Nightmare scenarios for climate change

Published on
August 31, 2022

The opening of the academic year on 5 September is themed planetary boundaries. But, what are they? How can you study them, and can you use them in your day-to-day life? Today, episode 3: Marten Scheffer, one of the speakers during the opening.

Marten Scheffer, professor of Aquatic Ecology, has been working on critical boundaries for some time. He studies tipping points within ecosystems such as animal life in a pond: how a natural system slowly becomes fragile and tips into a different state. Fundamental insights from this research on the resilience of ecosystems are also relevant to planetary boundaries.

How are you currently working on planetary

‘With regard to tipping points, we are currently working on the question of how you might measure whether you could approach such a tipping point. Only part of the planetary boundaries is related to tipping points, however. There are currently two priorities regarding remaining within the planetary boundaries. First: how can this be achieved in an equitable way for both richer and poorer countries? And second: what sociopsychological, institutional, and other obstructions hamper our transition towards sustainability? This is what I study in interdisciplinary, international collaborative networks.’

Do you perceive this as an existential issue for the future of humankind?

‘Yes. I see this as an existential issue for humanity. Our article on the subject in PNAS a few weeks ago drew significant international attention. This article argues that we must design worst-case scenarios for climate change. There is reason to believe that climate change could lead to a biodiversity crisis on a global scale, the collapse of societies and even the end of humankind. This is the worst possible outcome of climate change but is hardly acknowledged in research and policies. If we acknowledge the mechanisms that could lead to such a nightmare scenario, this could help inform politicians what measures are required to avert the worst-case scenarios.’

Marten Scheffer about planetary boundaries

- Unfortunately, your cookie settings do not allow videos to be displayed. - check your settings

How do you incorporate planetary boundaries in your personal life?

‘We installed a heat pump, solar panels and a modern stove for wood from the garden so that our house is no longer connected to the gas grid. This is a fun project. I also enjoy experimenting with vegan recipes and taking the train to conferences. We are ‘early adopters’ with our old Nissan Leaf, which we intend to use and upgrade for as long as possible, a nice challenge. I do fly occasionally. That is something I have trouble eradicating completely.’

Read the extensive interview in Resource

Marten Scheffer in Resource

Marten Scheffer: 'We will have to prepare for a darker scenario'

What are planetary boundaries?

The phrase planetary boundaries was coined in 2009 by Swedish Earth Scientist Johan Rockström. He formulated nine boundaries within which humanity must operate in order to use the earth’s natural resources sustainably. These boundaries are global warming (greenhouse effect), biodiversity loss, the closing of the nitrogen and phosphor cycles, hole in the ozone layer, acidification of the ocean, water scarcity, land use (limiting farmland), chemical pollution through toxins contained in plastics, and harmful compounds in the atmosphere. Most of these boundaries have already been crossed or have almost been crossed. The precise values of these boundaries are arbitrary. Still, they are considered a promising first step towards the safe continued existence of humanity.