Lots of people credit Blue Planet with waking them up about the extent of the plastic problem. I’ve been anti-plastic for years, but I guess it was too easy to keep using it, and it seemed too expensive and inconvenient to try to change my habits.
Then, on 6 August 2018, a study called Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene found its way into media headlines, and I got a wake-up call about how close we really are to a disastrous future.
I downloaded the paper and went through it point by point, to try to figure out what the message really is. Around about the same time, I visited Waste Not Want Not, a zero waste shop in Bridport, and realised that plastic free options are available. There’s a plastic free movement, and it’s growing. Finally, it was time to walk my talk.
What’s the ‘hothouse Earth’ theory all about?
According to the paper, we’ve reached a fork in the road, and what we do in the next two decades will determine what kind of future we’ll see.
One path could see us living on a rapidly heating planet, with quickly rising sea levels, a vastly different climate, and social instability across the globe. The second path could bring some stability, although some of the changes are already set in motion.
Thing is, if we want to stabilise our climate and our future, we have to act now. The UN has warned that we only have 12 years to limit the catastrophic effects of climate change. And scientists warned in 2014 that we only have 100 harvests left.
Decimated coral reefs, extreme weather events, and massive food shortages could become the norm… possibly within the next 12 years.mindbodygreen
Within a century, our planet could transition into an ‘uncontrollable and dangerous’ state
I guess what’s motivating me is the hope that one day, I’ll have children. If I do, I don’t want them to inherit barren soils, poisoned seas, food and water shortages, and wars over countries in climates that remain hospitable.
It was a shock to discover that we have less than twenty years to turn the tide on skyrocketing temperatures and rising sea levels that would almost certainly lead to even more social upheaval than the world is currently experiencing.
I’m picturing a world in which my children have to fight for water, food, and space amid mass migration as parts of the planet become uninhabitable, and I’m wondering if it’s time to forget my dream of starting a family.
But the planet’s always changing, isn’t it? Human impact is small when compared with, say, volcano emissions, right?
If you’re one of those people who still thinks that human impact on the planet is negligible when compared with the carbon emissions caused by Earth’s volcanoes, think again.
According to the sixteen scientists behind this recent paper, “human activity now rivals geological forces in influencing the trajectory of the Earth System”.
…human activity now rivals geological forces in influencing the trajectory of the Earth System.— Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene
We are making a difference, and it’s likely to be catastrophic.
The problem is that the future state of the world’s climate isn’t determined by the linear concept that rising emissions + time = one big problem, sometime way off in the future.
In fact, the combination of human activity and geological forces could trigger a chain reaction of processes that would be irreversible once they start. Sea level rises, for example, are already gathering pace, increasing by a greater percentage with each passing year.
This argument that human-caused carbon emissions are merely a drop in the bucket compared to greenhouse gases generated by volcanoes has been making its way around the rumor mill for years. And while it may sound plausible, the science just doesn’t back it up.
…Greenhouse gas emissions from volcanoes comprise less than one percent of those generated by today’s human endeavours.— Scientific American
Whatever we do, temperatures and sea levels look set to continue rising, partly because the planet is slow to react to the effects that we have on it (both positive and negative).
The reason these scientists believe we could be heading down the wrong path in a mere few decades is that the ‘tipping point’ for catastrophic climate change could be a global temperature rise of just 2°C, and we’re already at 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures.
But, the authors of this paper believe we could steer the planet away from a ‘hothouse Earth’ scenario to something more stable, if we start now.
Is there hope?
The experts who wrote this paper don’t see ‘hothouse Earth’ as inevitable. The paper talks about trajectories in the plural because we do have a choice.
Will we make the right choice?
Maybe we don’t want to believe that we can make a difference, because it means we have to change. Feeling helpless is an easy excuse – one that our kids won’t thank us for.
We can choose to carry on the way we’re going, which will land the next one generation in a vastly less opportune world than the one we live in now.
Or, we can choose to pursue a ‘stabilised Earth’, which will be cooler and more hospitable to life as we know it on Earth. But, how do we get there?
Stabilized Earth would require deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, possible solar radiation management, and adaptation to unavoidable impacts of the warming already occurring.— Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene
Let’s break that down.
We all know about greenhouse gases – we’re mostly talking carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, plus methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture. These gases are the reason why some people have been switching to renewable fuels, using public transport, and reducing the meat they eat over the last few decades.
Carbon sinks store more carbon than they release, and the three main types are plants, soil and the ocean. Think of big patches of vegetation that absorb carbon through photosynthesis and help to protect us from the planet-warming effects of carbon emissions: grasslands, forests like the Amazon, peat bogs, and coral reefs. Human activity is diminishing these natural protectors, and we have to change that.
Removing CO2 from the atmosphere and solar radiation management are the kinds of technologies we’ll need to develop if we’re going to maintain a future that we recognise on this planet.
And ‘adaptation’ refers to the kinds of things we’re going to need to do to keep us on the right path in the meantime: building resilience, encouraging learning, and promoting a shift in values towards respect for each other and the planet. We need to move away from a development system that’s guided by economic efficiency, i.e. profit at any cost.
A few more ‘eco warriors’ won’t make a dent in the problem, right?
If you think you can’t do anything meaningful as an individual, you’re dead wrong. According to the paper:
Widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold and locking into the hothouse Earth pathway; these include changes in behaviour, technology and innovation, governance, and values.— Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene
One person may not be able to change the world. But the ripple effect we can have as we influence each other is huge.
Behaviour and values have already changed a great deal in the last century. We have the technology to reach out to millions of people all over the world; we just need to get the message right.
We’ve been waiting for the change to come from the top, but that isn’t happening. Instead, let’s focus on our own communities.
Time and again, we’ve seen this work. A few brave voices become a tumult that turns the tide on issues like racial segregation and gender inequality.
…Breaking off the beaten track seems hard, but living inauthentically is harder, and picking up the mess when it implodes is the hardest.— Claire Salem, Community Activator
- We are going to see an increase in temperatures and rising sea levels no matter what we do.
- We have to adapt to that without increasing the gulf between the rich and poor and exacerbating tensions around race and migration.
- We must adapt our farming practices without more chemicals that deplete and destroy the fragile soil system that produces our food.
- We need our seas to be free of plastic, so that the coral reefs can recover and continue acting as one of our biggest carbon sinks.
- We must change our attitudes, reject the throwaway culture and choose products that are sustainable, natural, and responsible.
- On an individual level, inertia is no longer an acceptable response to the problems we’re facing as a species.
If we want a humane, stable future, we need to move away from inertia and exploitation of natural resources, and become effective stewards of the Earth. Let’s create a better world from the ground up, and let’s start now. We have no choice.