean air and water here in Denmark, where I live, we can’t let the Poles and the Germans and you know, the Swedes throw all their rubbish in the air and water. So we made regional rules about how we manage our relationship to the world around us. What climate change and the biodiversity crisis, and even the corona crisis are showing us is we need to manage our relationship with the environment at the global level. Now we don’t have a global government, which makes it a challenge, but it doesn’t make it impossible. And we’re in a phase now I think, where we are attempting different strategies for developing governance tools that can be used in order to be able to do this management or to set up guidelines with this management.

Kimberly White
Definitely, I think, you know, with the intangible global common without borders concept that’s been proposed by the Common Home of Humanity. It goes to show, with climate change, for example, climate change does not recognize any borders. So it’s really important that we recognize the earth system and the global commons as something that connects all of us. We’re all part of it.

Katherine Richardson
Yeah, absolutely. And in order to be able to manage this, we’re going to have to make changes all the way through our society. And that includes in our understanding of governance and how we deal with the global commons.

Kimberly White
All right, and there you have it. We need a green revolution. The earth’s resources are limited and we need to change how we deal with our global commons. Climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic show us we need to manage our relationship with the environment at the global level. The planetary boundaries framework is essential in tackling some of our planet’s greatest challenges and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. That is all for today, and thank you for joining us for this episode of Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75. Please subscribe, share, and be sure to tune in on February 24th to continue the conversation with our special guest, Maria Antonia Tigre, Director of Latin America for the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment. And visit us at www.ThePlanetaryPress.com for more episodes and the latest news in sustainability, climate change, and the environment.

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