Is There a Sustainable Future for Our World?



It’s not every day that a man of the scientific calibre of Sir Bob Watson makes his knowledge and skills available to our humble community. Hence, when I heard that Sir Bob was giving a talk at Melbourne’s Town Hall some months ago on the 22nd of May, I just had to get myself a seat.

The British scientist has been a leading authority on climate and atmospheric science issues since the 1980s. The author of many books, his role as the Director of the Science Division at NASA, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and chief scientific advisor for Sustainable Development at the World Bank are only a few of the achievements his impressive CV boasts. Now, this accomplished professional will be involved with the Monash Sustainability Institute, assisting Victoria’s Monash University in their work towards a sustainable future (

With a no-nonsense approach to the issues plaguing our global community, Sir Bob summarised our current situation as bleak. With reference to society’s global goals (ending poverty, universal freedom, universal health and education, ethical living), he made it clear we had so far, (and were continuing) to fail to deliver these basic wants and needs to people across our planet: too many people go to bed hungry at night, too many people fear for their lives, and too many people lack even a basic education.

On climate change, as a man of his knowledge and experience could only conclude, he said that there was “no question [that] we humans” were causing the severe increases in greenhouse gas concentrations observed in our Earth’s atmosphere. On our efforts to minimise this impact, he said: “we literally have done nothing.”  

Watson continued that the enormous amount of scientific enquiry done on this subject has led to the conclusion that if we do not curb emissions, the world we live in will be truly hostile to life: “dry areas will get drier [and] wet areas will get wetter, [whilst] sea level rise is getting faster [and may rise by] one metre by 2100.” He further pointed to the other disasters that high CO2 levels in our atmosphere can wreak on our oceans: “Reefs may stop growing at 450 ppm (parts per million), and dissolve at 550 ppm (keeping in mind we are already at 400 ppm).” He firmly pointed out the enormous consequences to not only Australia’s economy should such a situation become reality (which is very possible), but also to the potential collapse of small island nations who rely on coral reefs for their survival.  

Regarding biodiversity, he outlined the fact that anthropogenic (man-made) activities are the cause of the sixth mass-extinction in the history of our planet: “By 2050, 18-35% [of species will be] committed to extinction, with other estimates ranging from 20 to 40%”. He made clear what so many seem to forget: that the issue of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems “undermines our economy and health” – it impacts on everything, and is therefore a problem for everyone. Socially, Watson said climate change will make fighting other issues much more difficult and will likely lead to further migration of poorer peoples, as well as increased conflicts.

In response to these many and multifaceted issues, he ardently believes that “we need to create carbon markets where a farmer not only gets money for food, but also for protecting the environment”, and that “we need to educate and empower women” to alleviate our rapid population growth. However, all is not lost - truly, Sir Bob thinks that in the future “we can have a superb standard of living, but [that] we must change how we behave… [as] the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action.” For one thing, he criticised the way we value fossil fuels, believing we must see the “social cost” of using such resources, and recognise that such a cost is much higher than the economic value we place on it.

While he believes that better governance is essential, and that “a lack of trust and respect” is strongly contributing towards the slow pace of policy change, he thinks “lots of good things [are] happening at the local level”, and ultimately believes that “partnerships” between the private sector, the government, and people in general are the key to developing a sustainable future. Furthermore, he made a strong case for investing in education and maintaining a “multidisciplinary” nation.

In his concluding remarks, Sir Bob outlined three things that really need to happen: firstly, we need to “transform our technology” to be more effective and less damaging to our current and future environment. Secondly, we need to “put a price on carbon”, and thirdly, we need to “change our behaviour”. He contended that mitigating climate change is a “global” problem and not just an issue for “developing countries”. In contrast, he stated that preserving biodiversity should be a “local” focus, as we at Wild Melbourne would tend to agree.

Sir Bob Watson’s knowledge and expertise makes him an authority on many of the social and environmental issues that are affecting our planet today, and that will continue to do so in the future without serious action. As such, his warning of the dire future Earth faces needs to be heeded. The tragedy befalling our environment is not an issue separate from our daily lives - it affects all of us, and will influence the lives of our children, and their children after. The time of looking at our environment as a foreign entity, detached from the reality of modern society, has long passed. Look up at the sky, look at the earth at your feet – human life and our environmental world are connected, and what we do today will affect what happens tomorrow.

“We know enough to act. If we fail, we will impoverish current and future generations.” - Sir Robert T. Watson.