Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Climate change: Red alert in the Anthropocene

It is fitting that “Anthropocene”, the term coined just more than ten years ago by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, denotes the new ecological period, following the end of the Holocene, when humans became the principal force driving changes in the planetary system. I say this because the Holocene (“New Whole”), or stable geological period of about 12 000 years between ice ages, came to an end around the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s, which is exactly the time when humans moved into the position where they are capable of affecting life on earth as we know it. Unfortunately the Anthropocene may turn out, if scientists working in the area of the geo-sciences are correct in their assessment of what are now called “planetary boundaries”, to be a mere flicker in terms of geological time.

James Hansen, regarded as the leading climatologist in the US, explains the reason for this bleak prospect in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren (2009): “Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilisation developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystallised only in the past few years. We now have clear evidence of the crisis … the startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself — and the timetable is shorter than we thought.”

In The Ecological Rift — Capitalism’s War on the Earth (p13), John Bellamy Foster and his co-authors remind one that most people think of the ecological crisis today almost exclusively as climate change, which is prominent in the news because it poses virtually insurmountable problems for capitalism. In fact, however, climate change is but one of nine “planetary boundaries” that have been scrutinised by natural scientists in recent years. These are decisive for sustaining a biosphere in which humans can exist securely. The other eight are chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, change in land use, global freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, and ocean acidification. Although two of these — chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading — still lack reliable physical measurements, distinct boundaries have been established for the other seven.

These planetary boundaries are subject to on-going global processes, and scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have found that three of them have already crossed their respective boundaries, namely climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle, all of which can therefore be regarded as representing a “rift”. Although stratospheric ozone depletion threatened to become such a rift in the 1990s, it has been stabilising of late, but global freshwater use, ocean acidification and the phosphorus cycle are fast approaching rift status. Moreover, ocean acidification, climate change and stratospheric ozone loss are seen as “tipping points”, which would be capable of destabilising the earth system (when certain levels are reached) by introducing sweeping qualitative changes. The boundaries for the other four processes are viewed, not so much as “tipping points”, but rather as points at which irreversible environmental degradation would set in.

When confronted by such stark, ominous-sounding statements in texts written by reputable scientists, one can easily feel overwhelmed, or sceptical, depending on one’s knowledge of the way such scientific claims are established. To begin with, sceptics should be reminded that scientists worldwide are largely in agreement about these findings today, and secondly, that it is for good reason. While the precise sequential manifestation of irreversible environmental degradation cannot be delineated because of the complexity involved, however, there are a number of things that can, and have been, reasonably precisely ascertained through careful measurement and modelling. Johan Rockström and his associates in Stockholm (including Crutzen and Hanson) have established three values for each of the seven (measureable) “boundary processes” referred to above, namely a pre-industrial value (or levels reached before the beginning of industrial capitalism), a boundary level value, and a current level status value.

For example, the pre-industrial value of climate change was 280 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration. The boundary proposed for this is 350 ppm, beyond which it should not go if the tipping point of events such as catastrophic sea level rise were to be prevented. Its current status is already 390 ppm, which means it is well beyond the tipping point. The loss in biodiversity is measured by extinction rate, or the number of species lost per million species annually. The preindustrial, or “natural” rate was 0.1-1 per million; the estimated boundary is 10 per million per year, and the current rate of species loss is above 100 per million annually (almost 1000 times the preindustrial “natural” rate). The third process that has crossed its boundary level, the nitrogen cycle, concerns the number of tons (in millions) of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere for industrial use per year. Before the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process for such removal in the early 1900s, the amount taken from the atmosphere was 0 tons. The estimated annual boundary for avoiding irreversible deterioration of the planetary system is 35 million tons, and at present the amount removed per year is 121 tons.

These are only the figures for the three boundary processes that are already at extreme levels — what one should keep in mind, is that all these processes, or rather, all their effects in nature, are interconnected in almost incalculably complex ways, and scientists can only prognosticate to a certain degree what might result from the extreme conditions that already obtain. As Foster and his fellow authors state, however (p15), “In each of these extreme rifts, the stability of the earth system as we know it is being endangered. We are at red alert status. If business as usual continues, the world is headed within the next few decades for major tipping points along with irreversible environmental degradation, threatening much of humanity. Biodiversity loss at current and projected rates could result in the loss of upward of a third of all living species this century”. Add to this the well-known interconnectedness of living species in terms of food-dependence (the “food chain”), which has incalculable consequences when species are removed from this interlinked network of life, and it hardly takes a genius to understand that the world as we know it may undergo not-so-pleasant mutations in the not too distant future.

