Sybil Seitzinger, Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme



Global environmental change is about more than sustainable use of natural resources, it is about major shifts in some of Earth’s key biological, chemical and physical processes. IGBP Executive Director, Sybil Seitzinger, explains how her organisation is helping move our global society onto a sustainable track

Could you explain the mission of the International Geosphere- Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and what it seeks to accomplish?


Our mission is to provide the scientific knowledge to allow humanity to live on Earth sustainably, which is a tall order. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme was set up in 1987, about eight years after the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). We were established because there was a realisation that climate change is part of a much larger problem: global environmental change. We study the Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes, how they are changing and how society affects them. We also look at how global change will affect humanity. We have about 54 national committees and 27 international project offices scattered around the world.

Have you encountered any difficulties, and how has the IGBP overcome them? Did the resolution of these problems benefit the programme generally?


Managing and coordinating such a large network on a small budget is a challenge. While we have successfully sustained the network and developed exciting and comprehensive research plans, getting funding for an entire research plan is always difficult. The funding of international research needs to be completely re-evaluated, which is why we are excited about the new vision for international Earth system science being developed by the International Council for Science. It may provide a better model for funding international research. Setting up and sustaining a network in Africa has proved a difficult and slow process, but we feel we are making some progress.

How should the research community deal with geoengineering?

Geoengineering has moved from science fiction into real political and scientific debates remarkably quickly, yet there are still just a few peer-reviewed scientific papers written on the subject. A reason for the sudden upsurge in interest is the failure to reach international agreements to reduce emissions. But this same hurdle applies equally to geoengineering schemes: they will require international agreements too. IGBP is preparing a synthesis on geongineering focusing on the potential impacts of such schemes on the planet’s biological, chemical and physical processes.

Is there a need for a global nitrogen assessment similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment process?


Since 1900, humans have altered the nitrogen cycle in a profound way. Globally, humans now produce more reactive nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems. This has implications for the global climate, food security, energy security, human health and ecosystem health. But the nitrogen cycle is largely ignored in international assessments and climate policy. We need a global nitrogen assessment urgently. But at the same time, we want to urge policy makers to consider nitrogen management as part of an overall management of the Earth system, in conjunction with climate, the phosphorus cycle, biodiversity, water management, etc.

Is there a need for a similar assessment for biodiversity?

Ecosystems provide society with many services – fresh water, pollination, fertile soils, medicines etc. They are also an integral part of the Earth system. We are losing species at a rate approaching past mass extinction rates. Indeed, some scientists say we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. To date, international efforts to curb biodiversity loss have failed, so there is a strong argument that we need to assess biodiversity and ecosystem services. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is developing a biodiversity assessment called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In 2010, the UN General Assembly backed the IPBES idea for a meeting in South Korea discussed developing the idea of a biodiversity assessment further. IGBP would like to see a biodiversity assessment, particularly if it includes an assessment of the services that ecosystems provide to the Earth system and society. A biodiversity assessment would work best if it were integrated well with other assessments.

How should the research community improve its communications to tackle the fallout from criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data assessment, and the hacked email scandal?


In some ways you could argue that the research community has been successful at communicating the scale and implications of climate change. The climate meetings in Copenhagen and Cancun, COP15 and COP16, brought together many heads of state to hammer out a deal. These meetings were based on 20 years of evidence assessed by the IPCC. I should say that IGBP plays a significant role in developing and producing these assessments. The reason for perceived failures was not poor communication, but rather constraints of the political system and political will.

The fury and anger levelled at climate researchers in the wake of the hacked emails and errors in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report surprised our community, and in some ways left us stumped as to what to do. The evidence in support of anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming.

But reiterating the facts does not convince a small but vocal minority. We have to ensure this minority does not sway others, which means we have to get out there and keep hammering home the message we have been elucidating for more than a decade. We should never forget that, unlike us, most people are not engaged in this issue 100 per cent of the time. We are on top of the latest research, so we should be going out and communicating the same message over and over again.


What are the big future threats, and what plans do you have for the future to face them?


One such threat is ocean acidification. In the last decade scientists have discovered the extent and speed of changes in ocean chemistry. This is a real and major concern. It is not clear exactly how marine life will respond. The most effective way of averting serious consequences is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. IGBP’s marine projects are now coordinating international ocean acidification research. At the centre of this coordination is the EU ocean acidification project, EPOCA.

How can the research community engage better with international policy?


We have successfully worked with international policy makers for many years through the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others; also through other UN bodies including UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the United Nations Environment Programme, for example. We need to find new ways of broadening our audience. But, at the international level there is a multitude of treaties, conventions, and agencies. To give you some idea, there are 500 multilateral environmental treaties. It would be great if this were simplified. I would like to see us talking more to economists. I recently gave a talk at the World Bank but it would be good to do more with the WTO and the World Economic Forum. And of course we need to work regionally, nationally and locally.

The UN’s 2012 Earth Summit is 20 years on from the last Earth Summit – what do the scientific community think are the most important issues to tackle?


IGBP research has shown that humanity is the prime driver of change at the planetary level. There is strong evidence that this is unsustainable. What policy makers need to grasp is that there are multiple stresses on the Earth system but policy makers still deal with each challenge as if it stands alone: poverty, climate change, pollution, eutrophication, biodiversity loss, desertification.

The issue is not only about sustainable use of natural resources. It is about major shifts in the planet’s biology, chemistry and physical cycles, and humans are responsible. We have to realise that in many cases there will be no going back. We are committing the planet to a new course that will last thousands of years. The scientific community needs to provide society with a range of linked short- and long-term future scenarios to choose from.