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Nobel Laureates Speak Out

Filed under: — stefan @ 21 May 2011

On Wednesday, 17 Nobel laureates who gathered in Stockholm have published a remarkable memorandum, asking for “fundamental transformation and innovation in all spheres and at all scales in order to stop and reverse global environmental change”. The Stockholm Memorandum concludes that we have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene, where humanity has become the main driver of global change. The document states:

Science makes clear that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. […]
We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems.
We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial.

Mario Molina
Mario Molina (Nobel prize in chemistry 1995) signs the Stockholm Memorandum

The memorandum results from a 3-day symposium (attended also by the king of Sweden) on the intertwined problems of poverty, development, ecosystem deterioration and the climate crisis. In the memorandum, the Nobel laureates call for immediate emergency measures as well as long-term structural solutions, and they give specific recommendations in eight key priority areas. For example in climate policy, they recommend to:

Keep global warming below 2ºC, implying a peak in global CO2 emissions no later than 2015 and recognise that even a warming of 2ºC carries a very high risk of serious impacts and the need for major adaptation efforts.

The memorandum was handed over to the members of the UN high-level panel on global sustainability, who traveled to Stockholm in order to discuss it with the Nobel laureates and experts at the symposium.

p.s. As a little reminder of the ongoing work of the merchants of doubt, a small band of five or six “climate sceptic” protesters were gathered outside the symposium, some of whom flown in from Berlin. Their pamphlet identified them as part of the longstanding anti-climate-science campaign of US billionaire Lyndon Larouche and claimed that climate change is “a hoax” and an “insane theory”, the global temperature measurements are “mere lies”, the Nobel laureates meeting “a conspiracy” and the Stockholm Memorandum a “Fascist Manifesto”. I approached one of the protesters who carried a banner “against Green fascism” and asked him whether he seriously believes what his pamphlet says, namely that our meeting is a “symposium for global genocide”. He nodded emphatically and replied: “Yes, of course!”

157 Responses to “Nobel Laureates Speak Out”

  1. 151
    fhsiv says:

    Your introduction states: “The Stockholm Memorandum concludes that we have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene”

    If they are going to use geological nomenclature, they might as well try to use it correctly. I believe the use of the word ‘era’ in this context is incorrect.

    Eras are the great subdivisions of geologic time (pre-Cambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic) defined by profound changes in the organisms preserved as fossils. The eras are subdivided into periods, the fundamental units of geologic time (i.e. Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, etc) on the basis of somewhat less profound changes in fossil assemblages. Periods may be further sudivided into epochs on the basis of their fossil assemblages. The last four of these epochs are the Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene and the Holocene. Each of these epochs is represented in the geologic record by distinct time-stratigraphic units (series). The youngest (Holocene) series is generally considered to include only the most recent deposits that are post-glacial in origin.

    So, unless they are saying that the perceived modern day changes to the earth are of the same magnitude as the begining of life on earth or the development of a new phylum of animals, then the use of the term ‘era’ is wrong. And, since the Holocene is defined on a ‘post-glacial’ basis, it may be a little premature to arbitrarily break out another epoch until the beginning of the next ice age!

    That said, in my work I deal with anthropogenic deposits (man made fills) almost everyday, but as of today I haven’t felt compelled to assign them to a new epoch on the basis of the trace fossils of just one of many Pleistocene mammalian species!

    [Response: Hold up there. The boundary at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary is marked by a dramatic 13C spike, a significant warming and extensive ecosystem disturbances. All of those things are occurring right now, so I would not be at all surprised that the geologists in 55 million years time will have no difficulty declaring a new stage at this point. Might as well do it now as well. – gavin]

  2. 152
    CM says:

    Georgi #148,

    You misunderstood me. What I referred to as a dogmatic assertion was not the proposition that faith and science are epistemologically incompatible (as far as I’m concerned, that’s true by definition). I referred to the claim you repeated at #144 that religious people were incapable of addressing that proposition. As a counter-example I pointed you to an argument (set out more clearly here) by one religious thinker, Aquinas, in support of the very same proposition about epistemological incompatibility. Or as he put it, that “those things that are of faith” cannot “be objects of science.” (“Science” did not mean the same to Aquinas as to us, but I think his argument would apply all the more strongly to our empirical sciences.) That’s all.

