Future Earth: An Experiment in Global Change Research

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Internews, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Future Earth, a global platform for international research on environmental change and sustainable development, supports research that is interdisciplinary, "co-designed" with other stakeholders, and oriented toward solutions that will bring about sustainability. It has just launched its Strategic Research Agenda and invited the director of Internews' Earth Journalism Network to sit on its Engagement Committee, which met last week in Buenos Aires alongside its Science Committee to plan its future program.

"2015 is going to be a significant year," says Jairam Ramesh, the former Environment Minister of India who chairs the Future Earth Engagement Committee. "There will be the Paris conference of parties, where it's expected there will be an international agreement on mitigating greenhouse gases… And there will be a transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the fundamental distinction that the SDGs are applicable to all countries, not just developing countries.

"With that background, Future Earth assumes a special importance. It's a global research platform that is being drawn up by scientists defined broadly, not just natural scientists but also social scientists. It's an opportunity for the scientific community across the world to participate in a global venture where scientists determine priorities for research and the policy community is influencing the scientific agenda," Ramesh explains.

Future Earth follows in a long line of global change research programs that over the last 30 years have helped to document the vast environmental shifts sweeping our planet. "We can call on more than 60,000 researchers worldwide that have been engaged in global environmental change projects, but gaps remain in fields such as engineering and economics," says Science Committee Chair Mark Stafford Smith.

This is about more than just climate change. As Chinese glaciologist, climatologist and Science Committee member Dahe Qin notes, it's not just the atmosphere that is changing, but also the hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere and biosphere – interlocking systems that help sustain life on Earth as we know it.

Hence the push to emphasize multi-disciplinary research, and to "co-design" programs with other stakeholders besides just scientists – two of Future Earth's main efforts to distinguish itself from past endeavors. "Having an Engagement Committee alongside the Science Committee is an innovation designed to make us more oriented toward solutions," says Stafford Smith.

"From the media perspective, Future Earth represents a rare opportunity for journalists not just to report on science, but possibly to provide input in the way it is designed and carried out," says Earth Journalism Network Executive Director James Fahn. "Or at least that's the potential. We'll have to see if these expansive plans actually bear out. Future Earth has brought together a lot of experts who think big and recognize the gravity of our situation, but the challenge will be for us to break out of our silos. It's almost like an experiment in the way research is designed."

Ramesh argues that Future Earth has already had an impact on his home country. "There are six scientific academies in India and they almost never talk to each other. Future Earth has helped them come together and discuss what they're doing on global change, asking questions that they should have asked 20 years ago."

Only time will tell if Future Earth can have a much broader and beneficial impact on the Earth of our common future.