Facing the Facts

This week’s reading, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” was an interesting scientific contrast to the more humanities-focused discussions we’ve had so far in class. Personally, as a first-year climate science major, I was particularly interested because I was able to apply concepts I’ve learned throughout the term in my Intro to Climate Science course. Having an understanding of radiative forcings of greenhouse gases, climate feedbacks, glacial-interglacial cycles, and climate stability helped me appreciate the paper at a deeper level, and it was exciting to be able to apply these concepts I’ve been studying. 

While the questions raised in the paper and the tentative conclusions drawn did not paint a hopeful picture for our future, I appreciated the solution of stewardship towards our planet that the authors proposed. My interpretation of the issue is that in order to keep the planet within stable interglacial conditions, it is necessary for humans to take action not only to reduce carbon emissions but also to contribute to negative feedback loops (loops that will dampen the effects of warming), for example, increasing the atmospheric carbon sink of photosynthesis by protecting tropical rainforests. To avoid crossing a threshold after which it would no longer be possible to stabilize the climate, the authors suggested we must take “deliberate and sustained action to become an integral, adaptive part of Earth System dynamics, creating feedbacks that keep the system on a Stabilized Earth pathway.” Whether or not we know exactly what it would look like, this implies a total upheaval of human life as we know it. 

To put it simply, there is no single end-all solution to stabilizing the climate, rather, our only hope involves tackling the issue from several angles and making drastic, large-scale changes to the structure of our global society. This theme is consistent with what I’ve learned in my climate science class as well as what we’ve discussed in previous meetings in Dawn of the Anthropocene. Our only hope is a complete restructuring of society and human life as we know it. 

To act towards this goal takes “radical hope”, an ability to overcome the many forms denial can take while not giving in to hopelessness; a simultaneous acceptance of harsh reality and belief in the potential for change. I believe that for the human race, as a whole, to overcome its denial and find this kind of hope is what the issue of the Anthropocene boils down to.

An Odd Aftertaste

3 Essential Problem-Solving Skills for Entrepreneurs

In “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” by Will Steffen and others, it is proposed that due to Anthropic activity, the world is currently at a “fork in the road”. One where humanity prevails in halting climate crisis and leads to a “stabilized earth”; or one where humanity fails, leaving the Earth in a “Hothouse” state, by passing a threshold where intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks take over. While this idea of a so called “tipping point” is honestly quite terrifying, I also see this as an odd place to end this class.
When discussing this idea of an Anthropocene, thoughts of rigorous, methodical, scientific papers like this come to mind. Ones that take a look at what little information we have to predict what could possibly come ahead. However, for essentially all of this course, that has not been the case. From history, to music, and to fictional writing there has been many odd takes on possible approaches to the dilemma that humanity faces. This is actually why I find it odd that this writing is what we finish with.
Usually when approaching a problem you delve into more standardized approaches before resorting to alternative ones right? As then the abstract becomes more understandable by the time you get to it. However, for this, it seems to be quite the opposite.
In our most recent activity, a large talking point was that of what makes a climate crisis such a unique problem. The speaker asserted that it was because it is such a seemingly impossible one, one that is so much greater than a single person, and one that is on such a larger scale than we can comprehend. That’s why I find it so interesting that this topic was approached in a fashion that I am not used to, and if such is intentional, I am curious to see the reasoning behind it.

Picture: https://thepitcher.org/3-essential-problem-solving-skills-entrepreneurs/

Earth’s Future in Danger

“Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” written by Will Steffen and many others, explores four main questions about the future of our planet due to the current ecological crisis. The first inquires about a threshold of the Earth that if crossed, could lead to a destabilization in the range of increasing temperature, and the second asks where that threshold may be if one exists. The third takes this idea of a threshold further and investigates that if that threshold is crossed, what are some possible “implications […] for the wellbeing of human societies”, and the final query involves thinking about ways to prevent society from reaching the threshold and possibilities of maintaining “interglacial-like conditions”.

It was determined that a two-degree Celsius rise in temperature is the threshold for Earth and if it is crossed, could result in a Hothouse Earth with even higher temperatures and sea levels. If consistent efforts are not made to prevent this from happening and keep the Earth stabilized, then this is likely to be the result and increase the “risk that positive feedbacks could play an important role in determining the Earth System’s trajectory”, meaning that the Earth also has to learn to fight back against the environmental deterioration that is occurring and once the threshold is crossed.