    This proposition does not, however, imply that having faith is incompatible with also doing or understanding science. Whether there’s a (negative) correlation is an empirical question, but this is not the place to explore it.

    Yes, I saw that you argued at #24 that religion is topical here because the climate crisis calls for a fundamental rethinking of everything, and at #30 that the Catholic Church is theologically incapable of accepting philosophical tenets you claim are vital to any meaningful response. Apart from the population issue, I found the argument very broad and a priori, and the theological understanding rather narrow. In any case, this is a blog about climate science, not a seminary, and even if we need to rethink everything, this does not make this the right place to discuss everything.

  3. 153
    Ray Ladbury says:

    The problem with blind faith is not that it is faith, but that it is blind. One can be a good scientist and a man of faith. Science, though, has to remain atheist–in the sense that it does not look for answers in the supernatural. It can say nothing about whether deities exist; it doesn’t seem to leave much for said deities to do.

  4. 154
    SecularAnimist says:

    Following up on my earlier comment to the effect that discussions centering around the completely undefined term “God” are little more than noise as long as there is no agreed-upon, objective definition for that term, I’d like to point out two related things:

    1. The word “faith” is also being used without definition. To some people, “faith” means absolute belief in assertions which are, in principle, not possible to test empirically. However, that’s not what “faith” means to everyone who uses the term. In Buddhism, for example, “faith” simply means “confidence” and most certainly is subject to empirical verification. Does everyone discussing “faith” in this thread agree on what they mean by the word, or not?

    2. The word “religion” is also being used without definition, in a context that seems to assume that “religion” is equivalent to “Middle Eastern monotheistic traditions” or even specifically “Christianity”. There are other, quite different, religions in the world, some of which have entirely different phenomenological, ontological and epistemological ideas. The Dalai Lama, for example, has stated that if empirical science were to prove any Buddhist teaching about the nature of reality to be wrong, then Buddhism would have to change.

    Undefined terms and unstated assumptions combined with often strong feelings about such matters, tend not to contribute clarity to discussions.

  5. 155
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 153 SecularAnimist – excellent points!

  6. 156
    Radge Havers says:

    Here are a couple of definitions picked up from cruising the net that seem handy enough to me:
    Faith is acceptance of the trustworthiness of an idea that has not been, or can not be reasonably proven.
    Beliefs are conclusions about reality.

    Elsewhere possible characteristics discernible in the mish-mash of human transcendent impulses that might help distinguish myths from philosophies from religions are: instructive stories that aren’t to be taken literally, thinking about things but trying to use reason, and systems of thought involving literal history that emphasize culture over scientific practice. So in this sense you can have religious sensibilities but also be atheist.

    Paraphrasing Ray, dearly held preconceived ideas (ideologies, superstitions, and delusions) all eventually break down and are not conducive to advancing science. Emotional sensations of transcendence may make good background music to scientific practice, but they should not be allowed to interfere with rigorous thought and perception. To which I’d add that faith may sometimes have its strong points, but ultimately science puts drains around the swamp of grandiose blather that makes up so much of our “faith-based” world.

  7. 157
    fhsiv says:


    Thank you for making my point!

    You said “…so I would not be at all surprised that the geologists in 55 million years time will have no difficulty declaring a new stage at this point. Might as well do it now as well. – gavin”

    Agreed! the provisional establishment of a new stage (as a subdivision of an epoch made on the basis of unique traceable differences within a single bed of one formation) may be justified, but declaring a new era is way over the top. All I’m asking for is that they choose their words a little more carefully. Hyperbole doesn’t help with anything. We just need a bit of geologic time to provide the perspective that will help answer this question.

    However, as far as anyone, geologist or not, doing anything 55 million years down the road, I don’t think that’s in the cards. By that time, good old mother earth will have long since healed up any of the indignities forced upon her by our species. After all, the average mammalian species lives for only about two million years, and the clock has already been running on us for a good part of that!