Global Risk, Planetary Pressure, and Rolling down to Rio(+20)

Global Risk: Is the Planet under Pressure? Nigel Cameron expands on the comments he made at the science prepcon for upcoming Rio+20, hosted by the Royal Society in London – on the climate/sustainability debate and the nature of such global processes. A risk perspective is key.

Nigel Cameron (stars)


Rolling down to Rio:

Global Risk and Global Process: Sustaining Credibility and Engaging Dissent



I spent the last week of March at Planet under Pressure(PuP), a global conference on sustainability and climate convened in London under the eminent auspices of the Royal Society and the network of science academies around the planet – as a preparation for Rio+20, which is just around the corner. It’s plain the organizing committee were no fans of Rudyard Kipling or we would have been greeted on daily arrival by renditions of his splendid song Rolling down to Rio, in place of the housemusic that I assume was picked by that vast impersonal warehouse the ExCel Center (which, somewhat amusingly for a such a carbon-conscious event, is owned by Abu Dhabi). Here it is, sung by the redoubtable American baritone, Leonard Warren.


It was a privilege to be invited to participate, and admire the skills of my esteemed professional friend Lidia Brito (science policy director at UNESCO and former science/education minister of Mozambique) as conference co-chair; and Nisha Pillai, network anchor turned gracious but when necessary lethal emcee. 3,000 people, mainly scientists, filled the hall. After an opening evening and four long days it finally all came to a conclusion, and I am mulling. So take these thoughts as ideas in progress on a process of high significance for the good of the planet (which includes us) – and an object lesson in how to do, and perhaps not to do, what needs to be done. And that is true whether or not your own view lies in the climate/sustainability mainstream. The video and closing statement are here.


I had been invited to speak in the session on innovative solutions, and focused my remarks on the need to innovative the shape of the debate itself – partly by bringing other parties to the table. I summarized my comments – and much else – for those who follow me on Twitter (@nigelcameron – I also tweet on risk/futures issues at @TomorrowsQs). 


The bottom line? We must frame the conversation not as “climate change” but place it in the context of global risk – alongside the developing antibiotics crisis, growing asymmetries in global security, potential impacts of garage synthetic biology, the self-replicating nanobot “grey goo” scenario, implications of next-gen robotics for global employment, a TEPCO/Chernobyl event just one level higher, and – sad to say – potential for another 2008 tsunami to strike and perhaps destroy global financial markets. I could of course go on. The distinguished and expert group who read these newsletters will all assess these risks somewhat differently; some snap polling would be interesting. But none will doubt that they are global risks, fundamentally related to science and technology, requiring assessment and potentially costly interventions to manage. None but a fool would dismiss them. OK, there are plenty of fools around, and leaders in government and the corporate world who insist on a short-term focus to the exclusion of such systemic and global long-term threats need to be placed squarely among them. Side by side, we need a focus on innovation, creativity, and the extraordinary solutions that Moore’s-Law-driven exponential change will make possible, though the pace of change and its related unpredictability (cf. cybersecurity and synthetic biology) becomes a fundamental risk issue itself. It is not enough to cry “Moore’s Law” when confronted by a particular risk scenario. By the same token, constant efforts to revive that 18th century Jeremiah, Malthus, are unconvincing. It’s somewhere on the Moore-Malthus spectrum that judicious global risk assessment lies. 


That by way of an effort at framing, or re-framing, the particulars of the Rio conservation. Now back to some of its specifics.


On reflection there is much on my mind, including, in no special order:

* What’s the value of endless exhortations? We should, we must, everyone needs to. My suspicion is they are counter-productive. There were hundreds. Life in an exhortatory community is depressing and a little tedious. And it was left to Oliver Morton of the Economist to ask pointedly that speakers not say “we” without defining who. EC science adviser Anne Glover’s push-back on this point was not helpful.

* What’s the value of advisers and committees? We are awash with them. And while I don’t object if the UN Secretary-General wants a science adviser and an advisory committee to boot (one leading idea being ventilated), it is hard to see what difference this will make in the scheme of things; as if an exponential, hockey-stick increase in the number of advisers and committees will solve the problem (whatever, precisely, the problem is).

* Has the emergence of the scientific community as, may I say, a lobbying community, been useful for science or for society? I suspect not at all. I’m all for scientists taking ethical views and engaging society; but their operating, or seeming to, in a manner that makes them look like a labor union or enviro pressure group has been less of a good idea. And (note to the more enthusiastic) shrill is always a negative factor in the effort at persuasion.

* The old joke that insanity may be defined as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result kept haunting me.


Participants in the Conversation


1. I opened my remarks with the suggestion that the debate is running backwards. If the capacity of the global science/NGO community to shape policy on the broad climate/sustainability agenda is weaker than it was pre-Copenhagen, what does this mean? Inter alia: That people need to get better at listening and learning -and focus on reshaping the discussion. The alternative reality of international conferences is not doing the trick.  