The article emphasizes that the answer to avoiding the Earth crossing the irreversible threshold is that humanity needs to work towards a more cooperative relationship with the Earth and be less dominate. If this is not done, then the Earth may become “uncontrollable and dangerous” with increased “risks for health, economies, political stability” and “the habitability of the planet for humans”. For example, two major aspects of human life are under grave danger on the Hothouse Earth: “agricultural production and water supplies”.

Therefore, it is important that humanity recognizes and is educated on the risk of raising the Earth’s temperature by one more degree Celsius. Once everyone understands the dangers of the path of the current degradation of the planet, people will be more willing to work together towards the common goal of saving the Earth. This would result in humans being more supportive and respectful towards the Earth and hopefully stabilize the planet.

Entropy

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” – John Muir

As I read this article, I can’t say I had too much of a reaction. I am an earth science major working on a thesis regarding glacial retreat. I work under a mentor who has worked as the head of a working group for the most recent IPCC report, and who has studied climate feedback cycles for the bulk of his research. Having taken most of his classes, these along with other geoscience classes have exposed me to the concepts of climate feedback cycles, the consequences of exceeding 2-degree Celcius, and the reality of our.

Rather than a reaction, this article just made me think about the tendency for human behavior to be entropic. As a greater society, as a group of nations, humans have tendencies to create chaos before they will create a sense of unity. This issue requires us to change our morals, values, and least of all practices. Many countries ultimately depend on resources like oil to stay afloat, so to adjust all of our climate values to create a united mindset will be nearly impossible without war or alienation. To assume that countries will willingly give up their biggest export without a fight seems naive.

The Malthusian Crisis, Revisited

Image result for malthusian crisis
The Malthusian Growth Model.

We are reaching a crucial point for the future of Earth and the life it supports. If we choose not to act, it will continue to warm, tipping points will set off positive feedback loops, and humanity, along with the millions of other species supported by our planet, will face an existential crisis. As described in Steffen et. al.’s article, there are two possible trajectories: Hothouse Earth and Stabilized Earth. While both of these trajectories exist now, lack of action will commit us to Hothouse Earth, with little to no hope of return. 

In 1798, Thomas Malthus, an English clerk and scholar, published An Essay on the Principle of Population stating that food production was linear and population growth was exponential, and therefore food production would limit population size. While Malthus’s hypothesis has clearly been disproved, I think it is valid to argue that we may be approaching a situation similar to the one Malthus predicted.

Our current rate of consumption is not sustainable; we are cutting down trees, catching fish, pumping groundwater, and mining coal faster than these resources can be replenished. With an exponentially growing population, and increasing consumption rates due to globalization bringing higher standards of living to previously low-consumption communities, our consumption rate is far surpassing the rate of resource replenishment. We have a linear supply of (sustainable) natural resources (not to mention non-renewable resources), and an exponentially growing population. As a global society we need to realize this disjuncture between our way of life and natural resource production. If not, we will continue hurtling towards Hothead Earth.

Can We Avoid the Tipping Point?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” by Will Steffen and others is the most direct, present-oriented, and scientific article on climate change we have read in this class so far. Steffen et al. describe multiple potential pathways in which the Earth can go thanks to climate change. 

One such pathway, which Steffen and others call “The Hothouse Earth pathway,” is that the human-created biogeophysical feedback loops will continue to cause a mass extinction of countless species (including humanity, most likely at some point), requiring human stewardship and integration with the Earth if we are ever to hope for these dramatic changes to cease. According to the article, even if the current initiatives to halt the release of GHG emissions are agreed upon and implemented, Earth’s feedback loops aren’t going to listen, and will most likely continue to cycle as if nothing happened. These feedback loops will soon reach a tipping point (assuming they haven’t already), and they are unpredictable, most likely resulting in some form(s) of societal collapse and drastic attempts at adaptation, which just may end in failure. 

Another potential pathway, one which seems less likely than the former at this point, is named the “Stabilized Earth pathway”. This pathway assumes humans have taken initiative to immediately cease GHG emissions, integrate carbon capture and solar radiation technology, and much more. Also, this pathway, as Steffen et al. suggest, can be achieved partially by using carbon sinks and moisture feedbacks in the Earth’s forests. Ultimately, this pathway requires complete systemic change, and even if this happens, humans and plenty of other species will have to adapt to a much warmer climate.

