Tag - Great Acceleration

After Anthropocene, The Runacene?

Massive blue ground ice exposure on the north shore of Herschel Island, Yukon, Canada.

What do we call next climate epoch, the one after the Anthropocene? The one where feedbacks in the climate system outperform our capacity to mitigate climate change. The Runaway-feedback-someting-cene? The Runacene?The epoch we live in today, the Anthropocene, is characterised by human interaction on a scale that profoundly alters climate and life on earth. As Paul Crutzen wrote in 2002:

We live today in what may appropriately be called the “Anthropocene” –a new geologic epoch in which humankind has emerged as a globally significant –and potentially intelligent– force capable of reshaping the face of the planet.

The label ”Anthropocene” has been around for less than two decades, but scientist debate whether it started with the rise of agriculture, the industrial revolution or the atomic bomb. Or any other distinct marker.

But now the change of what we changed changes. We are poking the bear with sticks and stones, forests and fossils.

Thawing permafrost and glaciers, burning forests, warming oceans and other climate feedbacks will eventually dampen natural carbon sinks, and speed up ”natural” emitters of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases and effects, such as changes in the albedo (the amount of solar energy reflected out to space) that increases global warming out of whatever little control we ever had. The Washington Post recently had an article about the arctic becoming a net source of carbon. Yale recently had an article about tipping points.

But how can I be certain the feedbacks will kick in and alter the climate beyond our capacity to mitigate the changes? Maybe we we get our act together and mitigate climate change in time?

We never had any control over the climate, but there was a time when we could have behaved in such a way as to stay in a modified Holocene (the epoch before Anthropocene) or a fading Anthropocene.

There is so much momentum in societal transformation. It takes at least three decades to transform any system, be it energy, agriculture, transportation, economy or just the mind shift needed to initiate real change. And that is if we act as one body. The political dynamics today move in the other direction, towards nationalism, fragmentation, ”we first” and lack of trust.

On top of that all the latent change in the climate system itself. We are already way out of planetary energy balance, hence the oceans will continue to absorb heat, glaciers and permafrost will thaw. And the complexity and non-linearity of the systems does not work in our favour.

We are moving in to a territory where geo-engineering will sound like a rational and necessary option, altering weather and radiation balance on a planetary scale. How will we decide, or who will take command, over such experiments with profound and very uncertain outcomes?

Climate has been extremely stable for almost 12 000 years, the Holocene. But during the last 75 years we humans (mainly the western world) have pushed us into what is called the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene.

With confidence we slid out on oil, to a slippery slope of melting ice. Cracks in the ice opens up tipping points. We are entering a non-predictable and chaotic world. And I am frightened we might try to deal with the situations in a similar way to what got us, and the rest of life on the planet, into this mess.

What we do the next ten years will have a profound impact upon future climate and life. And ponder a minute or two about the time to ”recover” from what we do today: Time for climate to stabilise: The order of 1000 years or more. Time to recover diversity and complexity from collapse of species and ecosystems: The order of 1 million years or more.


Will Steffen. Anthropocene, Great acceleration and Feedbacks

This weeks episode is an interview with Will Steffen. He an Australian Earth system scientist and he knows a lot about things like the biosphere, glacial cycles, ocean acidification, fossil industry, geo-engineering, complex system, feedbacks, resilience and tipping points.

One of the stories Steffen will share with you is the situation when Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen invented the name and concept of The Anthropocene. Will was one of the scientists in the room as it happened in at a workshop in Mexico 2000.

He will also describe the The Great Acceleration, another concept that was born with Will and his colleagues at IGBP.

He shares his top three high-level tasks that we need to manage a lot better than we’ve done so far, Radiative balance, Human Equity and our connection to the Biosphere.

We also talk about metaphors, energy, tipping points in nature as well as in the social-political system and the post-truth era in society.

Conclusions… a lot. For instance tipping points. Both in nature, for exemplet with the Arctic ice melting and it’s albedo feedback… But also the tipping points in renewable energy. We are so locked in to the view that the price of oil sets the price of all energy, consumption, travel, inflation and people worrying about their energy bills etc. But what happens if/when it is cheaper to build solar farms and put up solar panels on your roof-top than to dig up fossil carbon and build big infrastructure like coal fired power plants? That is a shift, not only in how we produce electricity, but in the way the price is set and who is to get the money. It is a shift of power, in many different ways.

I also find the discussion about the feedbacks in system very interesting. You have feedbacks in all complex systems. They take different forms, for example the feedbacks from society to climate, the climate negotiations and the UNFCCC, trying to keep the climate system in a stable situation.

And the resilience of the fossil industry threatening the resilience of both climate and civilisation as we know it (and hence of course also the fossil industry itself).

I slso ask Will about his favourite metaphors, for example to describe complex systems, feedbacks etc.

Martin Hedberg