The End of Earth Science

‘This is a revolution. This is what we’ve been waiting for.’ A trio of young Italian researchers perched at one end of my table are watching a visualisation of ocean particle tracking on a laptop, gravely shaking their heads as the pixels scatter across the screen.

This huge cafeteria is packed with scientists, clustered in knots, talking excitedly, pointing at laptops and furiously scribbling equations on the back of napkins. At the other end of my table, a young American researcher is on her feet shouting passionately at a bearded German about changes in the Earth’s magnetosphere. A young man in a hoodie is slumped over asleep in the corner of the room holding a paper with the words RADIAL PROPAGATION OF SUBSTORM INJECTION scrawled on it in black marker.

Over the hubbub, a young Danish oceanographer explains to me that she studies breaking waves. ‘I have to study them from their origins in the deep oceans,’ she says, ‘but really I’m just interested in them when they break.’

EGU conference. (EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

I’m at the European Geoscientists Union’s 2017 General Assembly in Vienna. 14,500 earth scientists have taken over the massive multi-storey Austria Centre this week for thousands of talks, poster sessions and short courses, covering every aspect of the broad field of earth system science.

I’m not a scientist, I’m a playwright and theatre artist. I’m here as a guest of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, a research institution that looks at natural disasters in south-east Asia. They’ve commissioned my theatre company Boho to create an interactive simulation of a city-wide evacuation, combining interactive theatre and gaming. It’s intended as a workshop scenario to help government officials plan for volcano and typhoon disasters.

As a total layman, with no science or maths experience, the content of these talks and presentations is completely beyond me. And yet I find myself fascinated with the whole endeavour, walking through the halls, stepping in to session after session, absorbing what I can, and then moving on. I have this sense of standing on the edge of a huge well of knowledge, deep debates, a culture of learning, language, arguments many decades deep.

UNEP conference 1972. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Earth System science emerged in the 1970s, following the UN’s first major conference on the environment in 1972. As the seventies progressed, and the early warning signs of climate change began to mount, a group of scientists led by Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin formed the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), then the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), then in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

These are three of the institutions driving and coordinating Earth System science, but in truth, this huge endeavour is not under the aegis of any single body. It’s a genuinely global undertaking, the combined research of tens of thousands of scientists, each grappling with one tiny part of the bigger picture.

The closest Earth System Science comes to a unifying vision of the Earth is in its various ‘box and stick diagrams’ — flowcharts that put a huge range of scientific subjects on the same map: biology, geology, chemistry, meteorology, oceanography. What these diagrams say, simply, is that the Earth is not a collection of separate components, but a set of interacting processes. The arrows and boxes are a recipe for how all these different sciences speak to one another.

There’s a temptation in science communication to highlight a few key individuals — Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein — as the game-changing geniuses who transformed their fields. With climate and Earth System Science more generally, there’s no such iconic individual.

It’s not possible for a single person to even understand all the research that’s being done. It takes a conference like this and 14,500 experts with overlapping expertise, to have any kind of grasp of the bigger picture.

The exuberance is infection, and it’s hard not to get caught up. But underneath it is an uneasiness. Earth Science is in trouble, and everyone knows it.

EGU poster session. (Credit EGU/Foto Pfleugl)

If you want to see the cutting edge of our species’ understanding of our planet, the EGU poster hall is a pretty good start. In a cavernous basement chamber, hundreds of whiteboards are lined up in long rows, each with a research poster taped to it. Some are carefully designed and printed on expensive glossy card, others are just taped together sheets of A4 paper with titles written by hand in coloured texta.

I’ve got my notebook out, in case any of these posters can be turned into a theatre show. I pass from a poster about ‘Chaos Theory’s role in local weather patterns caused by windfarms in the southern USA’ to one about ‘wind stress forcing in the Kuroshio western boundary current of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.’ Can I write a play about analysing dissolved carbon concentration in subtropical rivers in northern Taiwan? Is there a possible stage adaptation for ‘Various Techniques of Modelling Jellyfish Blooms in the Mediterranean?

After five or six kilometres of what feels like channel surfing through the planet, it finally sinks in for me how utterly, irreducibly international this research is.

The Kuroshio Current in the Pacific Ocean. (Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe more than any other field of human scientific inquiry, Earth System Science requires transglobal coordination. It’s not enough, for example, to intensively study the climate and ecology of Europe and scale those observations up. The conclusions you draw in one place simply don’t hold true in other places, and you miss out on the bigger patterns that operate at the global scale.

A simple example is the way that volcanoes affect global temperature. In a large eruption, millions of tonnes of sulphur particles are propelled into the upper atmosphere, then circulated across the globe, dimming sunlight and lowering temperatures for months or years. People studying only European weather systems in 1815 were utterly unprepared for the shocking cold spell that descended on them over 1816–17 caused by the eruption of Tambora, in what is now Indonesia.

