Entering the Absurdicene as the Anthropocene loses its relevance

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By David Salt

Forget the Anthropocene – Australia’s ‘bold plan’ for net zero by 2050 marks the beginning of an amazing new geological epoch: The Absurdicene, the age where the ridiculous and the self-serving trumps evidence and science. As our children are discovering, it’s not a great time for hope.

Goodbye Anthropocene

The much-discussed Anthropocene was one of the shortest geological epochs of the modern era. It began on the 16 July 1945 and ended on the 26 October 2021.

Why these dates?

Well, the 16 July 1945 was the day of the first atomic bomb test, a few weeks before Hiroshima was obliterated by the world’s first atomic attack. That first test left trace (but measurable) fission products in soil strata around the world. 1945 marked the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Great Acceleration, a time of unparalleled economic growth that has continued to this day.

From that time, humans have literally transformed the Earth System: slaughtering our biodiversity, modifying our climate, and polluting our land, sea and air. Earth systems scientists believe humans have become the dominant force on our planet, and that this warrants labelling this time as a new geological epoch – the age of humans or the Anthropocene.

Some Anthropocene scholars have nominated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the true beginning of this epoch (18th Century); others have nominated the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution (some 10,000 years ago). The Earth System scientists I follow, however, reckon the Great Acceleration is a better starting point as it’s really when human activity began distorting the Earth System and we can exactly measure the transition with that first atomic test.

Nominating an end date is even more contentious, and doubling down with the declaration of a new geological epoch called the Absurdicene requires a degree of hubris rarely seen in the academic literature (and yet quite characteristic of many of my columns).

Hello Absurdicene

The 26 October 2021 was the ‘proud’ day the Australian Government launched a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. So ridiculous, hollow and surreal was the plan – so full of assumptions, half-truths and outright lies – that academics would look back on the launch of this plan as the day humanity lost its marbles and officially entered the geological period known as the Absurdicene. (I’m using Australia as a case study reflecting the absurdity of the wider world.)

Frankly, given the parlous and deteriorating state of the Australian environment (bleaching coral reefs and burning forest biomes being two of the most recent and horrific examples), and the impact this is causing to the Australian society, I feel it is simply inadequate to label the Government’s efforts to address this situation as even remotely acceptable or reasonable.

Indeed, not only does the Government fail to take effective action, it is, as I write this, undermining international efforts to address climate change at the COP26 in Glasgow. It is a part of a cabal of nations trying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change. A leak has revealed that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.

At the same time, Australia is considering more than 100 fossil fuel projects that could produce 5% of global industrial emissions.

And while this is happening, our Government tells us they have a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 that is based on taking no proactive action now and leaving the heavy lifting to future generations using yet to be developed technology.

This is more than just ‘inadequate’, it is so perverse that it no longer makes sense; it’s surreal, it is positively absurd.

Acknowledging the absurd

Which leads me to conclude that human interference with the Earth system has now gone beyond disturbing our biophysical systems to polluting our very social systems. Calling it the Anthropocene is simply inadequate because the human response to the global change that humans have caused is no longer rational.

The best science tells us our species is not sustainable. The evidence of this truth is mounting, and the impacts are being felt but our government’s response is one of denial and obfuscation while actually claiming they follow the science.

I regard the Anthropocene as a term that suggests that humans are acknowledging what we are doing to the Earth system and attempting to minimise the adverse impacts we are seeing around us. The Anthropocene is an age of human potency and amazing scientific insight. We have seen further, risen faster and influenced the very nature of things in ways that inspire awe, generate wealth and have transformed the very functioning of our planet.

The wealthiest have grown super wealthy, most of humanity have improved their quality of life, and everyone has unparalleled access to information (and the thoughts of everyone else).

But all these advances have come at the cost of declining natural capital, rising seas and a warming climate.

In the Anthropocene, we studied these changes, modelled their trajectories and discussed in meaningful ways what we needed to do to sustain humanity. We acted rationally, we believed in our leaders (many of them, anyway, and a few of them made a difference).

But, as the failure of COP26 (and the farce of Australia’s plan) is showing, this is no longer happening.

The world’s wealthiest 1% of people produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50% but these elite refuse to take responsibility for it. Evidence is disputed and denied; the super-rich refuse to sacrifice a scintilla of their privilege (though there are some notable exceptions); and governments appear to be working against the best interests of their own people.

Lies, misinformation and prejudice clog our social media; paranoia, fundamentalism and vested interest drive our politics; and fear and disillusionment overshadow the hopes of our younger generations.

So, if you accept that humanity is now acting in an absurd way (ie, you accept the premise of the Absurdicene) then maybe we need to be honest about the prospects of a rational process towards sustainability. Maybe we need to focus on why this absurdity prevails, and what we need to do to short circuit it.