This article, to my surprise, doesn’t give me much hope. If anything, it confirms everything we’ve been thinking this whole time, and it provides more insight not just in the fact that we may very well die, but how we’ll die as well. As this article shows, and as many of us have known for a long time, immediate and systemic change, especially in countries which contribute most to CO2 emissions. I just wish I knew how to bring this about.

Contributions of Geography

In Castree’s “Geographers and the Discourse of an Earth Transformed”, the author makes a convincing case for the involvement of geographers in climate change research. In the article Castree argues that Geography is particularly well suited to study the concept of the Anthropocene due to their experience studying “human-environment interactions” (247). I think this is an interesting point and surprising point. I had never studied geography before and had never thought about how geography could contribute to the study of the Anthropocene. The other interesting point is the inherent conservatism of most current climate change research. Castree points out the call of many to introduce critical social science into climate change research. Quoting O’brien, Castree also calls for a need for “knowledge that can help ‘transform … the systems … that favor some interests over others … and develop new types of power and leadership for change’” (249). This is one thing which I have always been frustrated with in climate change. The focus on the latest scientific findings tend to depoliticize the issue. No longer is climate change a question of struggling for power, it becomes a management issue which can be dealt with by scientists and bureaucrats without involving the public at all. This is a fundamental problem of our age and must be solved before any solutions to climate change can be considered.

our impact

Picture by: Jplenio
Found on Pixabay

In the article “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” the authors discuss how human impact is drastically changing the earth. It is highlighted that “human activity now rivals geological forces in influencing the trajectory for the Earth system has important implications for both Earth System science and societal decision making” (1). The “sum total of human impacts on the system needs to be taken into account for analyzing future trajectories of the Earth System” is also emphasized (1). The article goes on to discuss how our way of life has greatly increased CO2 in the atmosphere. They also mention that only through “deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere” can we help stabilize the earth (5). But they also discuss that we are going to have to adapt to unavoidable impacts of global warming that is already occurring. They also share what is at stake: “severe risk for health, economies, political stability, and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans” (5). The part of the article that was most jarring for me was the large uncertainty about what could happen in the future, all the unknowns. We know it is going to be destructive and the window to limit the worst of it is slowly dwindling.

Past the Point of No Return

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The article “The Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” written by Steffen, et al. reiterates many of the statements made in previous articles we have discussed. For example, human activity is heavily contributing to climate change, most specifically in CO2 emissions, and that climate change will affect human health, economies, political stability, and governments. By making many of the same points that other authors have made,  Steffen, et al. reinforces the notion that climate change is real and a crisis. Steffen, et al. defines the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch, after the Holocene. This definition, in my mind, shows the strength of belief this team of researchers has in their work, and demonstrates the extreme changes that have occurred on Earth as a result of climate change and the Anthropocene. 

Steffen, et al. does not stick to making the same points as other authors and instead expands tremendously on the effects that climate change has on the Earth, as well as delaying and/ or solving climate change. First off, Steffan et al. brings up three integral concepts: limit cycles and planetary thresholds, biogeophysical feedbacks, and Tipping cascades. These concepts make this article on climate change unique and reveals the science behind definitions and predictions of climate change (this appeals to the science lover in me).

Steffen, et al. uses limit cycles and planetary thresholds to convey the fact that we are on the way towards a “Hothouse Earth” and that drastic changes need to be made to alter the trajectory that the Earth’s climate is going, and to bring back stability by reentering the an interglacial state. Steffen, et al. also uses limit cycles and planetary thresholds to lead into biogeophysical feedbacks. If the Earth is headed towards an interglacial state, and instead is headed towards a “Hothouse Earth,” once this limit is passed, biogeophysical feedbacks will become the more dominant controller over the future of the earth (which I find unsettling).The point here being that if a “Hothouse Earth” is not avoided, and instead the threshold is passed, humans may not be able to lessen the effects or solve climate change. Biogeophysical feedbacks can also lead to further changes on Earth (both unpredictable and often detrimental). This concept conveniently leads into the concept of tipping cascades, the idea that one event, such as the loss of the Greenland ice sheet, can cause changes all around the globe including a transition of the Atlantic ice sheet. Tipping cascades is similar in concept to dominos, one event occurs and causes another which causes another. 

I think the most striking fact that Steffen, et al. brings up is that we are heading towards an Earth (even with an increase of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius) that is hotter than any other time that modern humans have existed. We are heading into the unknown, and as Steffen, et al. brings up, out societies are going to have to build resilience. 

