Mark Stafford-Smith urges scientists to engage more effectively with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that their environmental targets are quantifiable (Nature 513, 281; 2014). When stakeholder values are diverse and passionately defended, however, such targets may not be easily agreed — leading to stalled negotiations and stagnant progress on issues of global significance.

In our view, building consensus over desirable environmental outcomes would be a better approach. This involves analysing different possible outcomes, understanding decision-making processes and improving communication among stakeholders who have conflicting interests.

Initiatives such as Future Earth and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services are helping scientists to engage with international environmental policy. In the ongoing negotiations over the Sustainable Development Goals, scientists need to move on from simple information provision and help to develop appropriate policies.