Saturday, February 11, 2017

The "H" Represents Us

For the first four billion years since the beginning of life on Earth, "the rate of change of the Earth system (E) has been driven by three things: astronomical forcings such as those from the sun or asteroids; geophysical forcing, for example changing currents; and internal dynamics, such as the evolution of cyanobacteria. Let’s call them A, G and I."

This is the algebraic formula proposed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber way back in 1999.
Unfortunately Schellnhuber wasn't able to factor in humankind's contribution at that time. Now we can. Change over the past four decades has been both rapid and abrupt, utterly eclipsing change from the natural influences of the first four billion years. A, G, and I are now effectively negligible.

A, G and I are now approaching zero relative to the other big force – us – they have become essentially negligible. We are now the dominant influence on the stability and resilience of the planet we call home.

This is worth a little reflection. For four billion years, the Earth system changed under the influence of tremendous solar-system wide forces of nature. Now this no longer holds.

Heavenly bodies of course still exert some force; so does the ground beneath our feet. But the rates at which these forces operate are now negligible compared with the rate at which we are changing the Earth system. In the 1950s or 1960s, our own impact rivalled the great forces of nature. Now it usurps them entirely.

This should come as a shock not only to environmentalists but to everyone on Earth. But our conclusion is arguably a modest addition to the canon of academic literature. The scale and rate of change has already been well established by Earth system scientists over the past two decades.

The new math, shown below, introduces the H factor, humankind, displacing A, G, and I.
The message in all this?

Scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.

 Now, only a truly catastrophic volcanic eruption or direct asteroid hit could match us for impact.

So, can the Anthropocene equation be solved? The current rate of change must return to around zero as soon as possible. It cannot continue indefinitely. Either humanity puts on the brakes or it would seem unlikely a global civilisation will continue to function on a destabilised planet. The choice is ours.

To sum it up, humans today are causing climate change to accelerate at a rate 170 times faster than natural forces.  Most of this man-made acceleration has occurred over the past half century.


Toby said...

"So, can the Anthropocene equation be solved?"

Simple answer: it won't be. People are too stubborn and will hang on to destructive behavior forever.

The Mound of Sound said...

I expect you're right, Toby. This is a truly global predicament, one that requires us, all of mankind, to act as one. That, in turn, would require a great leveling, equality and, ultimately, rationing. Now, while equality and rationing are concepts that, to the advantaged world, demand sacrifice, we, the advantaged, would see it as a windfall to the disadvantaged. Why should we give up our comfort and ease to help someone else on the other side of the planet?

It's a lifeboat scenario and those in First Class are in no mood to share seats with Steerage.

Toby said...

As I remember it, Mound, the only politician who told us frankly that we were going to have to learn to live with less was Pierre Eliot Trudeau. Did he lose the next election? People don't want to hear it and our leaders have no heart to tell us, no guts to set out a plan. I suspect that some of them have their private escape plans but none for the rest of us.

As to Trudeau the younger I think that he is somehow stunted, unable to grasp that, this time, Chicken Little is right. I can't imagine that anyone who has flown over BC and seen the scope of the beetle kill or paid any attention at all to our retreating glaciers or melting permafrost would not be in a panic yet JT seems to simply ignore what he has most certainly been shown.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm always ready to fault the Dauphin, Toby, but I'm not sure how much of this mess is his fecklessness and how much traces back to the visionless, emasculated politics in the age of neoliberalism. It's a political realm suited to petit fonctionnaires, technocrats, administrators and it does not abide genuine leaders or statesmen. Trudeau has rather proudly proclaimed himself first and foremost as a free trader and it is through that narrow lens that he views the world. It's why he's an appeaser and willing, perhaps even compelled, to look the other way at our problems, especially the environmental calamity overtaking us. Carbon taxes and bitumen boosting - nothing inconsistent, irreconcilable or contradictory in that approach, is there.