As Australian climate scientist Will Steffen reminds me, it’s not Earth Systems but Earth System; what we’re trying to understand is a single planetary system, containing many sub-systems.

‘In the science we have, to make studies work you have to pare them down to a research question. The problem is that once you take a piece of a system out and study it in isolation, you lose something, because it doesn’t behave that way when you put it back. The whole earth has emergent properties that you can’t understand by breaking it down into smaller pieces.’

This starts to be a concern if, for example, key programs of the global Earth System Science research effort start going dark.

EGU panel. (EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

The mood at the ‘Make Facts Great Again’ panel is a kind of controlled panic. It’s one of the conference’s blockbuster events. More than five hundred people cram into one of the Austria Centre’s biggest halls to hear the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the British Government, an editor for Nature, the Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the head of the American Geosciences Union discuss the rise of anti-intellectualism and the war on climate science.

The convener opens with a question: ‘In your experience, have we ever been in a position like this before, where science has been under this kind of threat?’ One by one, the panelists shake their heads.

The context here is the escalation of the attacks on the sector in recent months. Trump’s appointment of climate denier Scott Pruit to head the Environmental Protection Agency has led researchers to hide climate data before the administration alters or deletes it. In Australia, the climate research division of the CSIRO has been drastically defunded by incoming CEO Larry Marshall, an ex-Silicon Valley entrepeneur. In Europe, the surge of right-wing populist parties have a common thread in denying the science of climate change.

I’m reminded of Clive Hamilton’s description of how climate scientists unwittingly walked into the firing line of climate deniers back in the late-80s by uncovering facts that destabilised the political and social order, and brought us to ‘one of those rare historical fracture points when knowledge diverges from power’.

The Make Science Great Again panelists instruct us to remain positive. Never underestimate the public’s intelligence. Don’t forget the victories. Christiana Figueres relates her experience in the lead up to the 2015 Paris talks, working with religious leaders. She advises us, ‘Never underestimate how much is possible when the science and faith communities collaborate.’ (Is there an irony in science and religion finding a common cause just at the point in history where both seem to be declining in influence?)

The event concludes with American Geosciences Union head Christine McEntee thanking Donald Trump for uniting activists. ‘You’ve brought together people tackling gender issues, people tackling race issues and people environmental issues together in one united front against you. And we’re going to win.’

It’s a good speech, and in a lot of circumstances it would be inspiring. Here, if I read the mood of the scientists filing out of the room correctly, they’re not buying it.

EGU Exhibition Hall. (Plugel/EGU)

In between sessions I go for a walk through the Exhibition Hall, where booths and stalls are selling scientific instruments for high-end experiments.

You can buy Laser Trace gas monitors, cloud-monitoring drones, methane/ethane emissions sensors or a timeshare allowing you to load your equipment on a ‘high-flying research flight’.

Do you want an IBIS-FL Georadar that remotely senses ‘displacement of slopes and structure’, allowing you to see how much a rockfall or avalanche has changed the shape of a cliff face? Do you need a soil probe that detects ‘open-path eddy covariance and volumetric water content’? (These look those arcade Skilltester toy-grabbing claws that my friend Max got temporarily addicted to.)

The IBIS-FL Georadar (image from

The promotional language is like a kind of abstract poetry:

‘Measure the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum with automated soil particle size analysis.’
‘Win a field season trial of the new LI-6800 portable photosynthesis system.’
‘Measure light across huge spectrums using the Scholander Pressure Bomb Technique!’
‘Tiny samples — big results — Sub-100μg carbon upon consultation — Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating: Consistent Accuracy, Delivered on Time.’
‘The Güralp Ocean Bottom Seismometer — Early Earthquake Detection: It’s All About Speed!’

This is the strange niche industry that’s grown up around Earth System Science — and looking at the price tags on these bizarre instruments hammers home how this science isn’t separate from the structures of money and finance that dictate the terms in so much of our world.

You can’t understand the earth without measuring it, and you can’t measure without money to buy the instruments — or to pay the scientists.

This sort of science doesn’t make anyone a profit, so it’s up to governments to pick up the bill. Public funding for science has been a feature of the last half-century, as science has been regarded as an important public good. But this confluence of social-political-economic conditions has begun to unravel. We’ve already reached the point where many crucial data sets and research tools sit with industry rather than in universities or public research institutions.

As cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths says about machine-learning research: ‘Over the last ten years… there’s been this big shift of machine-learning researchers from academia into industry. We’re now at the point where there are certain kinds of problems where, if you want to work on them, you pretty much need to be in industry to do so because that’s where the datasets and the computational resources are.’