Humanity must — absolutely MUST — change its way of living urgently. It must find alternatives to an economic system that takes more out of the earth system than it can put back. It must learn to live within the boundaries identified by these scientists — boundaries that other scientists can, and have, tested. The science is clear; the future is not.

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    • Enough Said

      We have the knowledge and technology to change to a sustainable future very quickly, but not the political will. I believe the sixth major extinction of life on earth is going to run its course.

      If we converted our whole chemical industrial agriculture system to modern organic agriculture or sustainable Ecological-agriculture in three to ten years, we could probably return to close 280ppm CO2 within a decade due to carbon capture by the soil, and provide far greater food security than we have today, while being less dependent on scarce water resources at the same time.

      In addition, if we had the political will we could convert to nearly 100% renewable energy globally by 2030.


    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      None of all that is really relevant – it is still Man trying to be God thinking man can control climate change.

      There has always been climate change, causing the great migrations of humans for thousands of years all over the planet.

      Underwater scientists are finding more buried civilizations almost daily in all the oceans. WHERE does humanity migrate to this time? We will have 20 billion on the planet in about 20 years time at present estimates!

    • Ed Ladnar

      Lyndall Beddy, you were not reading carefully. Climate has been stable for the past 12,000 or so years. Yes, climate always changes, but on geological time scales. Now it is changing at human time scales, caused by industrial emissions that are changing the the atmosphere. Why do you think changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere would NOT affect the climate? It seems to me (and climate scientists) much more plausible that it does affect the climate.

      Bert Olivier, your information is a little out of date. We passed 390ppm several years ago. On May 10, 2013, for the first time in the history of our species on this planet, for the first time in at least 3 million years, and probably more like 20 million, we hit 400ppm.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Ed Ladner

      No – Climate has NOT been stable for the last 12,000 years at all, especially not in the Pacific.Also not the crumbling cliffs of Dover, the sinking of Venice, the fens having to be drained and reclaimed by the Romans in Britain 2000 years ago.

      Jared Diamond mentions a number of post prehistoric civilisations which have either adapted or nor adapted to climate change in his book “Collapse: How Societies Chose to Succeed or Fail”.

      Prince William once said that Americans don’t know geography. They don’t know history either – and that includes their scientists.

    • Joe Soap

      My concern is the ANCs investment wing Chancellor House have shares in a company that builds coal fired power stations, and Cyril Ramaphosa has shares in coal mines. That is why we lack political will, and this is when Africa is going to be the continent worst affected by climate change, and crop production could decrease by as much as 50% by 2020 and 90% by 2100.

      @Ed Ladnar – we crossed the 400 ppm threshold fairly recently, maybe 2 to 3 months ago.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Ed Ladnar

      I have just read this in the book I am reading “The Missionary Trail” by Tom Hiney:

      “Material evidence that the Society Islands, as well as the Cooks and the Australs, have been sinking for some time has only just been discovered by divers….A connection between the submergence of large parts of previously uninhabited eastern Polynesian islands IN THE LAST THOUSAND YEARS and the long distance settlements of New Zealand in the ninth century would seem more than likely”.(My capitals).

      PLUS I question what influence the thousands of space junk new moons we have abandoned circling as satellites around the earth have on climate, considering the strong influence the existing moon is already known to have.

      If the businessmen and politicians think the problem is too much carbon, all they have to do is stop destroying forests and start planting some, stop destroying farmland for development, and destroy developments to return to farmland. And how do they do that without REDUCING growth, especially of populations?

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Richard Branson’s venture to Mars looks somewhat appealing…

    • Joe Soap

      What Jarred Diamond really says:

      “Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental issues.