2. I argued for much greater inclusion, around the table, of the business community. PuP had a smattering of business speakers – one of whom was the subject of a demo (sigh). Unless the discussion of sustainability and the global environmental good is owned by industry and, more specifically, by those who shape the global capital markets, it may make activists of the NGO or science professor variety feel good, but it will not leverage planetary decision-making. Where was Goldman Sachs? Innovation leaders such as IBM, GE, Google, Apple? Top VCs – like Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) and Peter Thiel (Facebook et al., and also one of the most stimulating global thinkers about the future and technology)? Leaders in the energy field? In complex ways the take of all these parties shapes global policy choices.  


3. It’s complicated, but the “new corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is increasingly building alignment between business activity and global sustainability. Famously, Harvard’s Michael Porter – long the guru of value in the world of business – has come out in favor of a radical notion of “shared value” as the key. It’s a third-generation notion of corporations thinking about the wider impacts of their activities, after old-time philanthropy and the more recent thinking about CSR. (Discussed here in my column for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.)




4. Then we come to government. At PuP, among various luminaries, we had two members of the British government speaking – they arrived, delivered their speeches, and left, making it very plain that PuP was not the main thing on their minds in the UK this week. I was thinking that it would have been interesting, for example, had David Willets stayed the full 4 days and served as respondent to key speakers. Until the G8/BRICS/OECD governments can own this process, it is not owned. IGO, NGOs, and science networks are needed and can accomplish a lot. But they do not hold the whip hand.



Subjects of the Conversation


I have neither the intention nor the competence to get into the pros and cons of the very complex climate debate. But to an interested observer, some matters seem to me to be clear after my engagement in PuP.


1. For one thing, there are various distinct logical strands in the conversation that tend to be lumped together. You do not need to be convinced that humans caused warming to see it occurring and note a need to act to contain its impacts both through mitigation and (in whatever manner) through efforts to affect the future process. By the same token, you can accept the entirety of the conventional analysis and not think it is politically possible to do much about it (a view more widely held I suspect than is often admitted). You can doubt pretty much the entire analysis and yet believe that a prudent world should act just in case it should be true. There are other variants. It would be helpful to disentangle their logic. That (ahem) is how one builds alliances and a case for action.  


2. For another, advocates of the conventional view have to my mind been much too ready to throw everything into the hopper. Yes, I know, it’s all ultimately connected. But if you are looking to engage global opinion in action to mitigate the impact of warming and, separately, limit its pace, why bring the population issue to the fore? It’s a surefire way of losing a billion potential supporters here (err, the Roman Catholic Church) and a billion there. The same is true of the issue of rising differentials between the rich and the poor. It isn’t that these questions don’t matter. But they are guaranteed ways to push away people who don’t buy these agenda items but are open to making other purchases. By the same token, there are many particular sustainability issues (fish stock depletion?) that stand on their own two feet and do not depend on other areas of analysis for their credibility. The tendency to aggregate the issues into one, like that to aggregate views into two, is not helpful.  


3. For a third, advocates of the conventional view need to be careful not to damage their case further by the manner in which they seek to make it. Feverishness in advocacy invariably undercuts credibility. Suggestions, for example (heard at PuP) that skeptics need to be given “treatment,” or that we need a move to qualified majority voting in global environmental regulation, are as rhetorically counter-productive as they are impractical; and the widely held idea that the only reason some people question the conventional view is that Big Oil is funding them is simply untrue – as well as unhelpful. In a global knowledge economy, truth wins out through respectful dialogue. (And, needless to say, “denier” language – which I did not hear this week – is as disrespectful to the victims of the Holocaust as it is to partners in the current discussion; it’s a metaphor too far.)


These are notes, not points in argument of a thesis, so I do not offer a conclusion. But they are notes offered toward the repristination of the process. Your responses will be appreciated, as we roll down to Rio, and beyond.


Two good blog summaries of the week:





Permission granted to reproduce this commentary in full and with acknowledgement.


Image: C-PET President Nigel Cameron speaks on the impact of RFID and other emerging technologies at the 2010 STARS symposium in Switzerland


5 thoughts on “Global Risk, Planetary Pressure, and Rolling down to Rio(+20)

  1. G8 blog! Love this insight “insanity may be defined as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result”. This is how we’ve spent the past 40 yrs since Stockholm 1972.

    Yes, reframing is key. Global risks is an important frame, used for example by WEF ( ). Perhaps you know them better but their approach seems to echo pitfalls that you identify for PuP – expert-led narrow inclusiveness and more-of-same (reductionist) thinking. Perhaps also a risk that a risks-focus emphasises costs and misses opportunities?

    My pet frame is ‘global security’, which is just another angle on global risks. Trying to handle this to preserve the interdependence that is always expressed (by PuP and WEF for example) but never carried through into interconnected policy-based solutions.

    Thanks again for g8 blog! James, @blindspotting

  2. Pingback: 37 finance CEOs announce commitment on natural capital at Rio+20 « Die Vorbänker – ethical finance

  3. I think this is one of the most vital information for me.

    And i am glad reading your article. But want to remark on some general things, The website style is great, the articles is really excellent :
    D. Good job, cheers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s