Global environmental change is not restricted to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, nor can it be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm. Recent studies of the Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere, of the biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles make it clear that human activity is generating change that extends well beyond natural variability – in some cases, alarmingly so – and at rates that continue to accelerate. Earth System dynamics are characterized by critical thresholds and abrupt changes. Global change research over the last decade shows that the Earth System is currently operating well outside the normal state exhibited over the past 500,000 years.
The ESSP is particularly interested in human-driven changes, which are multi-dimensional and have a cascading effect on the Earth System. These properties make them difficult to understand or predict. But integrated science approaches and the application of advanced modelling technologies are helping to develop a clearer picture of the past and project various scenarios for the future. We now have evidence to suggest that human activities could inadvertently trigger severe consequences for Earth’s environment and habitat, potentially switching the Earth System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and inhospitable to humans and other life.
The ESSP’s activities recognize the need to build bridges across disciplines in order to truly understand our life support system and the impact humans are having on it. More to the point, they seek to advance beyond description of natural phenomena to a deeper understanding of processes and system-level behaviour. The ESSP’s intention is to contribute to the knowledge base required to develop science-based solutions that support sustainable use of our resources.
The Earth System Science Partnership is a joint initiative of four international global environmental change research programmes:
- DIVERSITAS – an integrated programme of biodiversity science
- IHDP – International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change
- IGBP – International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme
- WCRP – World Climate Research Programme
The Partnership allows for an integrated study of the Earth System, the ways that it is changing, and the implications for global and regional sustainability.
The central activities of the ESSP are Joint Projects on issues of global sustainability, designed to address the global environmental change aspects of four critical issues for human well-being: energy and the carbon cycle (GCP), food security (GECAFS), water resources (GWSP) and human health (GEC&HH). The ESSP is also currently developing a small set of Integrated Regional Studies designed to contribute sound scientific understanding in support of sustainable development at the local level. The first study is in Monsoon Asia (MAIRS). The Joint Projects, START and MAIRS all have a strong suite of capacity building and networking elements to their activities. ESSP Partners also collaborate closely with the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI).