Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Scientific Conclusions, Political implications: The A/anthropocene

The anthropocene is a hot topic, it suggests that human disturbance on planetary systems has caused us to enter a new environmental or geological epoch. Authors such as Bill Ruddimann suggest that human interference particularly on methane and CO2 levels stretches back 8000 years, far beyond the current school of thought that dramatic changes only occurred with the advent of fossil fuel. Issues lie in the dating of the anthropocene, and whether as with previous Geological Eras it requires a ‘Golden Spike’ in the stratigraphic record. Some argue that this should be 1945-1964 with the atomic bomb (Marshall et al 2007), the rising of CO2 beyond background levels associated with the Industrial Revolution in 1850 (Steffon et al 2007), or further back dependent on the expansion of domestication, agriculture and forest clearing (Ruddimann 2013)

A simplified version of Ruddiman's (2013) argument, that with the onset of farming our current interglacial is unlike any previous, with not only higher GHG concentrations but a complete divergent pathway. Including that of our nearest neighbour IG S19 that had similar precession and obliquity. Image courtesy of http://archaeobotanist.blogspot.co.uk/2013_05_01_archive.html [accessed 28/10/14]

With so many questions surrounding the idea of the anthropocene,  a working group has evolved to solve some, little attention is paid to the consequences of conclusions. In terms of the climate change 'debate' two issues emerge. One of the biggest hindrances to global decarbonisation is historical emissions, suggesting those countries, such as the UK that developed earlier, should decarbonize further and pay more for others to do so. The primary barrier to effective talks in Kyoto was the refusal of developing nations to pay for the historical emissions of developed countries thus denying themselves similar opportunities. Article 3 of the UNFCC states that disparate historical emissions call for differentiated responsibilities in climate protection (UN 1992). Numerous authors have argued that this is the fairest way to divvy up mitigation costs (e.g. Neumayer 2000, Gosseries 2006). It became known as the ‘Brazilian Proposal’ as Brazil argued the inequality in Kyoto. Neumayer concludes that these issues are not static, and indeed by delving further into historical emissions, from early land clearance, this throws an idea debated since the early 90s into chaos. If, as Ruddiman (Submitted) says, there is deviation from our closest interglacial analogue (S19) at 245ppm some 7-6  thousand years ago who lays claim to these emissions? No states where formed, many societies were still semi-nomadic and went on to spawn cultures in other lands. A successful dating of the Anthropocene could throw a further spanner into a debate that is already a plumber’s convention. Giving developed nations a considerable rebuttal to the idea that they should pay more.

The second consequence is the weight it could give to pessimistic arguments. If indeed you claim that human civilisation is unable to live in symbiosis with nature at all, what incentive is there to pay now to reduce emissions? Even if you reduce modern society to the Stone Age we would still have drastic consequences on the way the world works. This would cause even further delay in policy action by adding another perspective to an already infinite debate.

Whilst as student I find the idea of the anthropocene fascinating more attention needs to be paid to the potential consequences of definitions, and thinking not solely from a scientific perspective. Science exists to provide technical understanding of processes and should not be prescriptive to policy (Morecroft et al 2014), but scientists must always be of the wide-range of impacts their work can have outside the academic realm. 

An introduction to the Anthropocene commissioned by Planet Under Pressure a set of global talks from 2012 that UCL were heavily involved in. http://vimeo.com/39048998 [Accessed 28/10/14]

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