How Planetary Boundaries Captured Science, Health, and Finance

The technological façade hiding a normative empire

From his perch overlooking the global community, UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned that the world is on the “highway to climate hell.” The president of the United States has likewise threatened that denying the impacts of climate change means condemning Americans to “a dangerous future.” Former Secretary of State John Kerry has scorned unnamed demagogues slowing the process of decarbonization.

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POTUS via X (Formerly Twitter)

Overblown rhetoric from the political class is nothing new. But now, the politicians have a fresh cheering section: a cohort of scientists who have set aside rational deliberation about methodology and findings in favor of empathic allyship with advocate researchers. A leading climate psychologist, for example, has argued that those not afflicted with climate anxiety must be in denial, leaning on faulty “rationalisations against existential terror of annihilation.”

Such arguments suggest that a fair amount of propaganda has made its way into the scientific method—and perhaps in no venue more clearly than the Planetary Boundaries framework.

Advocates have positioned the framework as a functional approach to organizing society within the (perceived) limits of Earth’s ecology and human ingenuity. Although wrapped in a façade of technical exercise, the framework is scaffolded by the values and assumptions of the model creators. More than an impartial application of science, it serves as a vehicle for political messaging while maintaining an air of objectivity. By understanding where it came from, we can see the path back to scientific integrity and rational deliberation.

The Planetary Boundaries enterprise

On the surface, Planetary Boundaries and its various derivatives seem scientific. They appear in notable scientifically-oriented journal outlets like Nature and Science, and they tend to involve lots of complicated calculations and formulas.

The framework posits nine thresholds under which “humanity can operate safely.” These range from climate change to ocean acidification to rates of biodiversity loss. If any of the boundaries (or perhaps some of the boundaries) are transgressed (for some unknown amount of time) the earth will no longer be safe (at some unknown point in the future).

There is some logic here, but the framework is inherently arbitrary. It conflates regional and global scales, which artificially constrains policy options and presents in technocratic form a moral philosophy for social and economic development. Planetary boundaries embed the ideas of tipping points, tipping elements, and tipping cascades, which also suffer from muddle; indeed, there is “no rapidly approaching planetary cliff.”

The idea of Planetary Boundaries first appeared in 2009 in the journal Ecology & Society as a “proof of concept paper.” The paper’s lead author, Johan Rockström, had joint association with the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) supported by the Swedish government.

The framework follows an “overshoot and collapse” trajectory. This means that a variable of interest—say pollution—increases beyond some limit in a system’s capacity, at which point the whole system collapses. In this way, Planetary Boundaries is a restatement of neo-Malthusian ideas of physical limits to the growth of humanity. In fact, the author team explicitly situated its framework as a follow-on to the Limits to Growth modeling exercise developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the Club of Rome, a group of elite entrepreneurs and scientists concerned that population growth would necessarily lead to ecological problems.

Yet framing population as a problem has never gone well for society. The publication of the Limits to Growth report in 1972 and broader efforts by the neo-Malthusian community on both sides of the Atlantic helped fuel fears that population growth would lead to catastrophe and set the stage for various population control measures around the world, including forced sterilization.

More recently, the Club of Rome (with the Stockholm Resilience Center and a few others) took up the Planetary Boundaries cause in an explicit campaign, called Earth4All, to transform the global economic system to provide an “equitable future on a finite planet” through wealth redistribution, “stabilizing the world’s population,” and degrowth. Meanwhile, another body, the Earth Commission, which Rockström co-directs, has busied itself with developing ever more boundaries humans should not cross.

And it is this morally vexed storyline at the heart of the rallying cry for a safe and just planet that has inspired crowds to march.

Cascades of Capture

Despite the chilling relationship between planetary boundaries, neo-Malthusianism, and population control, the concept has been happily taken up by a range of groups working to transform institutions like health, banking, and finance towards the Earth’s Commission’s ideals.

These institutions tend to zero in on one of the two forces neo-Malthusians have seen as sources of impending doom: population and economy.

I’ll start with concerns about population growth which underpins the concept of “planetary health.”

The original use of the term “planetary health” is attributed to Friends of the Earth in 1980, who amended the World Health Organization’s 1946 definition of health so that that “health is a state of complete physical, mental, social and ecological well-being and not merely the absence of disease—that personal health involves planetary health.”

The term then became popularized in 2015 by a joint project between The Lancet, an elite health science publication, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The project asserts that “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains”—an idea also explicitly included in the Planetary Boundaries framework.

Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of The Lancet, has since made it his mission to “develop the idea of planetary health—the health of human civilizations and the ecosystems on which they depend.” His ideas are embodied in The Lancet Planetary Health journal, which aims to support “radical civilisational transformation” and create a “safe and just space for humanity, respecting planetary boundaries.”

