Johan Rockström. Photo: Stockholm University.
Johan Rockström. Photo: Stockholm University.

The project takes on two overarching challenges: developing a cross-disciplinary model for studying the interactions of the social world and the biophysical planet; and introducing nonlinear ways of thinking about social-ecological “tipping points” when studying the future.

“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, who is leading this project.

“We need to think nonlinearly”

The project will also introduce nonlinear thinking and processes in global studies. Our society and the world economy are based on the assumption that society and the climate change in slow, linear and therefore predictable ways. Science now increasingly shows that long periods of slow, linear changes can shift abruptly and irreversibly to periods of fast and intense change, i.e. “tipping points.” Ecosystems, climate and societies included.

“Despite the fact that we have strong and growing proof that nonlinear processes are common, often the norm, in social and ecological crises, it’s incredibly difficult to incorporate this knowledge into our analyses and models.”

The research project will try to integrate the most important nonlinear tipping points into a new generation of cross-disciplinary global models called “earth system models” (ESMs). They will, for example, try to determine where the tipping point is that could lead to the shift from slow and linear to fast and nonlinear, assuming that changes continue at current rates. They will also try to understand how the biosphere will respond if we allow the world’s average temperature to rise by 2 degrees Celsius.

“Humanity has never faced a challenge like this before. Avoiding abrupt shifts will require social transformations like we’ve never had before.”

To reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, the world economy must stop using fossil fuels from 2050-2070 and onward. Johan Rockström doesn’t think success is impossible.

“We see many signs that innovation and new technology are growing exponentially. For example, the amount of renewable energy in the world has doubled in the past 5-6 years (mostly wind and solar). This pace has been going for about 10 years. That is an exponential – nonlinear – technological change. Before, renewable energy was only about 2-3 percent of the world’s total energy production, but if we can maintain this pace, we’ll have 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.”

“The ERC grant is incredibly important for this research area,” says Johan 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, 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!”

Read more: Three ERC Advanced Grants to Stockholm University