Beyond the Anthropocene?

Johann Rockstrom, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in 21 minutes, gave the 2017 World Economic Forum a fact-packed, vividly illustrated presentation on the state of the planet. This video of the presentation is worth careful study, as it makes the obvious point that the post-1955 exponential upturn of human impact on the planet now must be followed by a similar exponential rate of downturn, particularly in greenhouse gas emissions, if we are to remotely maintain the climatic stability of the Holocene period in which humans evolved their civilsations. Such a downturn would require halving emissions every decade. He illustrates how nine planetary boundaries have been threatened through time and celebrates the one great human sustainability success in reversing the damage to the ozone layer. Rockstrom also illustrates 14 ‘tipping points’ related to the 2C Paris agreement limit for global warming. By definition, once a tipping point is passed, the situation is irretrievable.

Trump – good news for the planet?

In this articlePaul Gilding, author of The Great Acceleration and a leading campaigner against climate disruption and global inequality, makes a surprising case that the accession of Trump and his conservative elite inner cabinet will greatly strengthen the movement for a sustainable future.

Trump’s election is not a trend. It should not be seen as evidence of a swing to the right, to nationalism and xenophobia etc. It is simply a symptom of the volatility inherent in the accelerating breakdown of our current economic approach and model.

What we are seeing is the last hurrah of a dying approach. A desperate attempt by the incumbents to rescue the now failing economic model that did deliver great progress for humanity but has come to the end of its road – and that road finishes at a cliff.

A cliff is the right analogy for a range of reasons. Perhaps most starkly it’s climate change and resource scarcity but also inequality and the failure of the old model to deliver further progress for most people in Western countries. There are many other issues we face, but these two – climate change (and with it food supply and geopolitical security risks) and inequality within countries – are the systemic risks. They define the cliff because neither can continue to worsen without the system responding – either transforming or breaking down. So the old approach is finished, along with the fossil fuel industry, and the walking dead taking over Washington won’t bring it back to life….

No change to the fundamental direction we are on. The rich will get richer, the middle class will stagnate, racism and conflict will worsen and we will be less secure – all while climate change destabilises civilisation.  How is this good?

Because three big things will change.

First, there will no-one left to blame. Extreme capitalism will be unleashed and it will not deliver. The fraud of trickle-down economics will be exposed.

Secondly – US climate policy will no longer matter – fossil fuels will die on the same schedule they were dying on. As I argued in my 2015 article “Fossil fuels are finished, the rest is detail”, these are fundamental trends driven by technology and markets – and no government can stop them.

Thirdly – and most importantly – is “the resistance”. We are seeing a huge mobilisation of activism and social engagement among people who have long been passive – as this humorous post describes. This is like the 60’s – without the drugs but with a political strategy! Climate change will be our Vietnam, the fossil fuel industry our military industrial complex. It could trigger, as this Atlantic article explored, a Tea Party of the left – maybe even a Green Tea Party. Chaotic, aggressive and not always rational, but very impactful. And the liberal wealthy elites will get right behind it – because they too have a lot to lose from extreme capitalism and climate chaos.

Human Impact = 170 x Nature’s Effects?

This article reports a  new study published in the journal relating to the development of human activity as the predominant geological force on the Earth that has led to the concept of the Anthropocene geological period of unprecedentedly rapid change in the natural world. The calculations suggest a rate of change in atmospheric temperatures induced by human activity 170 times faster than natural  processes. For the mathematically minded, they provide an equation that illustrates the new geological phenomenon. The advent of the Trump administration staffed by climate change deniers is seen as a major setback as this quotation suggests:

“While the rate of change of the Earth system needs to drop to zero as soon as possible, the next few years may determine the trajectory for millennia. Yet the dominant neoliberal economic systems still assume Holocene-like boundary conditions—endless resources on an infinite planet. Instead, we need ‘biosphere positive’ Anthropocene economics, where economic development stores carbon not releases it, enhances biodiversity not destroys it and purifies waters and soils not pollutes them.”

