Nature Magazine Editorial: Research decade must focus on climate

13/01/2020 - Helping to limit anthropogenic global warming should be a prime task of science in the 2020s. “The coming decade must focus on climate change”, states a recent editorial of the world-leading scientific journal Nature. The 2010s saw breakthroughs in artificial intelligence via deep-learning technologies, in life sciences through the reprogramming of mature cells into stem cells, in physics with gravitational-wave detection and progress on quantum computing. While this was remarkable, the editors proclaim that “with new knowledge, and a renewed dedication to social and environmental responsibility, the 2020s must be transformational”.
Nature Magazine Editorial: Research decade must focus on climate
Earth curvature. Photo: iStock

“The pace of warming means that the window for avoiding temperature rises of 1.5 or 2°C is now frighteningly small. The 2020s will be a make-or-break,” Nature maintains in unequivocal terms. “If carbon emissions are not drastically reduced by 2030, we will be entering uncharted territory, including the possibility (…) of passing irreversible tipping points such as the widespread loss of Antarctic ice.”

Statement refers to tipping-elements analysis as advanced by PIK and partner institutes

Nature builds this stern warning on a recent high-profile publication on tipping elements in the Earth system, conceived by an international team of scientists led by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Exeter University and Australia National University. “This is not about ice bears but about our very own life-support systems, about feeding a world population of 10 billion people and avoiding ever more disastrous weather extremes,” says Johan Rockström, Director of PIK and co-author of the article on tipping elements. “We can protect a safe operating space for humanity within planetary boundaries if we cut in half our greenhouse gas emissions every decade.”

While there is a big risk of triggering catastrophic tipping processes in the planetary environment, there is also the hope for activating social tipping processes towards sustainability, explains the concept’s initiator, PIK’s Director Emeritus Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who also co-authored the paper on tipping elements. “We can still innovate ourselves out of this crisis, if decision-makers in politics and business not only accept the science, but step up to their responsibility towards future generations at last. Change must and will come.”

Researchers “must fight to restore the status of facts and truth”

Clean energy is key, the Nature editorial emphasizes. “Other ways to create energy while reducing carbon emissions need to become viable on a large scale in the coming ten years. Researchers must pursue innovative technologies such as carbon capture or splitting water through artificial photosynthesis, but solutions must also include significant changes to how the energy economy is run. Navigating a more sustainable path will require ambitious political and industrial will, as much as scientific ingenuity.”

“In many countries – especially those afflicted by varying degrees of authoritarianism and climate change denial, that will is in short supply,” the editors find. “But researchers must not lose hope. Working with civil society, they must step up, get out of their comfort zones and recognize activism as part of their mission. And they must fight to restore the status of facts and truth.”

Weblink to Nature editorial:

Weblink to PIK tipping elements study: (press release here)