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.
The discoveries you make, while important, can be quite overwhelming to comprehend. How do you stay inspired to keep on working in this area of science?
Of course, you're right. A significant portion of the work that I'm advancing comes up with conclusions that convey the message that we are, if anything, at even higher risks than we previously thought. We in the earth system sciences are sitting on so much evidence surrounding dangerous risks. So yes, it’s a challenge just to keep the mood up, but I must admit that personally, I don't have any problems keeping myself motivated. For the simple reason that my frustration has turned into what I would call constructive anger. It becomes like a quest and a responsibility to convey the truth.
I sometimes just sit back and say, “How can we not rise and solve this more decisively, number one. But number two, how can I stay quiet about this?” No. I need to act. I need to also be part of this conversation, part of engaging and being innovative in creating new alliances and offering myself in the service of humanity. Because I cannot sit here with this really decisive insider information that influences the outcome for so many. If you were sitting here knowing that a train is going to crash into a building, you would pick up the phone and warn somebody. 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.
There is more than frustration, however, because we have so much evidence that we still have solutions. Solutions that are increasingly proven to give better outcomes for health, for security, for peace and for reducing risk of pandemics, and even for better economies and jobs. We can solve this in ways that make us all winners.
What advice would you give to people who want to do their part?
I think the most important thing that we can do today as, as cohabitants of earth, is to talk to each other and to spread the message. Try to follow the science, try to talk about the evidence, try to talk about the problems that we're facing; the ice is melting faster than ever, the forests are being cut down – which is impossible to accept because we need to keep the biodiversity and the carbon sinks intact.
We need to maintain a lively debate surrounding what is at stake and introduce a new narrative of how sustainability can give better outcomes. I say this because we are in a very interesting moment right now. We’re so close to a social tipping point, but we're not across that tipping point yet. It's not as if we can say we're in a home run now towards decarbonizing the world economy, oh no. But there are so strong signs that we will soon arrive at a point of no return in seeing the end of the fossil fuel era, for example.
I don't think we need a lot more pushing to succeed, but the pushing must come from the masses. It must come from the conversation, that willingness to act among us citizens. If every individual talks to one friend about how important it is to keep the whole climate, nature, and environment agenda live, I think that is number one.
Number two is that while the choices we make may seem very insignificant as an individual, when they add up, they influence the big forces around us. That means the choices we make as to what we eat, how we go to work; if we go by bicycle, public transport or our own car. The choice we make to switch from coal-powered electricity to wind-powered electricity, all these choices matter and they come together to make a big difference.