Maybe the answer is not more or a better set of scientific evidence. What more evidence do we require?

Rather, we need a greater priority placed on those things that prevent absurdity from dominating, namely: greater integrity of our institutions, more robust accountability, transparency and a reason to trust our leaders – morality anyone?

Image by Jean-Louis SERVAIS from Pixabay

Saving the Environment in a Day

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You have 24 hours to save the planet! Your time starts now.

By David Salt

Can the environment be saved by proclaiming a ‘day for the environment’?

I once attempted to start a ‘day’ to save the environment. I called it ‘Anthropocene Day’ and its aim was to get people thinking about the impact of our species on Planet Earth (nothing too ambitious there).

What, you’ve never heard of ‘Anthropocene Day’? (Please tell me you know about the ‘Anthropocene’.) Well, that’s not surprising. The idea went nowhere. I managed to stage a public forum involving some leading scientists debating the pros and cons of when the Anthropocene began*.

The forum went well, we got a full house (at the National Museum of Australia) and generated some lively debate.

After the event, everyone said “what a great idea for a ‘think fest’; let’s do this again next year, but maybe even bigger! Heck, let’s make Anthropocene Day a Week!”

Then, when I attempted to get follow up action, everyone was too busy to do anything more and the idea, with my enthusiasm, fizzled. Clearly the world was too preoccupied for my great concept. (Or maybe the idea simply wasn’t as compelling as I thought it was.)

In any case, I began to think, does the Environment really need another ‘celebratory’ day to save it?

In a days

Now, most people are aware one environment day or another. Earth Day is celebrated on 22 April in more than 193 nations. World Environment Day, hailed as the “United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment”. It’s staged each 5 June in over 143 countries.

But do you know how many big days there are for the environment around the world? A quick net search turns up a Wikipedia list of around 130 days! That means approximately every third day the world is celebrating some worthy environmental cause – from International Zebra Day on 1 January through to Monkey Day on 14 December. (Sensibly the world is given time off in the week before Christmas to shop).

So, maybe the world simply can’t accommodate one more environmentally themed day; though Anthropocene Day was down for the 16 July* which meant it would only have had to share the time with World Snake Day.

However, even if we could squeeze in one more environment day (or even 10 more), would it actually make any difference?

World Reef Day (June 1) is not reversing the increased frequency of mass coral bleachings being witnessed around the world.

International Orangutan Day (19 August) isn’t doing much to reverse the clearing of the tropical forest the critically endangered orangutan depends on.

And Freshwater Dolphin Day (24 October) is unlikely to secure a certain future for the five remaining species of freshwater dolphin, all of which are endangered or critically endangered and live in degrading river systems.

In fact given the dire outlooks provided by multiple international groups like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES on climate change and biodiversity you really have to ask what difference any of these environment days make.

Seeds of hope or fig leaves of distraction?

I think there are several strong arguments for and against the big day for the environment.

They encourage increased focus and energy around single issues, something that wouldn’t happen otherwise. They generate activity that builds awareness and sometimes even makes a difference to specific locations and species. Sometimes these activities produce environmental champions that dedicate their lives to saving some part of the environment.

On the other hand, environmental days often give the impression that major issues of environmental degradation are being addressed when in fact they’re being ignored. Sometimes this is by putting out pretty brochures while not doing anything substantive for the issue in question; some would describe this as greenwashing. Sometimes it’s by doing great work on the issue in question while ignoring its connection to other environmental issues like climate change. In this way we focus on the small picture while ignoring the larger context.

Consider World Wetlands Day (2 February). It’s one of the big environmental days of the year and it occurs next week. The day marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971. This occurred in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea (and the agreement is more often referred to as the Ramsar Convention).

Wetlands going under

This year the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old making it one of the oldest and most significant international environmental agreements ever formulated. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat supports World Wetlands Day (which has been running since 1997) and also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

All this is good but in their very own Outlook statement they record that 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. More worrying, approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000. In other words, since World Wetlands Day has been running we’ve been losing wetlands at an accelerating rate. You could argue that the result may have been worse had World Wetlands Day never existed but you couldn’t claim this Day has saved our wetlands.

By the way, the city of Ramsar is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea retreats as temperatures rise with climate change. Its wetlands will soon be no more.

On our side of the planet, the wetlands of Kakadu, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, is facing the opposite problem. The floodplains are being inundated by saltwater as sea levels rise, again associated with climate change. Our national government proudly supports World Wetlands Day and the Ramsar Convention while doing as little as possible against climate change.

More than greenwash

This isn’t an argument against World Wetlands Day or environmental days in general. But it is a call that such celebrations need to be more honest and reflective rather than just celebratory. They cannot merely be an exercise to making us feel good.

