June 19, 2012


A group of 22 scientists recently published their findings in Nature (486 June 07) revealing that we are approaching a “state shift” in Earth’s biosphere. That’s a gentle way of saying that we’re headed for trouble. We are pressing against, likely have even pressed past, the limits of what our planet can sustain. (Watch a video clip in this article by David Robert of Grist in which the lead author Anthony Barnosky of the University of California at Berkeley summarizes the study´s results.)

This month from June 20-22, the United Nations is holding the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It has been dubbed Rio+20 because it is taking place 20 years after the first Earth Summit was held there in 1992. I remember that Summit 20 years ago and all of the optimism we had for what would come out of it—and the disappointment afterwards.

We and the planet need Rio+20 to result in positive, unified goals for heading us onto a sustainable path. But if this does not happen, we can still work for positive, concrete actions in order to avoid the environmental tipping point that Barnosky and his colleagues, and so many others, have warned us about.

A global online mobilization took place on Twitter yesterday to grab the attention of world leaders gathered in Rio who still remain divided over proposals to phase out the provision of public funds to carbon dioxide polluters. The campaign, supported by Stephen Fry, Robert Redford, actor Mark Ruffalo, politicians and environmentalists, took the hash tag #endfossilfuelsubsidies up to number one in the ranking of trending topics in the United States and number two globally. Of this event, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote today: "But most importantly, the message was spread by all of you -- and now it's too big to ignore. The simple call to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies is cutting through the noise at the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil. Already, we're getting reports that the issue now sits squarely at the center of the world's agenda. We don't yet know how it's all going to turn out, but it's safe to say that the TwitterStorm made a positive outcome in Rio a bit more likely."

At Earth Policy Institute, we have developed Plan B as a way to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. It requires stabilizing population, reducing carbon emissions, stabilizing population, and restoring the economy’s soils, aquifers, forests, and other natural support systems. These are ambitious goals, but they can be done using the technologies currently available.

For instance, despite a lack of unity, some countries have taken positive steps toward this goal. Scotland has committed to getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Germany, which gets much less sunlight than the United States, recently covered nearly half of its midday energy needs by producing 22 gigawatts of electricity from solar power, a world record in solar power generation. In addition, four states in Germany routinely get 40 to 60 percent of their electricity from wind. For Denmark, it is 25 percent. Two U.S. states, Iowa and South Dakota, now get 20 percent of their electricity from wind farms.

In the United States, a powerful climate movement has emerged opposing the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

And there are many other steps being taken. But it does require getting involved. As we say here at the Institute, pick an issue and get to work on it. Perhaps it is getting a world-class recycling center operating in your community. Or it might be writing and talking to political leaders about the need for a carbon tax. Our People in Action page gives some examples of what people have done.

Yours for positive action,

Reah Janise Kauffman