Earth System Research for Global Sustainability

Some good news!

The International Mathematical Union or IMU is mainly famous for running the International Congress of Mathematicians every four years. But they do other things, too. The new vice-president of the IMU is Christiane Rousseau. Rousseau was already spearheading the Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 project. Now she’s trying to get the IMU involved in a ten-year research initiative on sustainability.

As you can see from this editorial, she treats climate change and sustainability with the seriousness they deserve. Let’s hope more mathematicians join in!

I would like to get involved somehow, but I’m not exactly sure how.

Editorial

I had the privilege of being elected Vice-president of the IMU at the last General Assembly, and it is now five months that I am following the activities of the IMU. The subjects discussed at the Executive Committee are quite diverse, from the establishment of the permanent office to the ranking and pricing of journals, to mathematics in developing countries and the future ICM, and the members of the
Executive Committee tend to specialize on one or two dossiers. Although I am a pure mathematician myself, I am becoming more and more interested in the science of sustainability, so let me talk to you of this.

IMU is one of the international unions inside the International Council of Science (ICSU). At the Executive we regularly receive messages from ICSU asking for input from its members. While it is not new that scientists are involved in the study of climate change and sustainability issues, a new feeling of emergency has developed. The warning signs are becoming more numerous that urgent action is needed if we want to save the planet from a disastrous future, since we may not be far from a point of no return: climate change with more extreme weather events, rising of the sea level with the melting of glaciers, shortage of food and water in the near future because of the increase of the world population and the climate change, loss of biodiversity, new epidemics or invasive species, etc. This explains why ICSU is starting a new 10-year research initiative: EARTH SYSTEM RESEARCH FOR GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY, and a Steering Committee for this initiative is presently nominated. The goals of the Initiative are to:

1. Deliver at global and regional scales the knowledge that societies need to effectively respond to global change while meeting economic and social goals;

2. Coordinate and focus international scientific research to address the Grand Challenges and Belmont Challenge;

3. Engage a new generation of researchers in the social, economic, natural, health, and engineering sciences in global sustainability research.

In the same spirit, ICSU is preparing a strong scientific presence at the next United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) that will take place on June 4-6, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. For this, ICSU is organizing a number of preparatory regional and global meetings. It is clear that mathematical sciences have an essential role in the interdisciplinary research that needs to take place in order to achieve significant impact. The other scientific disciplines concerned are numerous from physics, to biology, to economics, etc.

Let me quote Graciela Chichilnisky, the author of the carbon market of the UN Kyoto Protocol: “It is the physicists that study the climate change, but it is the economists who advise the politicians that take the decisions.” Considering the importance of the contribution of mathematical sciences in sustainability issues, IMU has asked to participate actively in these preparatory meetings and be represented at Rio+20. This should be an occasion to build partnerships with the other scientific unions inside ICSU. More and more mathematicians and research institutes around the world become interested in sustainable development as is acknowledged by the large participation in Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 which was recently endorsed by IMU. But the world needs more than a one year initiative. The science of sustainability is full of challenging problems which are very interesting mathematically. Many of these problems require new mathematical techniques. We could hope that these initiatives will allow training a new generation of researchers in mathematical sciences who will be able to work in interdisciplinary teams to address these issues.

Christiane Rousseau
Vice-President of Executive Committee of IMU

2 Responses to Earth System Research for Global Sustainability

  1. Tim van Beek says:

    John wrote:

    I would like to get involved somehow, but I’m not exactly sure how.

    Do they already have people working on concepts on how to get people involved? So far it’s all about good intentions but no concrete plans to do something :-)

    BTW, after the interview with Tim Palmer about stochastic methods in climate science I subscribed to an email list that was mentioned somewhere by somebody, and received a job notification today:

    The Mathematical Institute in Oxford, through the Oxford Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics (OCCAM) is currently inviting applications for a 2-year PDRA position for research into ‘Stochastic Closures for Weather and Climate’. This research will involve a mix of mathematical modelling, numerical analysis, stochastic analysis and collaboration with climate scientists.

    The details can be found at:

    http://www.maths.ox.ac.uk/node/15665

    Dr Chris L. Farmer

    Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Collaborative Applied Mathematics Co-Director, Oxford-Marting Programme on Modelling and Predicting Climate

    • John Baez says:

      Tim wrote:

      Do they already have people working on concepts on how to get people involved?

      Good question—I don’t know.

      So far it’s all about good intentions but no concrete plans to do something :-)

      Right, but that’s a good time to try to exert some influence.

      Since the IMU is a prestigious organization—an invitation to speak at the International Congress of Mathematicians is sort of the definition of ‘prestige’ in mathematics—I’m sure they can succeed in getting something done, even if it’s only having talks on ‘math and sustainability’.

      Actually the IMU seems to be riding on the ICSU’s coat-tails here, since it’s really the ICSU that is “starting a new 10-year research initiative: EARTH SYSTEM RESEARCH FOR GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY” and will have a “a strong scientific presence at the next United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) that will take place on June 4-6, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro.” It’s mainly other scientists that are doing things here. Perhaps the mathematicians are just starting to figure out how to get involved.

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