“While it would seem imprudent to ignore the huge body of evidence pointing to profound risks, it comes at a challenging time geopolitically, when both fact-based world views and even international cooperation are questioned. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the U.S. in recent weeks.”

Hans Rosling’s Solution Set-back

In this video Hans Rosling who died recently, explains using Lego bricks and counters in his inimitable way, that unequal distribution of wealth in the world has to be redressed if there is to be any hope of accommodating the next two billion increase in global population and at the same time, making serious inroads into carbon emission control.

Rosling’s brilliant techniques of making complex statistics simple to understand were combined with his ever-hopeful perspective on humanity’s potential to remedy the unintentional threats that exponential economic growth has produced. He was a great advocate for the impoverished populations of the planet, but he died just as the Trump presidency emerged in the USA to set back much of the hope that was beginning to grow for global cooperation to tackle large-scale international threats to a sustainable future.

What makes Earth so special?

This playlist of eight TED presentations offers a couple of hours of remarkable insights and images into the planet that sustains life – so far the only planet we know of that does. However, in the Milky Way galaxy alone there are an estimated 40-100 billion other planets that are likely to have the conditions that gave rise to organic life.

These presentations are a celebration of the wonder of human ability to grasp the reality of how this ‘blue marble’ of a planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ that allows liquid water to combine with energy from the sun and volcanic sources to give rise to organic life and the nourishment that it needs to replicate and evolve into an estimated 8.7 million species.

Limits to Growth Update

This Scientific American article from 2012 reviews the predictions of the MIT modelling, almost 50 years ago, of five forms of human impact on the planet, The trends identifed are remarkably aligned with what has happened in reality to the growth of population, pollution, resource depletion and industrial output driven by the accumulation of productive capital. The depressing conclusion is that  democratic institutions are no longer able to halt the rush past global limits on human activitities.

“Many observers protest that such apocalyptic scenarios discount human ingenuity. Technology and markets will solve problems as they show up, they argue. But for that to happen, contends economist Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., policymakers must guide technology with the right incentives. As long as natural resources are underpriced compared with their true environmental and social cost—as long as, for instance, automobile consumers do not pay for lives lost from extreme climatic conditions caused by warming from their vehicles’ carbon emissions—technology will continue to produce resource-intensive goods and worsen the burden on the ecosystem, Dasgupta argues. “You can’t expect markets to solve the problem,” he says. Randers goes further, asserting that the short-term focus of capitalism and of extant democratic systems makes it impossible not only for markets but also for most governments to deal effectively with long-term problems such as climate change.”

Failing States, Collapsing Systems

This review provides the central argument from a book by Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed – Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence that the effect of diminishing returns on investment of global energy sources which has been happening since 1999 will lead to several states failing. These regional failures, based on inability to meet demands for energy and food, will aggregate into geopolitical conflict and global collapse in the not so distant future. Graphs of production and consumption of oil are used to illustrate the various stages of this process happening in Syria, Yemen, Saudia Arabia, Mexico and China.

Alongside that, while 2011’s Occupy and “Arab Spring” are but a taste of things to come, there’s also the fact that while the situation in Syria has allowed for the emergence of ISIS and other jihadis, the coming state-level failures in the Middle East will only exacerbate this. Looking at intra-state conflict, civil unrest, Islamic terrorism, and far-right terrorism, Ahmed’s studies show that

the escalation of Western military interventionism has provoked an increase in Islamist militancy, which has further fueled far-right extremism, both comprising the principal sources of escalation in PV [political violence] pandamics [sic?]. Both, of course, have further elicited further militarization in response to these different forms of rising militancy and terrorism [p. 43].

