Pushing the Boundaries: How Human Activities Threaten Earth’s Critical Systems

Earth Fire Global Warming Concept

The concept of planetary commons is crucial for the future of civilization and Earth’s stability. Researchers propose that Earth system functions transcending national boundaries, such as the Amazon rainforest and Greenland ice sheets, should be governed collectively as planetary commons. This nearly two-year research by 22 international experts suggests expanding the global commons concept to include critical biophysical systems. The goal is to create effective global governance strategies that transcend national boundaries, ensuring planetary resilience and justice. The authors emphasize the urgency of integrating this approach into global environmental law to prevent irreversible damage to Earth’s critical systems.

In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers contend that tipping elements in the Earth’s system ought to be regarded as global commons. They argue that the definition of global commons should extend beyond just the regions beyond national borders, such as the high seas and Antarctica, as is the current practice.

They must also include all the environmental systems that regulate the functioning and state of the planet, namely all systems on Earth we all depend on, irrespective of where in the world we live. This calls for a new level of transnational cooperation, leading experts in legal, social and Earth system sciences say. To limit risks for human societies and secure critical Earth system functions they propose a new framework of planetary commons to guide governance of the planet.

“Stability and wealth of nations and our civilization depends on the stability of critical Earth system functions that operate beyond national borders. At the same time, human activities push harder and harder on the planetary boundaries of these pivotal systems. From the Amazon rainforest to the Greenland ice masses, there are rising risks of triggering irreversible and unmanageable shifts in Earth system functioning. As these shifts affect people across the globe, we argue that tipping elements should be considered as planetary commons the world is entrusted with, and consequently in need of collective governance,” explains Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam.

Research on Planetary Commons and Legal Solutions

The publication is the result of an almost two-year-long research process involving 22 leading international researchers. Legal, political, and Earth system scientists make their case by building on the well-known idea of the global commons, but significantly expanding it to design more effective legal responses to better govern biophysical systems that regulate planetary resilience beyond and across national boundaries, such as natural carbon sinks and the major forest systems.

“We believe the planetary commons have the potential to articulate and create effective stewardship obligations for nation states worldwide through Earth system governance aimed at restoring and strengthening planetary resilience and promoting justice. However, since these commons are often located within sovereign territories,  such stewardship obligations must also meet some clear justice criteria,” social scientist and author Joyeeta Gupta highlights.

A planetary shift towards collective global scale solutions transcending national boundaries

Global commons or global public goods like the high seas and deep seabed, outer space, Antarctica, and the atmosphere are shared by all states. They lie outside of jurisdictional boundaries and thus sovereign entitlements. All states and people have a collective interest, especially when it comes to resource extraction, that they be protected and governed effectively for the collective good.

The planetary commons expand the idea of the global commons by adding not only globally shared geographic regions to the global commons framework, but also critical biophysical systems that regulate the resilience and state, and therefore livability, on Earth. The consequences of such a “planetary shift” in global commons governance are potentially profound, the authors argue. Safeguarding these critical Earth system regulatory functions is a challenge at a unique planetary scale of governance, characterized by the need for collective global scale solutions that transcend national boundaries.

“Earth’s critical regulatory systems are now being put under pressure by human activities at unprecedented levels,” says author of the paper Louis Kotzé, Professor of Law at North-West University in South Africa and the University of Lincoln, UK; and researcher at the Research Institute for Sustainability Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “Our existing global environmental law and governance framework is unable to address the planetary crisis and keep us from crossing planetary boundaries. This is why we urgently need planetary commons as a new law and governance approach that can safeguard critical Earth system regulating functions more effectively.”

Reference: “The planetary commons: A new paradigm for safeguarding Earth-regulating systems in the Anthropocene” by Johan Rockström, Louis Kotzé, Svetlana Milutinović, Frank Biermann, Victor Brovkin, Jonathan Donges, Jonas Ebbesson, Duncan French, Joyeeta Gupta, Rakhyun Kim, Timothy Lenton, Dominic Lenzi, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Barbara Neumann, Fabian Schuppert, Ricarda Winkelmann, Klaus Bosselmann, Carl Folke, Wolfgang Lucht, David Schlosberg, Katherine Richardson and Will Steffen, 22 January 2024, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2301531121

3 Comments on "Pushing the Boundaries: How Human Activities Threaten Earth’s Critical Systems"

  1. Hottan Enkredulis | January 31, 2024 at 4:58 pm | Reply

    The study, and especially the article, is pure political activism. The word “Anthroposcene” occurs 48 times, so it’s not a geophysics study. The only occurrence of a proper political term is the demand “Any new governance arrangement must avoid legacies and practices of (neo)colonialism and neoliberal exploitation”, so it’s not a political science study, and obviously not a history paper. It demands the creation of a global government to tell you what to do in your daily life. In fact, they want to ensure “states are forced to relinquish some of their sovereign claims”, and force in a political context is synonymous with violence, and soverignty means control, so the authors are militant in ending your nation. The authors of the “study” should research their own local German, South African, British, Dutch, and Australian governments, and consider if they are of such excellent quality that any rational person would want one of them in control of all the others in this proposed authoritarian empire.

    I think this “study” is best described as a radical imperialist screed. It’s good to think globally, but consider acting locally and helping people too instead of trying to strongarm global supranational politics with your PNAS.

  2. Three articles since January 25th with essentially the same political theme, with no research to support it. The only thing that appears new is calling what were formerly called “tipping points,” “tipping elements.” Both are attempts to scare readers with what are implied to be paths of no return. Advocating for a world government and ‘commons’ isn’t Earth science in the sense of trying to understand how a complex natural system works, but rather political advocacy for how these academics think the world SHOULD work. In other words, this is political propaganda, not science.

    • Hottan Enkredulis | January 31, 2024 at 7:38 pm | Reply

      It’s incredible how unfamiliar with history or human nature they seem to be. I agree with them that the world should work in so many ideal ways, but it doesn’t. Some of the authors are even from countries that already tried to impose their will on the globe, countries still promising “never again” and apologizing. They don’t realize they are the neocolonials they criticize.

      Even the politics is rubbish. The authors should compare environmental conditions in these evil neoliberal countries versus the authoritarian countries. The trend on CO2 emissions in countries with neoliberal policies is downward, but skyrocketing in illiberal places where the government can force you to stop emitting. The biggest polluter tends to be the government anyway, and they want a global-scale government?

      I don’t know what a tipping element is, some sort of gratuity maybe. The tipping point hypothesis is another elegant idea, but like their idealistic politics, it’s never actually been observed to work.

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