The Different Scales of Saving Our Planet

Kari Raivio
Kari Raivio

Our planet is sick! This is no empty propaganda, but the almost unanimous opinion of the scientific community. In addition to researchers of natural phenomena, such as climate, ocean, polar and biodiversity researchers, this view is shared by social scientists. Even The Economist, a magazine far removed from any green ideology, declared in its cover that we have entered a new era, characterised by human activity and its adverse consequences (the anthropocene).

The ailment of our planet has general, global symptoms, but also regional symptoms that are to some extent dependent on the latitude, and to some extent on regionally and locally significant factors. It is too late to change the fact that our planet’s average temperature is rising. It is too early to assess if the warming will stay close to 2oC or exceed 4oC. More important than the averages is the fact that the impact of the change will vary greatly from region to region. The greatest warming will take place in the northern and southern regions, and for Finland, forecasts indicate that a Mediterranean climate would be prevalent here towards the end of the century. We will also be soaked by more rains, whereas various regions in the South will suffer from drought and heat. The threats of global warming include rising sea levels, food and water shortages, migration flows, changes in disease spectrum, and extreme weather conditions, of which we had a taste with the storms at New Year.

Regional changes in the environment are much closer to the everyday lives of people than events that impact global averages. Such changes include the extremely worrisome status of the Baltic Sea: without intensive care, the sea might well be in need of palliative treatment. The situation has been caused by nutrients, mainly phosphorus and nitrogen, and environmental pollutants accruing to the small and slowly renewing mass of water. Consequences include eutrophication, algae blooms, oxygen depletion and loss of organic life on the seabed, and changes to fish stock. The role humans and societies play in the early phases of this chain of events is even more obvious than it is for climate change.

As a cure for global change, it has been suggested that greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, must be restricted or eliminated. Next July, the international effort aiming at this target celebrates its 20th anniversary in Rio de Janeiro, the location of UN’s first conference on sustainable development. Since then, negotiators have convened annually, trying to reach agreements on emission reduction obligations and the ways in which the financial burden caused by the obligations could be divided. Results have been far from satisfactory. Based on them, we have probably not even managed to compensate for the masses of carbon dioxide generated by the negotiation delegations and the adjacent hoards of pro and con demonstrators flying around the globe. To be sure, we have managed to create the Kyoto Protocol, which, however, covers less than a sixth of the planet’s polluters. If targets turn out to be too difficult to reach, it is also possible to withdraw from the protocol, as Canada just did. The December 2011 conference in Durban agreed essentially on the continuation of the process, which as such was considered to be a victory. Which scenario is more depressing: continuous negotiations that from time to time result in watered-down compromise, or hard-earned agreements that participants immediately withdraw from when the economy faces the slightest decline, or there are any other bumps along the road.

During the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to follow research on global change through my position as the vice President of the International Council for Science (ICSU). ICSU is a scientific umbrella organisation, responsible for the design and coordination of four extensive research programmes that delve into global change from various points of view. These programmes have generated the majority of the information based on which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) draws up its status reports and makes its recommendations to decision makers. ICSU is also the most important scientific expert organisation consulted by UN bodies (UNESCO, UNEP etc.) and their summits (Rio, Johannesburg). The role may sound important, as evidence-based decision making is something people like to emphasise. Regrettably, the fact is that scientific evidence is easily ignored if, at the other end of the scales, there is real or imaginary national interest, most commonly based on short-term financial targets.

The task of searching for solutions to the environmental problems of our own neighbouring area, the Baltic Sea, has been a more joyous undertaking. While I held positions of responsibility at the University of Helsinki, I kept a close eye on research on the Baltic Sea, which has been conducted at the university for over one hundred years. If you ask the academic community what should be done to protect the sea, their standard answer is ‘more research’. Of course we need research too, but at some point we have to take action! The John Nurminen Foundation provided the opportunity to do just that: we, the Board of Directors, began to envision concrete tasks that the small foundation could accomplish. The Foundation’s phosphorus removal projects at wastewater plants have, since their initiation, been based on solid research results, and this data was now applied to real life in the form of cost-efficient, high-impact measures. This approach goes well with my natural mindset: as an intensive care physician, I am used to making decisions even when all the tests I need have not yet been run.

Compared to the measures taken to mitigate climate change globally, the Foundation’s projects have been brisk and determined, and manned by excellent specialist resources. The disgraceful status of the Baltic Sea can be concretely observed by every one of us, and this is sure to awaken the general public’s interest and willingness to help. Perhaps it would be less painstaking to draw up international climate agreements if carbon dioxide was a reddish gas we could see accumulating in the air we breathe.

Now, as I move on, making room for new and innovative board members at the John Nurminen Foundation, I want to thank everyone for the extraordinary years spent together, and wish the Foundation’s plans the best of success!

Kari Raivio, January 12, 2012