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Opinion The climate 'canary in the coal mine' is gasping for breath. We've reached the Anthropocene

Even the most entrenched climate denialists would find it hard to argue that things aren’t changing, writes Mark Kernan.

For the past 12,000 years, we have been living in the Holocene epoch – a geological term marking different periods in the Earth’s history. These epochs generally capture thousands, if not millions of years. Until now.

In 2016, a group of eminent geologists gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, and called for the declaration of a new epoch – the Anthropocene. They suggested we had reached the point at which humanity’s impact on the world is so great, we have now entered a new and unchartered phase.

The Anthropocene is defined by climate change, population growth, rainforest loss, and much more. Officially, we’re still in the Holocene epoch, but here, Mark Kernan asks if it’s time to ask ourselves some tough questions:

ALREADY, TWO MORE dangerous climate records have been broken since 2020 began.

January last was the hottest ever recorded over the earth’s land and ocean surfaces – 1.14 Celcius above 20th-century averages.

Ominously, Antarctic temperatures rose above 20C for the first time ever – normally temperatures in February range from -5C to +5C – a figure described by scientists as “incredibly abnormal”. It’s worth saying that again for the hard of hearing and for those who wilfully do not want to understand – incredibly abnormal.

One scientist said that it’s “a signal that something different is happening in that area.” An understatement if ever there was one.

Also, as a result of global warming, Antarctica is shedding 252 billion tons of ice per year.
As average temperatures at both poles are two to three times higher than the rest of the planet, caused by the amplification of surface temperatures at both the Arctic and Antarctica by global warming, we should be worried, very worried.

An average increase of even 1.1C, the global temperature right now, across Earth’s surface would huge changes in climatic extremes. Most of us have an idea, however vague, excluding climate change denialists of course, that the cause of global warming is a result of emitting too much carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). What most of us don’t know is how (in 2020) we got into this unsustainable state.

16102016-hurricanes-ophelia-storms-coming-to-ireland Climate Change, possibly the greatest challenge facing the planet since the Ice Age.Images of the Decade 2010 - 2020. 16/10/2017. Hurricane Ophelia Summercove. Hurricane Ophelia displays her power as she attacks the coast at Summercove outside Kinsale in County Cork. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/

Entering the Anthropocene

To understand the Anthropocene it is important to go back to the last century and the beginning of the modern world as we know it.

Since then, production and consumption patterns have skyrocketed. This has been lead by the expansion of global capitalism. Our overreliance on fossil fuels, love of international travel and our carnivorous diets has accelerated climate change, hastening its catastrophic effects.

This has become known as the Great Acceleration, a unique period in the history of humankind where our impact on the earth is observable and undeniable. Consequently, 20 million acres of forest are lost every year, fish stocks are falling drastically, and between 1970 and 2010, there was a 52% decline in wildlife population globally. These changes are sweeping across the socioeconomic and biophysical sphere of the earth’s interconnected systems.

Untrammelled economic activity is now rapidly affecting Earth’s ecological systems in ways never seen before. Or to put it another way, in a single lifetime we have pumped out more GHGs into the atmosphere than the planet has seen in over one million years.

press-tour-to-the-saudi-aramco-oil-refinery-at-the-abqaiq-and-khurais-oil-fields-in-saudi-arabia-that-was-attacked-by-drones-on-september-14 An oil field in Saudi Arabia. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The great human encroachment

Since the 1950s, we have rapidly advanced our societies through technology, harnessing nature’s resources to suit our needs. At this point, we are now pushing at the earth’s environmental limits. Unlimited economic growth premised on the use of fossil fuels is now coming up against natures’ barriers, and there is no negotiating with these constraints.

Unthinkingly pumping carbon into the atmosphere, where 93% of it ends up in the world’s oceans, will soon teach us what ecological unsustainability really looks like. More and longer storms, more ferocious flooding and droughts and much hotter summers will become the norm.

This will exacerbate political tensions as the social and environmental costs rise. Migration will increase as parts of the planet become uninhabitable. If we think Trump is bad, what can we expect from more political and environmental uncertainty?

We can debate the morality of economic growth fueled by fossil fuels. But in 2020 the scientific consensus is beyond debate. We can no longer pretend that infinite growth is possible on a planet with finite resources.

And yet, just last week, inexplicably, the EU parliament voted in favour of 32 gas infrastructure projects which will lock-in, even more, GHGs into our atmosphere and oceans. Politics has a long way to go to catch up with science.

The climate action movement

upi-20191212 UPI / PA Images UPI / PA Images / PA Images

There’s no doubt that there has been a shift in the past couple of years in terms of climate action and calls for change. Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement has proven to be a powerful voice for the frustrations of young people, who are now realising just how great an environmental mess they are about to inherit.

Along with Thunberg, we also see the mass movement in Extinction Rebellion, which has captured the imagination and garnered much support globally.

Both protest movements are to be welcomed, given they serve to galvanise debate and engage people in large numbers. However, climate activists believe a global policy shift is the only change that can make a difference to the planet. The veteran climate activist and author, Naomi Klein pushes the need for a Green New Deal in her latest book, On Fire. Klein says we now have a “once in a century chance” to ameliorate the worst excesses of climate change.

Radical change is not impossible but we need to act fast. We must incentivise people to seriously and significantly reduce their carbon footprint. We need political and social buy-in but it needs to be rapid.

The market? Not the answer

The market can’t, and won’t, do this alone; we need massive state intervention on a historic scale. What is needed now is no less than an energy revolution.  Klein is right – we need a global Green New Deal. An economic, social and industrial mobilisation aimed at fundamentally reorientating the global economy away from the extractive industries and onto renewable energy.

Currently, about 82% of global energy is produced by fossil fuels, the rest is solar, wind, hydropower, biomass and nuclear, etc. These figures need to change around in the next 20 years. Otherwise, we are potentially on the road to doubling the forecasted global average temperature increases in the next 30 to 40 years.        

pjimage(1) Protests in the US for a Green New Deal, involving Jane Fonda, Joaquin Phoenix and Martin Sheen.

Mother Nature keeps the score

A famous American physicist, Richard Feynman, once said that reality must take precedence over public relations for nature cannot be fooled. For now at least, unfortunately, public relations is winning.

But of course, we aren’t fooling nature, only ourselves. Two years ago a UN climate change report told us that we have a 12-year window of opportunity to avert catastrophic climate consequences.

The only way to stop fooling ourselves is to decarbonise our economies as soon as possible. Continuing to subsidise fossil fuel projects won’t cut it anymore. Otherwise, as we go deeper into the Anthropocene, the great acceleration will turn into the great ecological unravelling.

We could do worse than heed the words of Rob Watson, a leader in the green building movement and CEO and Chief Scientist of the ECON Group in the US. In July 2010 in the New York Times, Watson said, in an arresting metaphor:

“Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is. You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax. No, Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate. Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1,000.”

The climate ‘canary in the coal mine’ is now gasping for breath, warning us of advanced environmental danger; about how much we are warming the planet and how hazardous that will be for us, our children and our grandchildren.

We’ve lost ten years since Watson’s comments; we can’t keep going the same way. Mother Nature always bats last.

Mark Kernan is a writer and researcher and lectures p/t at University College Cork on climate change and development in adult education.

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