Private companies stand to benefit from research into machine learning, and so they’ll bankroll it. (How much the public stands to benefit from this corporate R&D is another matter.) But it’s unlikely that many companies will directly profit from large-scale research into Earth Systems. If government support for this field of research dwindles, who will pick up the slack?

An Interferogram of Hawaii - viewing geologic tremors using satellites. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The most interesting comment in the Make Facts Great Again session is a question from the audience. An academic from the Australian National University asks the panelists: ‘Is the erosion of trust in science just an instance of a larger erosion of trust in institutions?’

This feels like the theme of the last decade. As the US National Intelligence Council state in their 2016 Global Trends forecast: ‘Governing is getting harder. Publics will demand governments deliver security and prosperity, but flat revenues, distrust, polarization, and a growing list of emerging issues will hamper government performance. Technology will expand the range of players who can block or circumvent political action.’

In short, it’s getting harder to perform even the most basic tasks of government. Justifying the expenditure of broad science research is harder than it was 30 years ago, even in countries without a significant anti-science culture war.

A few years ago, ecologist and sociologist Doug Cocks remarked on the irony of how science’s characteristically sceptical attitude has now spread to the point of bringing science itself into question for many people. He lists a number of the perceived ‘failures’ of science-technology in the 21st century, which include:

Science’s role as a frequent bearer of bad news, eg climate change, lifestyle risks;
The apparent inability of science to definitively ‘prove’ anything;
Its failure to tell a human origins story with the same emotional appeal as religious origin stories;
Its failure to dispel an image of science as an elite, hubristic and ultimately boring activity;
Science’s failure to save itself from becoming just another service industry in a capitalist world.

It’s this last point that hits home to me most strongly. In a society where value is defined by money, what dollar value does Earth System Science bring?

There’s a huge body of work assessing the worth of ‘ecosystems services’ (the important things that nature provides us) in monetary terms, and ‘pricing externalities’ (adding in the hidden costs of environmental degradation, clean-up etc to the balance sheets of large corporations). Earth System Science is dedicated to mapping out ‘a safe operating space for humanity’ — what’s the dollar value of that?

It’s easy to tally up the cost of repairing and rebuilding after a natural disaster has devastated a city. It’s not so easy to assess the value of scientific early warning systems that may help people avoid those natural disasters in the first place. What’s the value of an avoided crisis?

Even framing science in these terms feels like a capitulation to the narrow economic view which has brought the marketplace into every aspect of our lives. Nevertheless, those are the terms that value is defined in the political sphere. And for the right-wing thinktanks calling to privatise science research institutions, Earth System Science just doesn’t bring in sufficient dollar value to justify its existence.

Of course, there are special interest groups behind many of these attacks. Fossil fuel energy companies have bankrolled a long and acrimonious campaign against climate science, now rolling into its fourth tedious decade. But these attacks have gained traction in part because people do feel disconnected to Earth System science. They don’t see the relevance or value of this sort of work to their own lives. And why should they? The topics being discussed at this conference seem abstract and inconsequential.

And so the scientists lose their social license to operate.

14,500 earth scientists. (Credit EGU/Foto Pfluegl)

Walking out of the venue through this crowd of curious, festive, slightly obsessed people, I’m struck by how unlikely this kind of scientific gathering is, how rare and how valuable. I have the feeling that this community of Earth System scientists studying the volatile, changing earth, and our relationship to it, is itself extremely vulnerable.

Whose responsibility is it to make the connection between this research, and our continued future on this planet? Is it the role of the media, to better communicate science research? Or should politicians be taking the lead and arguing for the value of this work to their constituents? (But of course, the media and political class are two of the few groups with less public trust than scientists.) There are so many privately funded lobby groups in the ears of politicians — not so many lobby groups for public interest science.

We are heading into an unprecedented era in human history, where the scope and scale of the changes we’re making to our planet’s geosphere and biosphere could erode our planetary life support systems past the point where stable forms of human society are even possible.

Earth System Science is our species’ key tool for forecasting these changes and guiding our trajectory through the planetary crises that are beginning to escalate: food, water, energy, climate, population, inequality, biodiversity loss, demographic shifts and supply chains. But we’ve never needed that forecasting power in our species’ history to date — what would it take to make us value it now?

There’s a growing recognition that this work needs to move from the domain of science into other aspects of society: law, technology, economics, culture. Scientists have long recognised the value of collaborating with non-scientists — that’s why the Earth Observatory Singapore have brought me here. But all the well-meaning science-arts collaborations in the world won’t bridge the gap that has opened between science and society at large.

Right now it’s all too easy to imagine international gatherings such as this conference, which crucially bring together knowledge from the whole planetary system, dwindling and eventually vanishing. And then we’re really turning off the headlights just as the road starts running out.

I’m interested in breaking waves too.

Image from NOAA.