Beyond global warming: Where on Earth are we going?!

June 11, 2001

Planet Earth has entered an era that has no precedent. Scientists often point to the many human-driven changes that are modifying the global environment. But it is now apparent that these changes are cumulative and interacting and could accelerate the Earth into a different state with implications for its habitability.

This striking message comes from global change scientists around the world as they prepare to meet in Amsterdam in July for one of the biggest and most international conferences ever held in this growing field of science.

Coming just two days before the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol Talks in Bonn, the conference will present the latest scientific understanding of our home planet and how it is changing through natural and human forces.

Scientists warn that global warming is only one of the potential implications of global change. "The Earth's environment is now experiencing a completely new combination of pressures and it is unclear whether the planet will be able to absorb them," says Dr Will Steffen, Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, IGBP (one of the organisers of the conference).

"A critical question to be addressed is whether such rapid changes occurring simultaneously could shift the Earth into different modes of operation that may have significant impacts for human life," says Dr Steffen.

Plenary speaker, Professor Tom Pedersen, Chair of IGBP-PAGES (Past Global Changes), warns that humans have a false sense of security about the apparently stable conditions on Earth, based on a narrow perspective of life on Earth for the last 10,000 years.

"We are living within a "sheltered period" of only about 10,000 years in which conditions have been comparatively stable. Paleo (past) records spanning many hundreds of thousands of years tell us that abrupt changes in conditions on Earth have occurred before. There is no reason why they will not occur again in the future".

While such changes occurred naturally in the past, there are signs that the current pace of change exacerbated by human intervention may be pushing the Earth into an era in which abrupt changes could occur.

"High population densities and over-reliance on limited resources mean that many societies are now even more vulnerable to such abrupt changes than they were in the past. Humans are exhausting the natural capital that formerly allowed resilience," says Professor Pedersen".

Another plenary speaker, Nobel Prize winner, Professor Paul Crutzen, says such an irreversible change could easily have occurred in the 1970s if a slightly different combination of ozone depleting chemicals had been used.

"Had industry used bromine instead of chlorine in the chemicals used in spray cans and as solvents and refrigerants, we would have had a catastrophic ozone hole everywhere and at all seasons by the mid 1970s. The impact on the chemistry of the atmosphere would have been profound, and the consequences for life on the surface of the planet would have been severe. We avoided such a fundamental change in Earth's chemical mode of operation by luck rather than foresight and planning".

Dr Steffen and Professors Crutzen and Pedersen and other top speakers from around the world will be available for interview at the conference. For more information contact Susannah Eliott (Susannah@igbp.kva.se, Phone: 46-8-6739-556, Fax: 46-8-1664- 05, Mobile: 46-708-346-463) OR Lex Linsen (local contact in Amsterdam), linsen@worldonline.nl, Phone: 31-2066-33135

Journalists, editors and producers can register for the conference free of charge via the conference home page: www.sciconf.igbp.kva.se (proof of media affiliation will be required at the conference venue).

Further Background

With scientists from 100 countries (including more than 400 scientists from developing countries) and from all continents of the globe, Challenges of a Changing Earth will be one of the biggest and most internationally representative events in global change science.

Speakers include:

· Prof Paul Crutzen, Chemistry Nobel Prize winner and Vice Chair of IGBP
· drs J.P Pronk, Environment Minister for the Netherlands and Chair of the Bonn COP-6 Kyoto talks
· Dr Robert Watson from the World Bank and Chairman of the IPCC,
· Dr Michael Zammit Cutajar, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC,
· Prof Pier Vellinga, Institute for Environmental Studies, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Chair, IHDP Industrial Transformation Project.
· Prof Berrien Moore III, Chair, IGBP

If you can't attend the conference, visit the virtual media room
The media room (www.sciconf.igbp.kva.se) features summaries and pictures (full papers will be available in early July). Also, special events and highlights of the conference will be posted daily on the web site during the event. Interviews can be booked with speakers during the conference - contact us now and get in early to ensure a phone interview with your chosen speaker.

News can be expected on the following topics and more:

Carbon sinks - can we rely on them? Many of the world's "sinks" for CO2 are temporary and at best a stop-gap measure which can only buy time. Where do we go from here?
Greenhouse gases and the climate system - We have already pushed CO2 levels outside the bounds of the last 420,000 years. What does the future hold?
Can technology spare the planet? It is tempting to believe that our technological ingenuity will save us from environmental hazards. But how much can we rely on technology to save us?
Air quality in the 21st Century - The 21st Century will see changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere as a result of human activities. What can be done to ensure we have clean air to breathe?
Mega-cities and global change - Mega-cities are growing in extent and number. What impact will they have and how vulnerable are they to global change?
Our changing land - Nearly 50% of the land surface has been transformed by our actions and only about 5% remains pristine. What do such massive changes mean for the functioning of the planet?
El Niño - Some of the most important effects of climate change will come from its influence on El Niño. Will El Niño events become more frequent in the future?
The Kyoto process - Some say it's dead. Are there better options?

The Conference is co-sponsored by three large international global change research programmes - the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP).

International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP)
IGBP is one of the world's leading scientific research programmes studying changes to the global environment. The overall goal of IGBP is to describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical and biological processes that regulate the total Earth system, the unique environment that it provides for life, the changes are that occurring in this system, and the manner in which they are influenced by human activities. IGBP was founded in 1986, under the auspices of the International Council for Science (ICSU), and is headquartered at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden.

International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP)
IHDP is an international, interdisciplinary non-governmental research programme situated at the interface between the social and natural sciences. IHDP research focuses on topics critical for the understanding of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. These comprise the causes and consequences of people's individual and collective actions, including the changes, which lead to modifications of the earth's physical and biological systems and affect human quality of life and sustainable development in different parts of the world. IHDP'S goal is to produce new knowledge and priorities for improved policy and action at all levels of decision-making, by promoting, supporting and co-ordinating scientific research, research capacity-building, and international scientific networks. IHDP is co-sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). Its Secretariat is located athe University of Bonn, Germany. Contact: Elisabeth Dyck: elisabeth.dyck@chello.at, phone: 43-1-888-0960; mobile: 43-664-532-1617

World Climate Research Programme (WCRP)
The WCRP is jointly sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization, the International Council for Science (ICSU), and the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO. The WCRP was established in 1979 with the aim of developing the improved understanding of climate necessary to provide predictions of global and regional climate variations on all time scales and to make projections of the magnitude and rate of human-induced climate change. The Programme encompasses studies of the global atmosphere, world oceans, cryosphere (including continental ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers, sea ice and snow cover), and the land surface and ground water systems, which together constitute the Earth's physical climate system. The implementation of the WCRP is led by a small permanent staff located in the WMO Headquarters Building in Geneva, Switzerland. Contact Valery Detemmerman: detemmerman_v@gateway.wmo.ch phone: 41-22-730-8242, fax: 41-22-730-8036
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For more information and to register on-line visit the Media Room at www.sciconf.igbp.kva.se

International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

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