      He also lists 12 environmental problems facing mankind today. The first eight have historically contributed to the collapse of past societies:

      Deforestation and habitat destruction
      Soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses)
      Water management problems
      Effects of introduced species on native species
      Increased per-capita impact of people

      Further, he says four new factors may contribute to the weakening and collapse of present and future societies:

      Anthropogenic climate change
      Buildup of toxins in the environment
      Energy shortages
      Full human utilization of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity”

    • Joe Soap

      Spelling correction – Jared not Jarred.

    • Ed Ladnar

      Lyndall Beddy

      I don’t see what anything you have mentioned (sinking Venice, Cliffs of Dover) has to do with the stability of the climate. When I say the climate has been stable, I am talking about the difference between the holocene and the late pleistocene, not minor perturbations within the holocene. If you want to think about climate, you cannot think on human time scales.

      Also, it is not reasonable to consider manmade satellites as having an effect like the moon. The moon’s effect on climate is through its gravitational effect on the world’s large bodies of water. It is simply not possible for satellites to have a similar effect without us noticing.

      Joe Soap

      Yes, as I said in my comment above, we passed 400ppm on May 10, 2013. I don’t understand the point of your comment. This article was published yesterday, wasn’t it? So why state a CO2 concentration that is years out of date?

    • Ed Ladnar

      Lyndall Beddy

      Oh yeah, a couple more things. Planting forests may or may not result in a carbon sink – the precise amount of carbon sequestered versus released by such planting is difficult to quantify. As for how to continue without reducing growth, well, don’t we want to reduce growth? We have to eventually, don’t we? Unless you think that human population can increase infinitely. Since that is plainly impossible, eventually, there will be growth reduction, no way around it. Now here’s a question for you – do you think it would be better for us to figure out ways to reduce population growth by choice and careful planning, or for nature to reduce population growth when we inevitably exceed our environment’s carrying capacity? I am pretty sure the latter option would be a lot less pleasant than the former.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Ed Ladner

      My replies have been deleted, probably because Jared Diamond is still alive and could sue, so this conversation is over. I repeat instead a comment from another conversation here on climate change and migration:

      South Africa, Africa and the Developing World must throw off the myths of both the American and Chinese Empires. The migrations from coastal Asia to Polynesia about 2000 years ago, and to Africa about 4000 years ago, were most likely caused by 2 main factors:

      1. Climate Change – making the American claim that the climate has been stable for 12,000 years to be nonsense.

      2. The rise of the Chinese Empire of the Han migrating North – which means Africa and Polynesian have as much claim as China to the China Seas and Taiwan (where there are still 12 tribes who have been there for about 7000 years with similar cultures to both Polynesia and Bantu Africa). Personally I think all seas and oceans should be under the United Nations.

      Both the Chinese Empire and the American Empire have made up mythical histories for their people.

    • Bert

      Ed Ladnar – Thanks for that correction; I was really just quoting from Foster and his colleagues’ book, which appeared a few years ago. It is disturbing to find out that we have already crossed the 400 ppm boundary since then. You seem to be a natural scientist, which I am not, although I try to keep track of natural scientists’ latest findings. From what I have gathered, though, if we are this much beyond the 350 ppm boundary, we can expect more climate ‘turbulence’ in the near future than we have had so far.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      “The story of humanity is the story of coping with climate change. People are creative…and the climate is not stable”. That is in the concluding statement of the chief scientist from National Geographic on the documentary “Why Ancient Egypt Fell” which programme proves that the Old Egyptian Kingdom, and the Arcadia Empire in Mesapotamia all collapsed from famine resulting from a drought about 2,200 years ago, which drought was all over the Middle East.

      . Also mentioned in the documentary is that African hunter gatherers migrated out of Africa when the Sahara Desert formed, into Egypt, which they give as about 6000 years ago.

      The only hunter gatherers in Africa were the San – neither the Bantu nor Khoi were hunter gatherers.

      So why are we being fed the line that “the climate has been stable for 12,000 years?

