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“We have entered a geological epoch, the Anthropocene, where the social ‘world’ has become the dominating power in changing the physical ‘planet.’ That’s why it’s so important to deepen our understanding of how these two interact,” says Johan Rockström, professor of Environmental Science and director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
Recently awarded the most pristegious European Research Council grant, ERC Advanced Grant, Rockström will lead a project that takes on two overarching challenges: developing a cross-disciplinary model for studying the interactions of the social world and the biophysical planet; and introducing non-linear ways of thinking about social-ecological tipping points when studying the future.
The project will introduce nonlinear thinking and processes in global studies. Our society and the world economy are based on the assumption that society and climate change occurs in slow, linear and predictable ways. However, science now increasingly shows that long periods of slow, linear changes can shift abruptly and irreversibly to periods of fast and intense change, called tipping points. Ecosystems, climate, and societies can all be subject to tipping points.
“Despite the fact that we have strong and growing proof that nonlinear processes are common, and are often the norm in social and ecological crises, they are incredibly difficult to incorporate into analyses and models.”
The project will try to integrate nonlinear tipping points into a new generation of cross-disciplinary global models called “earth system models” (ESMs). These models will try to determine where a tipping point might occur, that is a shift from slow and linear, to fast and nonlinear. They will also try to understand how the biosphere will respond if we allow the world’s average temperature to rise by 2°C.
Humanity has never faced a challenge like this before. Avoiding abrupt shifts will require social transformations like we’ve never had before
The ERC Advanced Grant is the most prestigious of the European Research Council's grants, aimed at the most excellent researchers.
Rockström was one of three professors to receive the grant. The other two were Frank Wilczek, professor at the Department of Physics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and David Strömberg at the Institute for International Economic Studies (IIES).
"The ERC grant is incredibly important for this research area," says Rockström. "It gives us, along with our colleagues around the world, the possibility to develop cross-disciplinary research into global sustainable development, and above all to deepen the understanding of nonlinear risks and possibilities."
For the first time, he argues, we have the ability to integrate abrupt social-ecological patterns into global modelling. This will support sustainable development generally and reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals specifically.
"We have a globally challenging and exciting time ahead of us!”
Johan Rockström is the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University. He is an internationally recognized scientist for his work on global sustainability issues.