Stewardship of the Earth

The article “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” by Will Steffen et al. discusses the ways that the anthropocene has swung the earth’s trajectory onto a catastrophic path. Demonstrated through several tables and diagrams, the authors lay out the implications of humanity’s effects on the Earth System. We have driven the overall temperature of the Earth to the extreme, and potentially to the point of no return. The authors frequently mention humanity’s “stewardship” of the Earth, a phrase I enjoyed greatly because it suggests that humans are the shepherds of the Earth, carefully guiding its path. It also denotes a sense of responsibility that is often not connected to the Earth. If we are stewards of the Earth, we are obligated to keep the Earth safe and stable and to not overindulge in the extraction of its resources. 

Another concept brought up was the idea of cultivating more plants in order to decrease the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This was an idea that I had not heard discussed to this extent, which was admittedly not much, before this article. The idea would be that, to encourage plants’ intake of carbon dioxide, humans would cultivate forests, especially those at the equator and poles, to grow and take in more carbon dioxide. However, as the authors point out, an increase in temperature decreases plants’ ability to take in carbon dioxide, which would be detrimental to the overall goal. Before, the solutions we were discussing were primarily focused on ways humans could either reduce their emissions or take pollution out of the atmosphere. The idea of furthering the natural process that already does this had not been discussed to this extent before. Coupled with the connotation of stewardship, this gives the article a greater overall tone of caring for the earth like a runaway child, slowly guiding it and encouraging its natural growth.

The Absence of Virtue in Climate Change

Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash

In this week’s article, “Geographers and the Discourse of an Earth Transformed: Influencing the Intellectual Weather or Changing the Intellectual Climate?”, Noel Castree discusses how geographers can contribute to global climate research. Notably, Castree mentions the tendency of geoscientists to “repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses” (246). This prompted my own thoughts about the damage underplaying consequences can cause. By not portraying the full gravity of the situation, there is a distinct disservice being done to the intellectual community, and to the world at large, as there is “insufficient attention to non-academic audiences” (246). How is anyone supposed to have a full grasp of the situation at hand, when people are holding back? More important questions stem from this. What is holding them back? What are the benefits to not telling the world the full scope of what you have found? How do policies, governments, and personal beliefs factor in to these decisions?

Later in the article, Castree has a short discussion of the absence of virtue in the debate surrounding geosciences and the future of the Earth. I could not help but think of the lack of virtue in our past and present dealings with the Earth, as well as the underplaying of scientific findings described above. As we have discussed in this class, humans act as the masters of the Earth – there is very little virtue in how we have treated the Earth thus far. There is no virtue in the “uneven forms of social vulnerability to environmental change” (248). Many have continuously ignored the disproportionate impacts of climate change. The plight of climate change is the complete opposite of virtuous. But the interdisciplinary approach Castree stresses is the kind of virtue we need to incorporate in climate change solutions. We need to consider all stakeholders, all species, and all generations (present and future) when it comes to changing the climate.

Fact or Fiction?

This week’s reading, The Tamarisk Hunter by Paulo Bacigalupi, was an interesting change of pace the more academic readings we’ve mostly been exploring. It offered a descriptive, artistic perspective into what a post-global warming world might look like, in many ways more real than what any scholarly article could offer. As Bill McKibben says in his introduction to the collection of stories, “With climate change we face the biggest single thing human beings have ever done, so big as to be almost invisible… Since global warming seems, almost by definition, hard to imagine… it gets short shrift.” Artists, he says, by giving us a vivid image of what we find difficult to imagine, help take the reality of climate change from abstract to real. Furthermore, by painting hopeful pictures, they give us the courage to face what we might otherwise hide from. This is the first step towards change. 

The Tamarisk Hunter is about a man who destroys tamarisk trees (which suck water out of the Colorado River) for a small daily wage and a water bounty. In the time it is set, California has bought out the water rights for the Colorado River, leaving the rest of the country in a severe drought. At the end of the story, the water bounty program is cut by the government and he is forced to move north in search of a richer watershed.

This story is striking because it is not an unrealistic prediction of the future. I think this kind of writing is important because it opens our eyes to a different kind of reality than science can offer, and hopefully will help snap us out of our denial and into action. If we don’t respond to facts, we just might respond to fiction.

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities