The Anthropocene draws to a close

The term Anthropocene was coined by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen a decade ago to describe the new ‘Era of Man’, a distinct geological epoch shaped almost entirely by our actions and impacts. “The Anthropocence has yet to be accepted as a geological time period, but if it is, it may turn out to be the shortest – and the last”, wrote Bob Holmes in the current edition of New Scientist in an intriguing article that rolls the clock forward to see how Earth would cope in the era after Man.

Mass extinctions are already well advanced, so much so that scientists have already designated the current era as the Sixth Extiction – since these measures cover close to a billion years, Extinction eras are rare indeed, the last being the event 65 million years ago that did for the dinosaurs and ultimately created the wiggle room for our ancient ancestors, the early mammals, to get a toe-hold.

In terms of dramatic warming, the era closest to our own is the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum, 55 million years ago or so, when it’s known temperatures rose by in the region of 9C – over a period of several thousand years. There is simply nothing in the fossil record to compare with the possibility/probability of that level of global temperature rise occurring in a matter of decades, but that’s precisely where our current carbon-fuelled trajectory is taking us.

The good news, after a fashion, is that Earth is a resilient old rock and should dust itself off once this latest extinction event has played out. The less good news is that rebound takes a long, long time. “Recoveries from mass extinctions are geologically rapid, but from a human point of view grindingly long. We’re talking about millions of years”, said David Jablonski, palaeontologist at the University of Chicago.

As reported recently in this blog, the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre has published its conclusions based on extensive computer modelling that we’re on track for a 4C global average heating by 2060, i.e. barely 50 years hence. To describe this outcome as disastrous is a grevious understatement, but as I attempt to explain in today’s newspaper column, the reaction to this unfolding fiasco has been, at best, muted.

Whether it’s self-pity over our recent fall from grace as the richest kids on the planet (a story currently being chronicled by David McWilliams in his 3-part RTE series, Addicted to Money) or just a continuation of the self-delusion that waltzed us into our financial imbroglio, nobody, but nobody here, at least not in our media, has even begun to comprehend just how deep the do do we’re sinking into really is.

For the uninitiated, 4C means hell on earth. A separate article in the current New Scientist runs the numbers based on the Hadley Centre findings. To summarise: no rainforests, no monsoon, dramatic sea level rises, hydrological chaos leading to starvation for hundreds of millions, running into billions. The Amazon up in smoke. Temperatures in the polar regions shooting up by 10-16C, leading not just to catastrophic melting, but also triggering the release of tens of billions of tons of methane currently trapped in the vast permafrost regions of northern Canada and Siberia.

When that lot hits our atmosphere – boom! “The glimmer of hope? It doesn’t have to be this way. If politicians at the UN climate change talks in December agree to cut emissions by 3 per cent every year, the world can (with a slice of luck as well) limit temperature rises to a “safe” 2C, the Met Office says”. The heat is on.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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4 Responses to The Anthropocene draws to a close

  1. Jan Golden says:

    Great article this morning John. I had no idea who you were or that this blog existed. There are some of us out there who are consumed with the climate change problem, and who rage at the lazy mediocrities who rule the media. I went to college with many in RTE, and the thinking then was that RTE deserved their semi-intellectuality.

    I run a hectic business teaching tai chi, but I’m trying to help out. I assist Mike Hands from the Inga Foundation( who has spent the last 20 odd years developing an alternative to slash and burn in Honduras. It works very well. The recent coup has lost us our spiel in Copenhagan, as we were the Honduran Govt reps, but we’re going with CFOR instead. I am just a bag handler in all this ( I got the website designed and made, and I hope to buy a seed bank plot next year for the Inga to show the farmers) but I do my best while trying to surf this fucked up excuse for a democracy.

    I haven’t time to read the rest of your blogs today, but if you have a chance, look at the Inga website. The Prince’s Rainforest Trust has recognised us as well. One thing I’m not sure you’ve focused on ( because I haven’t checked) is Peak Oil. Emissions will drop dramatically in the next 20 years because the stuff is running out. Hence the Iraq wars, and the invasion of Afghanistan.

    The Taliban were holding up a pipeline from Azerbaijian. The Powers That Be know about the coming Oil Crisis, but they’re not saying anything. Why spark panic and hoarding? Keep drinking beer America, and watch TV.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for dropping by Jan. Yes, I’ve been a Peaker for quite some time, have written about it at length both here and in the Irish Times (full archive, see link below):

    I’ll certainly drop by the Inga Foundation site as you suggest and have a look. Cheers, JG

  3. Well, the EU is involved in not dealing with the problem:

    Emission trading is not the answer,
    emission limits in electricity + transport sectors (4/5 of emissions in developed countries) means dealing directly with emission reduction, including whatever else is in emissions – whatever about the CO2 relevance.

    See the EU Commissions latest offering
    – and comment…

  4. RE
    other comment, bio-diversity and seed bank
    – the EU is cutting down on biodiversity via seed regulations which as it happens I also comment on in the above Piebalgs link.
    since he takes up seed changes.

    peak oil…

    I don’t see the problem?
    As finite sources become scarcer, their price rises, reducing such consumption anyway,
    and the choice of renewable energy resources becomes more natural on the market place.
    Taxes or subsidies can of course speed up the effect before then.

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