Looking at the most commonly-used indicators of sustainability, we see the majority are heading in an ominous direction: greenhouse gas emission, population growth, energy use, ecological footprint, polar ice-melt, biodiversity and ecosystem function loss, extreme weather and climate events… the list goes on. Recently, over 40 Nobel Laureates and leaders assembled in Stockholm, Sweden, to declare that “human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity”. Many of our very best scientific minds believe that, if we fail to turn these trends around – or to “bend the curves” – between 2015 and 2020, we will not be able to avert catastrophe.
Human civilization urgently needs a profound transformation – in both the technological and the societal senses. The mighty power of the Sun, on which mankind used to depend for most of its sustenance, should once again come to dominate our energy supply. This is but one part of a more intimate and balanced relationship with nature that we must re-establish. And nearly every minute aspect of our society, economy and everyday life will need a thorough re-examination.
Bringing about this profound transformation will require that the frontiers of scientific knowledge continue to advance. For one, our understanding of what is happening with the environment, and the impact of our actions upon it, are fast-developing yet incomplete. Insufficient, too, is our grasp of the intricacies of our own social, economic and political systems, and why they produce unsustainable outcomes. Moreover, deploying effective responses and transformative change will demand continuous innovation. It is thus of fundamental importance that we dramatically scale up research – from the basic to the applied and of all disciplines – and turn the results into effective, knowledge-based policies and action.
This is where ICSU can best serve humanity. ICSU has at its disposal a vast global network of outstanding scientists and organizations with considerable human, intellectual and institutional resources.
Its three main pillars of work each serve an indispensable purpose, all working in synergy to deliver the best science for society.
- By organizing International Research Collaboration, we gather the brightest minds for joint inquiry around issues of common and pressing concern.
- In reinforcing the Universality of Science, our aim is that scientists anywhere, of any age, discipline and background possess the freedom and the means to participate freely (and responsibly!) in global science.
- And last but not least, with Science for Policy, ICSU engages with decision-makers to ensure that excellent science does not remain only that, but actually informs decisions that matter.
Particularly exciting and critical in 2012 will be ICSU’s role at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or “Rio+20”, and the “Future Earth: research for global sustainability” initiative.
Together with UNESCO, the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), ICSU is convening the global science and technology community in a major, five-day Forum immediately preceding the Rio Conference. This will build on abroad consultative process, including a series of regional meetings, and harness a united and powerful voice that will be heard in the Rio+20 deliberations.
Meanwhile, ICSU has joined forces with an Alliance of funders, users and international organizations to create a major 10-year global initiative entitled “Future Earth: research for global sustainability”. Unique in its “co-designed” nature, the initiative’s ultimate aim will be to deliver the knowledge that society needs to respond to global environmental change in both its risks and opportunities. It promises not just an entirely new way of organizing and conducting research, but also concrete solutions and outcomes that decision-makers will find relevant and deployable.
More than ever before, actions and solutions need to take centre stage. If this is truly the “make-or-break” decade, then there is no time to waste. At the same time that we expand our knowledge base, what already exists must turn into concrete change and solutions that make a real difference. And ICSU is wholeheartedly committed to work with all of its partners to make sure that this happens.
Prof. Yuan Tseh Lee
ICSU President 2011-2014