IFLScience Meets: Professor Johan Rockström Of Netflix's "Breaking Boundaries: The Science Of Our Planet"

'I think many scientists today feel that we have an obligation to warn, and we have an obligation to tell the story. An evidence-based story of the future that we can meet if we solve this.' Image credit: Karkow / PIK

Professor Johan Rockström is an internationally recognized scientist who, in his diverse career, has made significant contributions towards global sustainability narratives in the scientific and wider community. As Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam, it stands to reason that he – alongside David Attenborough – should lead a recent documentary surrounding the challenges citizens of Earth face under the ongoing climate crisis. Breaking Boundaries: The Science Of Our Planet, now airing on Netflix, touches on the processes which underpin the planet’s growing fragility and what we can do to secure our future. However, as Rockström tells us, even the grimmest of statistics aren’t always enough to engage a global audience.

What do you do?

I am Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam.

How did you get here?

I lived in Brazil as a small kid and then in Italy, but I am a Swede. My childhood was spent in quite a messy, challenging, waste-loaded São Paulo so I saw environmental degradation even as a kid, not that I was so influenced by that at the time. It was when I came back to Sweden for high school that I decided I wanted to be part of the solution when it comes to solving some of the bigger challenges in the world.

So, I started at the University of Cultural Sciences in Uppsala, which is where I was first lectured by one of the world-leading international hydrologists, Professor Malin Falkenmark. She gave this just mind boggling lecture on all the numbers, demonstrating water scarcity under climate change, and the challenge of supplying fresh water to a rapidly growing population. That’s what brought me to recognize that this is a journey I really wanted to embark on. So, I asked her directly after that lecture if I could do my master's thesis for her and she agreed, and we've been working together since then.

After I finished at the university, I realized I wanted to broaden myself further, so I went to France to study global economics and the social science side of the challenges we face, which brought me to Africa. I did a study in West Africa and that was a bit of a shock, actually, to come on the ground and see firsthand the poverty and how our health and access to water can determine our lives. I was just south of the Sahara Desert, so really in the Sahel, and it was there I decided to do a PhD which was mostly about water resources.

When I finished my PhD in 1997, I started working for a Research Institute in the Netherlands and that brought me to Zimbabwe. I became an associate professor at the University of Zimbabwe, where I stayed for four years until I received a phone call from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who wanted to know if I was interested in returning to Sweden to lead the Stockholm Environment Institute. Three years after that, we had the planetary boundary framework established. So, I gathered scientists from around the world to really try and connect the dots on what do we know about how to be stewards of the whole planet.

It was from there I moved on to the University of Potsdam as a Professor in Earth System Science. As you can see, it’s through all of these experiences that I have gradually built on my expertise step-by-step.

What are some of the common challenges you face in your line of work?

I think one of the early challenges, which has admittedly gotten easier in recent times, has been pursuing interdisciplinary science and connecting disciplines within the natural sciences. I mean, bringing together climate science, ecology, hydrology, soil science, agronomy, is challenging in itself. But then to also connect the social sciences and the natural sciences is an even larger challenge – and it's not so well received in all academic circles. On top of that, you collide with faculty structures, how financial resources are channeled, and things like that, so that is always been a challenge.

Another challenge is that being a scientist, I'm driven by theory of change because it's the only thing that I can contribute. So basically, I'm just communicating the evidence which has to speak for itself. But that is sometimes challenged by skeptics and denialists. There’s this constant questioning of the evidence which has plagued climate science, and therefore also my own work for a long time.

There’s also a constant balancing act for academics, in pursuing your science and producing your peer-reviewed research, but at the same time actually communicating that science out to broader society. I feel there’s been a very significant movement there where we as a community are stepping outside of our comfort zone much more often to actively communicate our science. That has not always been the case. And it remains a challenge because often what we’re trying to put across is quite complicated, because all science is always associated with an inevitable level of complexity and uncertainty. Unfortunately, that's what media normally dislikes: complexity and uncertainty. So, there's this little collision point there on top of which you have the tendency of the media to oversimplify, which can lead to misunderstanding the nuances of the science. On the other hand, I think media has become much better and plays such an important role. So, you know, it's also a learning exercise for us, as scientists.

Full Article

If you liked this story, you'll love these

This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to use our website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.