All indicators are telling us the environment is in serious trouble and in most cases that degradation is accelerating. If you are a fervent supporter of one of these events, ask yourself if it’s making a real difference to the situation it was established to address. If it’s not, look around for something that is making a difference and invest your blood, sweat and tears there.

But also ask yourself what you might do to make more of these events because they are opportunities to raise issues that maybe are forgotten most of the time. One colleague of mine checks each day to see what environmental theme is being celebrated. He uses this as a conversation starter with his work mates to find out what they think about the plight of sea turtles, frogs, zebras, pangolins…

I reckon that’s the right spirit to engage with these Days. Don’t ask “what this Day can do for me?”, rather consider “what can I do for this Day?”

*The Anthropocene refers to the age of humans, a time in which human activity has distorted the Earth System. Many researchers are campaigning to have it be declared as official geological time period. It began at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945 (the dawn of the Great Acceleration) though some scientists contend that it actually began with the invention of the steam engine (in 1778, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) or the development of agriculture (some 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution). Either way, it’s a great concept to get people engaged with what we humans are doing to the planet. And, while climate change is a central part of this story, it’s not the first thing argued so discussions on the Anthropocene don’t instantly polarise the debate as occurs when the topic of climate change is raised on its own.

Image: World Wetlands Day is held on 2 February every year. It encourages the community to learn about and celebrate the many values of wetlands, and governments to protect them for current and future generations. World Wetlands Day has been running since 1997. Since then, wetlands around the world have been lost at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)

2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene

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Banking on yesterday’s ‘normal’ is the worst form of denial

By David Salt

As 2020 draws to a close everyone is praying for a return to ‘normal’. We crave free social (mask-less) interaction and we all want to go to the beach for a swim without fear of catastrophic bush fires. And we want to jump on a plane and head to exotic locations and not worry about our health. And we also want the economy to be strong so we and our children are gainfully employed.

None of this was available to us in 2020 but hopes are high for decent rain this summer (in Australia, anyway), and effective CoVID vaccines are being deployed so there are growing expectations that we may now be able to control the CoVID pandemic.

But does that mean a return to ‘normal’ is coming our way? Our political leaders would like you to believe it; and all the rhetoric is about firing up the economy so the good times can flow.

Three new reports on what climate change is doing to our environment, society and economy paint a very different picture.

Bye bye world heritage

Last week the IUCN released a sobering Outlook report on the condition and trajectory of the planet’s 252 natural World Heritage sites. It found that a third of these sites are being threatened by climate change.

The outlook for five Australian World Heritage sites including the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains and the Gondwana rainforests, has deteriorated markedly in recent years. The conservation outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has worsened from “significant concern” to “critical” – the most urgent status under the IUCN system. Of course, the GBR is in serious trouble having suffered its third mass coral bleaching in five years during the 2019-20 (Black) summer.

Three years ago UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre predicted that under a business-as-usual emissions scenario all 29 coral-containing World Heritage sites would cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century.

Keep in mind that World Heritage status is only awarded to places of outstanding universal value and where national governments make commitments to protect those values. Australia acknowledges the existential threat that climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef but still refuses to taken any meaningful action on reducing our own emissions, let alone campaigning for better emission reductions around the world. That contradiction makes my country a major convention abuser.

Hello health blues

And if the loss of our world’s most precious natural ecosystems doesn’t sober you up, then maybe the annual report from The Lancet on Health and Climate Change will. Among other things it found:

-there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades),

-that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019

-145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.

These numbers put CoVID impacts into the shade but our political leaders feel free to ignore them because they range over temporal and spatial scales that lie beyond their electoral timeframes.

However, as the authors of The Lancet report note: “We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.”

Adding up our sovereign climate risk

Mirroring The Lancet’s report but coming from the economic end of town, a new report from Four Twenty Seven (an affiliate of Moody’s) has assessed sovereign climate risk. Among other things it found:

-Heatwaves: Over 25% of the world’s population in 2040 could be in areas where the frequency and severity of hot days far exceeds local historical extremes, with negative implications for human health, labour productivity, and agriculture. In some areas of Latin America, climate change will expose 80-100% of agriculture to increased heat stress in 2040.

-Flooding: By 2040, the number of people exposed to damaging floods is predicted to rise from 2.2 billion to 3.6 billion people, or from 28% to 41% of the global population, with roughly $78 trillion, equivalent to about 57% of the world’s current GDP exposed to flooding.

-Tropical storms: Over half of the population in small island developing nations are exposed to either hurricanes and typhoons or coastal flooding amplified by sea level rise. In the United States and China alone, over $10 Trillion worth of GDP (PPP) is exposed to hurricanes and typhoons.

