21 November 2019
Q What was the focus of your early career?
A I studied mathematical economics and was also interested in the history of technology and humanity. My first study was on the pathways and strategies of nuclear systems. The second, which is interesting from the current point of view as it was nearly 50 years ago, was solar-powered satellites – the idea was to build them in the geo-stationary orbit 38,000 km from the earth, and beam the energy down. So solar and nuclear energy, new technology, and other alternatives for mitigating carbon emissions were already a focus for me in the 70s.
Q How did you start working at IIASA?
A In 1973, I read about IIASA in the newspaper. I knew that then Director Howard Raiffa was a trail blazer in game theory and decision science, which I had studied. At that time, I was working at a nuclear research center in Germany and I visited IIASA during the summer. I met Howard and he asked me to spend a couple of weeks as a research assistant.
Q What work has brought you the most satisfaction?
A My heart has always been IIASA, due to the interdisciplinarity that is at its core. It has been
satisfying to work across national boundaries, disciplines, and policy areas. For example, in 1981 the IIASA publication Energy in a Finite World, was the first study that covered the whole Earth. All the energy studies that had come before were World Outside Communist Areas (WOCA). However, as the USSR was an IIASA member, we managed through co-design – to use a modern word – to get data that was plausible, and in retrospect, correct. This year, I revisited that study: our middle scenario proposed just over 1°C global warming for 2020 and this has indeed occurred. The big picture was amazingly accurate.
Q Have you been able to keep your optimism in the face of the challenges affecting our planet?
A It is important to have a vision of where we want to end up. This creates optimism and helps address how these complex problems might be approached. I am a believer in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals give a vision: A new social contract for humanity that doesn’t leave anyone behind. Today we are leaving billions behind. A billion
people are without access to electricity and a rising number of people are living in poverty. If we focus on trying to understand how we can achieve the SDGs with scientific tools and fact-based information, this promotes optimism, as we can understand what needs to be done.
Q How does The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative contribute to this vision?
A In 2014, we had a meeting and decided to undertake TWI2050 – a year before the SDGs were adopted. The initiative provides fact-based knowledge to support the policy process and implementation of the SDGs. In 2018, we published our first report – 150 colleagues from around the world worked on this for free. It was a great achievement as we were able to
reduce the complexity of the 17 goals and their targets to six major transformations that are necessary to achieve all the goals. This year we launched a report on one of the six transformations – the digital revolution – which offers great opportunities to achieve sustainability, but is also challenging the absorptive capacities of our societies.
By Rachel Potter
Last edited: 20 November 2019
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Research programs involved
Rockström, J., Gupta, J., Lenton, T.M., Qin, D., Lade, S.J., Abrams, J.F., Jacobson, L., Rocha, J.C., et al. (2021). Identifying a safe and just corridor for people and the planet. Earth's Future 9 (4), e2020EF001866. 10.1029/2020EF001866.
United Nations Environment Programme, (2021). Making Peace with Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies. United Nations Environment Programme
Andersen, I., Ishii, N., Brooks, T., Cummis, C., Fonseca, G., Hillers, A., Macfarlane, N., Nakicenovic, N. , et al. (2020). Defining “Science-based Targets”. National Science Review, nwaa186. 10.1093/nsr/nwaa186. (In Press)
TWI2050 - The World in 2050, (2020). Innovations for Sustainability. Pathways to an efficient and post-pandemic future. Report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Austrian Academy of Sciences, (2020). Global Sustainable Development Goals in a Mediatized World. Vienna, Austria: Austrian Academy of Sciences. ISBN 978-3-7001-8653-3
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