Horton celebrates the work of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in calling on medical professionals to join the cause and “inject moral force into the political debate on climate action.” In writing about an influential journal article on ocean circulation, XR’s Roger Hallam said “repressed scientist” who say that the planetary situation “‘kind of scary’” are “like saying Auschwitz was ‘kind of unpleasant’.”

The problem in the simile should be apparent. The Holocaust produced millions of deaths of documented deaths at the hands of a formal genocide government policy. The research Hallam was critiquing used a computer model to estimate ocean cycling 2,800 “model years” into the future to say something about tipping in the present. But Hallam’s extreme view is supported by a science-like narrative of an earth on the brink of collapse that is legitimized by The Lancet’s advocacy-oriented editor.

If you think the problem is just academic journals and advocates, think again. In an IPCC report from 2022, the authors used the term to describe the result of resilient development.

The IPCC’s footnotes demonstrate, however, the term’s ambiguity.

  • Planetary health is defined as “a concept based on the understanding that human health and human civilization depend on ecosystem health and the wise stewardship of ecosystems.”
  • Ecosystem health is defined as “a metaphor used to describe the condition of an ecosystem, by analogy with human health.”
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Adapted from IPCC Working Group II Report Pages 6-7

That is, “planetary health” is what results from the kind of development that writers of the IPCC report like and what they like is the Planetary Boundaries worldview.

Now, to banking and finance- important institutions in economic growth.

The Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS) is a coalition of central banks that pressures the banking sector and its regulators into meeting Paris Agreement goals. NGFS directly invokes the idea of Planetary Boundaries in its development of scenarios for use in bank stress-testing.

The NGFS scenario narratives (below left) get their names from an article by the Planetary Boundaries authors that appeared in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) in 2018. The article has one of the highest attention scores—that is, it was mentioned a lot in the news, blogs, and policy documents—in all of science. In the article, the authors set out two trajectories for humanity: a stabilized Earth and the Hothouse Earth which is “likely to be uncontrollable and dangerous to many.” It poses severe risks, the authors continue, “for health, economies, political stability (especially for the most climate vulnerable), and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans.” An image from the PNAS article (below right) was used in the NGFS scenarios technical documentation illustrating the fingerprints of Planetary Boundaries in the development of the scenarios (I added the pink circles in the images below). NGFS also uses the planetary boundary framework in the development of scenarios central banks can run to assess nature-related economic and financial risk.

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From NGFS and NGFS

Planetary boundaries is also the guiding framework for the Science Based Targets Network—an initiative combining the Earth Commission with the founders of the Science Based Target Initiative. The latter (SBTi) is itself wrapped up in a complicated network of coalitions that has been the source of much ire for U.S. legislators concerned with potential antitrust violations occurring in ESG and sustainable investing activities.

And so, it is from here that we find leading advocacy organizations promulgating ideas of systemic financial risk caused by climate change and policy entrepreneurs under the auspices the Financial Stability Board building a case for corporate disclosure on the foundation of Planetary Boundaries.

Concentrated power

In 2018 Rockström became a co-director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), taking over for another Planetary Boundaries co-author, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who founded PIK shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Schellnhuber is now director of IIASA in Austria.

This is not just an administrative detail or notch on some researcher’s CV. It highlights formidable power in how the world has come to understand climate change and paths to mitigation. PIK and IIASA are tightly knit groups, and IIASA’s founding is bound up in the founding of the Club of Rome, with the same leading figure working to establish both in the 1970s.

On its website, PIK explains that everything the institution does is guided by “the integration of Planetary Boundaries and Global Commons.” This work includes the development of “transformation pathways” for climate protection and sustainable development. Planetary boundaries, though, are misleading and tied up in various histories of social control. Yet the narrative has not moved on.

The difficulty in doing so is in no doubt partly due to the conflicts of interest in the organization of climate change science. The same people are prioritizing scenarios for the international research community, writing government science assessments, working in advocacy, and consulting with industry. I have discussed such conflicts at the bottleneck of global climate change science research, where those prioritizing climate scenarios for use in the research community are also involved with creating scenarios for the financial sector.

Indeed, the NGFS scenarios creation team included those at PIK and IIASA. If everything PIK does is guided by Planetary Boundaries, then what they create for NGFS is as well. Telling is that the team embedded the damage functions created by PIK researchers into the NGFS scenarios and at the heart of the damage function is the notoriously extreme emission scenario developed by IIASA.

What the Planetary Boundaries framework thus represents is more than an appeal for environmental protection. It is a play for political power over social, economic, and governing systems. Many have observed that because models engage assumptions, they are inherently linked to the cultures and interests of the institutions that build them. As one early critique of the IIASA model put it, “models are more symbolic vehicles for gaining authority than objective technical frameworks.”

It is possible to be both deeply desirous of better protections for the earth’s ecological systems and biodiversity and extremely turned off by systems of power masquerading as science.

I certainly am.