Global Sustainability Researcher Owen Gaffney Warns of Tipping Point Risks

Scientist Owen Gaffney, who has worked for several decades on global sustainability and systems science, discussed recent research on planetary boundaries, and the distressing fact that humans have transgressed no less than six of the nine established boundaries. According to Gaffney, who also co-authored the new book “Earth for All,” and served as an associate producer of the Netflix documentary, “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of our Planet,” this research was recently published in the journal, Science.

Previous research led by scientist Johan Rockstrom established key boundaries related to water use, pollution, ozone levels, climate change, biodiversity and other important variables that would keep the Earth in a stable state. The recent research, which is featured in the “Breaking Boundaries” documentary (directed by David Attenborough and Rockstrom), is a clarion call to humanity, and warns that the breaching of several crucial tipping points could lock in decades of social and political instability, mass extinctions, environmental disasters, and catastrophic weather patterns. The planetary boundaries that have been transgressed include parameters for fresh water, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, chemical pollution, and soil depletion.

In spite of this disturbing news, Gaffney remains optimistic that the nations of the world can work together to transform society and reverse some of these dangerous trends.

“We are making some progress in terms of transitioning to renewable energy sources, for example,” said Gaffney. “But, what we need are wartime levels of motivation and collaboration. We need a giant leap forward, but it’s possible.”

In “Earth for All,” Gaffney and other leading scientists and economists advance a systems-based strategy for creating a more resilient society that can withstand the shocks that will surely come. While governments will be required to spend increasing amounts of their revenues on climate adaptation measures—especially in low-lying regions—steps taken to increase levels of economic equality and decrease poverty will also have a positive impact on social cohesion.

“Earth For All,” has been described as “an antidote to despair and a road map to a better future.” The authors employ powerful state-of-the art computer modeling to determine which policies will result in the most good for the most people. They go on to present five “extraordinary turnarounds” to achieve prosperity for all within planetary boundaries in the span of a single generation. These turnarounds include: taking aggressive steps to curtail poverty; addressing high levels of inequality; making our food system healthy for both people and ecosystems; empowering women; and transitioning to clean energy.

“Just addressing the climate emergency requires reconfiguring the global energy system in a single generation,” explained Gaffney. “While many of the engineering solutions are at hand and can be scaled exponentially, if they are not equitable for all, we run the risk of deep resistance and social instability.”