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The Evolution of Earth System Science

In the early 1980s, scientists had only a hazy notion that the Earth might in fact behave as an integrated, self-regulating system. That we view this as self-evident today is due in large part to the efforts of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP). I was proud to lead the programme from 1998 to 2004, a remarkable phase that included such seminal events as the 2001 Amsterdam conference and IGBP’s first synthesis. On the occasion of IGBP’s impending closure, I would like to share with you my reflections on what was one of the most dynamic periods in the programme’s history.

This story begins in 1999 on a cold winter’s day in Stockholm, Sweden. To prepare our first synthesis book, we were running a series of workshops to address large Earth System research questions. At this particular workshop in Stockholm, about 40 scientists gathered to discuss what we had learned about changes in the global carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus cycles over the preceding decade of research.

Just a few days before the workshop Jean Robert-Petit, a French paleoclimatologist, published a groundbreaking paper presenting the first continuous record of temperature and concentrations of atmospheric gases for the past 420,000 years. By analyzing an Antarctic ice core, Petit and his team were able to demonstrate the connection between atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature – when one goes up, the other one follows.

That paper completely changed the course of our workshop. Of course, ice-age cycles were already known, but Petit’s data gave us a much more detailed picture of the metabolism of the planet. There was real excitement about the data, and what it meant for the Earth System.

We ended up changing the focus of the workshop entirely to look at how we might explain the patterns of carbon cycling and climate variations that operated in such tight lock-step for at least 420,000 years. We had a flurry of interesting ideas and hypotheses grounded in this remarkable evidence that the Earth operates as a single system; that the climate and carbon cycle were tightly coupled.

Birth of the Anthropocene

Next year, in 2000, we met in Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was at this meeting that we at IGBP were introduced to the “Anthropocene” – an epoch during which humanity became the major driver of change on Earth.

When the Past Global Changes project (PAGES) was submitting its reports for the synthesis book, they repeatedly referenced the Holocene, the current epoch in Earth history. Paul Crutzen, a Vice-Chair of the Programme, was becoming agitated by this commentary, and finally blurted out that we weren’t in the Holocene any more and, struggling for words for a moment, exclaimed “We are now in the Anthropocene!”

Although I can’t recall that this first use of the “Anthropocene” made a big difference in the course of that particular meeting, it certainly became a major organizing term for our synthesis book. During the same year Paul and Eugene Stoermer (who had also been using the term informally) published a short article in the Global Change magazine.  Two years later Paul published his short but very influential paper in Nature, which meant that the word got out globally too.

A landmark conference

The third – and decisive synthesis workshop was held at a research station along the Limfjord in Denmark. We were really under the pump to nail the synthesis at that workshop. We set our task quite concretely – no more than five key messages were to be developed and agreed. No long laundry lists of everyone’s pet ideas would be allowed. And it had to be a group effort, which it was, helped along by long, invigorating walks along the Limfjord and wonderful discussions over dinner.

The synthesis project, which was now well advanced, was put on the back burner for a while as the programme focused strongly on the 2001 Amsterdam conference. As Berrien Moore, the Chair of the programme’s steering committee at the time put it: “we’re rolling the dice on this conference”. There was always a concern in the back of our minds that we might be trying to do too much in terms of focusing on the Earth System as a whole and making the work of the individual core projects a little less prominent.

Were we running ahead of ourselves, and ahead of the community?

Our fears were quickly dispelled. Well over 1,000 participants came to the conference and Berrien’s opening address was an absolute masterpiece in setting the tone. The conference focused on Earth System science from all four global-change programmes – IGBP, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the international biodiversity programme DIVERSITAS. Berrien wove together a quite visionary tapestry of where this area of scholarship needed to be going. The conference still ranks as probably the most exciting major meeting I’ve ever participated in.

One of the major products of the conference was the 2001 Amsterdam Declaration. Getting real-time feedback from the participants of the conference on the draft Declaration was not easy given the size of the conference and the technologies at that time. But in the end the Chairs produced a remarkable, succinct yet powerful document that, I think, marked a major turning point in Earth System science.

Immediately following the Amsterdam Conference, the Chairs and Directors of the four global-change programmes met in Amsterdam, and that was when and where the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) was formed. The idea was to build on the success of the conference, and particularly the focus on the Earth as single, integrated complex system, and build a platform for closer cooperation and eventual integration of the programmes into a tighter partnership. In many ways the ESSP, at least in its conceptual origins and its intent, was a forerunner of Future Earth.

Into the field

Unlike its four sponsoring programmes, The Earth System Science Partnership had a strong emphasis on “co-production of knowledge” that is, linking researchers with practitioners out in the real world.

We organized the work around major themes that really matter for humans and our societies – food, water, health and carbon (which perhaps we should have called “energy” from the outset). The idea was not only to draw on the appropriate expertise from each of the four global change programmes in each of these themes, but importantly to carry out the research from the outset with key stakeholders.

A good example of this is the productive working relationship that was built from the outset between food-related research in the four programmes and the CGIAR system of agricultural research institutes, and food policy centres.

Where to next?

In many ways, the 1998-2004 period was a transition period for the Programme. Drawing to a close the end of 2015, the Programme will be fully transitioning into Future Earth – an equally visionary but perhaps even more daunting research effort. Future Earth will not only have to carry on with the excellence science established in the IGBP and its sister programmes, but will have to intensify efforts to co-produce new, innovative knowledge with practitioners towards solutions to 21st century challenges.

As we look forward towards the trajectory of the Earth System over the next several decades or so, the trajectory that the human enterprise takes will be critical. And an important part of any scenario is how societies will react to the ongoing scientific developments and how it intersects with the policy and governance communities.

Climate change is a classic example of this. So Earth System science would be wise to include the changing landscape of science-society-policy interactions in future work; indeed there has been some excellent research over the last few years in the field of Earth System governance and it must continue.

I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible in my reflections, but any inaccuracies or omission of key events or people are entirely my own responsibility.

Will Steffen was Executive Director of The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme from 1998 to 2004.

An abridged version of this story was published in the final issue of the Global Change magazine of the International Geosphere-Biosphere programme. Read the original here.