The cases examined here thus point to a global process of civilizational transition. As a complex adaptive system, human civilization in the twenty-first century finds itself at the early stages of a systemic phase-shift which is already manifesting in local sub-system failures in every major region of the periphery of the global system. As these sub-system failures driven by local ESD-HSD [Earth System Disruption – Human System Disruption] amplifying feedbacks accelerate and converge in turn, they will coalesce and transmit ever more powerfully to the core of the global system. As this occurs and re-occurs, it will reach a system-wide threshold effect resulting in eventual maladaptive global system failure; or it will compel an adaptive response in the form of fundamental systemic transformation [p. 88].

Put a bit more succinctly,

The system must either adapt to these threshold effects by transforming its structure, adapting its overarching rules, norms and values, and thus transitioning to a new evolutionary state – or experiencing a protracted collapse process by failing to do so [p. 47].

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is a British author and investigative journalist. He is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, an independent think tank focused on the study of violent conflict in the context of global ecological, energy and economic crises; and a film-maker who has co-produced and written The Crisis of Civilization, and associate produced Grasp the Nettle, both directed by Dean Puckett. Ahmed’s academic work has focused on the systemic causes of mass violence. He has taught at the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, and has lectured at Brunel University’s Politics & History Unit at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, for courses in international relations theory, contemporary history, empire and globalization. Follow his blog at: 

Formula for Human Impact

This article reports a scientific estimate from a highly regarded source that human impact on the earth’s atmosphere is now 170 time greater than natural forces. This is at a time when geopolitics and international relations are undemining the potential for cooperation to curb this impact now manifested globally. The Trump administration is actively moving towards reversing such cooperation.

It is not likely that the concept of the Anthropocene been added to the new President’s limited vocabulary. SAD! NOT GREAT for the prospects of a sustainable future!!

2016 Climate Change Update

This article from Yale Climate Change uses six graphs of global statistics to elaborate the assertion that “The historical significance of the year 2016 for the planet’s climate is likely to go well beyond just the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President. The climate will have the last word.” 

CO2 emissions and concentrations have increased from below 320 to over 400 ppm between 1960 and 2016; human-made emissions of CO2 at the same time have increased from just over 2 gigatonnes to 10 gigatonnes.

“Six different groups around the world provide estimates of global surface temperatures: NASA, NOAA, the UK’s Hadley Centre/CRU, the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA), Berkeley Earth, and the researchers Cowtan and Way. All agree that 2016 was the warmest year on record, though they differ a bit on the margin. All also agree that 15 of the past 16 years were the warmest ever recorded.”

“Zooming in on the period after 1970, one sees a record of largely unabated warming, with temperatures increasing steadily accompanied by some short-term variability driven by El Niño and La Niña events, and also by major volcanic eruptions like Pinatubo in 1992.” A 1 degree Celsius increase in average surface temperature has been recorded in the last half century.

President Trump’s and the US Congress reversal of US policy on climate change and the use of fossil fuels appears to ignore the scientific data reported in this update.

This blog from Jeremy Williams “Who is responsible for Climate Change?” outlines with another interesting graph that clearly illustrates the leading role of the USA and rich countries. It also allocates the responsibility for CO2 emissions to populations within the countries in the graph, based on their per capita range of incomes. The extreme carbon emission inequality data are taken from an Oxfam briefing.

Williams concludes: “There are a number of things to draw out of this. The most obvious is that the richer people are, the more they tend to consume and the higher their carbon footprint tends to be. When you remember that climate change impacts fall first and most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable, the injustice is stark. That’s true within countries as well as internationally.”

“The richest are most responsible for climate change, but the least affected. As I’ve said before, I reckon that when people look back on climate change in a hundred years time, they will have similar questions to the ones we ask about the age of slavery – how did the majority of people think that was okay? Why did it take so long for people to understand their moral responsibilities?”

This additional article argues that “the prospects of averting a fully-blown climate catastrophe are narrowing. According to some counts, we may only have a little over a year of emissions-as-usual left before we lock in 1.5°C warming — beyond which lies global chaos. Only slightly higher chances exist for staying below 2°C warming, as concentrations of carbon dioxide have surpassed 405 ppmThe two additional links in the above extract show how unlikely will be the UN Climate Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 2C target set at the Paris Summit.