    • Tracy Humby

      Thanks for this Bert. Resilience theory proper emphasises the importance of boundaries and ecological thresholds. Sustainable development also underlined the importance of limits, but as these terms are taken up in popular discourse the idea of limits and boundaries falls away. You can see it happening in how resilience is being used as a term to connote human well-being and “bounce-back-ability”. We don’t like facing our limits, but we are going to have to face them at some point. The question is whether we do it in a planned way, allowing some, for all, for ever (as our national policy on water advocates) or whether we face our limits in the wake of soaring prices, social instability or revolution.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      2,200 years ago, the period of drought in Egypt and the Middle East, is also when the migrations from Indonesia/Malaysia to the Pacific Islands of Polynesia began.

      They might easily have been forced out by a Chinese Empire moving away from the area of drought.

      I have pointed out before that there obviously was massive climate change about 2000 years ago.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The drought/famine in the Middle East is recorded in the Bible as the story of Joseph and his brothers. Only Lower Egypt had food -the Upper Egyptian Kingdom died and never recovered.This was a period of migrations, including migrations to Polynesia from Indonesia/Malaysia.

      But another major climate change also happened a few thousand years before, recorded in the Bible as Noah and the flood. This major flood/tsunami/tidal wave swept the whole world and buried coastal cities/villages everywhere. Although this was at the end of the last Ice Age, it was not a gradual rising of sea levels but a tsunami. Again, according to National Geographic, this was caused by the melted ice of the massive Great Lakes area of Canada/America breaking through into the sea.

      From what I have pieced together this is the time of the Bantu migration from Coastal Asia into Africa- somewhere around 4000-6000 years ago.

      So where does the idea come from that the climate has been stable for 12,000 years?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      According to a third National Geographic documentary that I watched the famine that resulted in the French Revolution was also caused by climate change – in that case by a large volcanic eruption (like the recent one in Iceland but much larger) which threw so much dust (and carbon emissions of course) into the atmosphere that the sun was obscured for the whole summer and there was no harvest in either Northern Europe or North America.

      This carbon swapping theory appears to me a scam by politicians and big business to make profits and kickbacks from yet another tax on the people.

    • Udo

      @ Lyndall Beddy: It is strange that geologists and climate scientists disagree with you on the Holocene – do you fancy yourself as having access to data they do not have access to? And then, what about all the other indices of anthropogenic changes in the earth system, mentioned (reported) here by Bert? I’m thinking of chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, freshwater use (and depletion, no doubt), etc.? Do you deny those? It should be overwhelmingly clear to everyone that humans are like a cancer clinging to this planet’s body, and if James Lovelock’s theory of earth as Gaia, a gigantic macro-organism, is right – and several other scientists have confirmed that it is – then we can expect that the earth’s immune system will start kicking in some time to combat this cancer. It need not have been the case, of course. Humans could curtail their use of fossil fuels drastically, start cleaning up the chemical mess they’re making, stop destroying rain forests, and perhaps most important: stop multiplying like flies. The more people there are, the more we will affect the earth-system adversely. Why is no world leader addressing this? China is the only country in the world that has a much-needed policy regarding the limitation of human reproduction, and it is high time the rest of the world followed suit.

    • Paul Whelan

      I do not know if I qualify as a sceptic, perhaps I do, but I have at the least two problems with this subject whenever it comes up. The first is the glaring absence of agreement, even among amateurs (no disrespect to anyone intended), on a vast range of highly technical issues and measures at the root of the ‘scientific’ claim the biosphere is under deadly threat. This is not to dismiss science, but merely to point out that the ‘science’ is by no means agreed.

      The second problem, more intractable if possible, is how a functional consensus can be formed to do something about it, let alone do something urgently. It is not just a question of ‘political will’ or even of targets and priorities, but of agreement on agency.

      My third worry will be more controversial, I fear. I do worry about the apocalyptic tone of the debate, about the certainty that the end is nigh. We do not need to adopt geological timescales to know that has been the view of some sections of suffering humanity ever since it started suffering.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      I have referred you to 3 National Geographic TV programmes on climate change – all of them quote scientists, are presented by scientists, and give the scientific evidence. Did you actually read my comments? A book you could also read about past climate change is “Collapse: How societies CHOSE to succeed or fail” by Jared Diamond.

      As far as I am concerned both China’s one child policy and the tight border control of countries like the USA and Saudi Arabia show that those countries have leaders who do not intend to be swamped by over population and over immigration of refugees, climate change or no climate change.