The new normal

These are just three reports in recent weeks. They are backed by hundreds of other reports, analyses and research programs from all sectors of society that have emerged throughout this year and over recent decades. And they all bear the same message – human induced climate change has disrupted the ‘normal’. The devastation of recent years is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Yes, we need action on carbon emissions today but we also need a real acknowledgement from our governments of what is happening around us.

In Australia we are led by a Conservative government that is in profound denial of what the ‘new normal’ means. They place their faith in technology to deliver an endlessly growing economy in which no-one needs to sacrifice a scintilla of their way of life – it’s win win all the way.

They believe the certainty of yesteryear will return with a few percentage points of extra productivity and maybe a slightly better resourced emergency services sector.

And this can be seen in their refusal to commit to zero net emissions by 2050. They claim they won’t make such a commitment till they fully understand its impact on economic growth, till they know its cost.

They believe their economic modelling of what lies over the event horizon is more robust and dependable than the hundreds and hundreds of evidence-based reports warning us of the impacts of the climate change today, tomorrow and in the coming decades.

The economy of 2050 will be so totally different, both in form and function, to the economy of 2020 that our Government’s position of using future economic cost to defend its lack of action on climate change today is fatuous, abhorrent and immoral. It is a fundamental denial of everything that’s happening around us today.

(This implicit denial also frequently spills over into explicit statements of denial. Consider yesterday’s outburst from Australia’s Resources Minister, Keith Pitt who castigated a climate change warning from the United Nations secretary-general as an inconsequential “grand statement”.)

A new niche for humanity

Our Government’s denial of what the new normal means for society leaves us vulnerable. They claim they are making Australia resilient, when in truth they are doing the opposite, leaving us exposed.

Humanity has changed the very Earth system and we are only just beginning to appreciate what life in the Anthropocene means.

Earlier this year a group of eminent Earth systems scientists asked what this new normal meant for humanity. They found that temperature increases over the coming 50 years will see the migration of 1 to 3 billion people. One of the scientists, Marten Scheffer, explains the logic behind this analysis in a short engaging YouTube clip.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war destabilised much of Europe. We still don’t know what lasting scars this migration event will have. Multiply that by a hundred, by a thousand, and the world looks quite a different place.

We live in challenging times with an uncertain future. To be better prepared for that future we need real, widespread and effective efforts to eliminate carbon emissions. But we also need our leaders to acknowledge that this world is changing, and that they (with us) need to work with that change, not deny it.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Entering a no-analogue future

You’re seeing it happen around you right now

By David Salt

“We have reached a point where many biophysical indicators have clearly moved beyond the bounds of Holocene variability. We are now living in a no-analogue world.”

These are the words of Professor Will Steffen and colleagues from a paper published a few years ago on the trajectory of Planet Earth as it moves into the Anthropocene. These are truly chilling words yet their import is ignored by most people.

Well maybe that’s about to change. As we move deeper into the Covid-19 pandemic, their significance is surely taking on a sharper focus.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a proposal by many scientists of a new geological age in which humanity has become a ‘planetary-scale geological force’. It’s an idea that has been kicking around for the last two decades, and is finding increasing favour across the broad spectrum of academia, from the biophysical sciences to the humanities.

By ‘no-analogue world’, the scientists mean we can’t look at the past to guide our future. The Earth System is now behaving in ways that has no analogue in the past.

For the past 10,000 years, the Earth has behaved in a relatively predictable and stable way, in an age that geologists refer to as the Holocene. Scientists believe that if the Earth System was left alone (ie, if nothing interfered with the way it functioned), that Holocene conditions would continue for another 50,000 years.

However, in the last 10,000 years humans have become the dominant species on this planet and our activities have changed the very composition of the atmosphere, land and ocean – so much so that the Earth System is no longer behaving in the way that it did during the Holocene.

When it was originally proposed, most scientists suggested a good starting point for the Anthropocene was the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th Century as this was when the burning of fossil fuel (at this stage mainly coal) really ramped up powering the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

More recently, most Earth Systems scientists have revised their idea of when the Anthropocene started. These days they nominate the 1950s and ‘the Great Acceleration’ as a more suitable start date. While the Industrial Revolution was an important antecedent to the forces that brought about the Anthropocene, it wasn’t till the great exponential increase in economic development (what is now referred to as the Great Acceleration) that the human signal began to change the way the Earth System behaves.

Trust in the future

This is a big concept with big consequences. Climate change, for example, is but one manifestation of the impact of the Anthropocene though it’s a lot more besides.

And this idea that we can no longer look at the past to guide our expectations of the future is terrifying if you think it through. Our whole quality of life is based on the belief that we have certainty in the future. It gives us confidence to plan, to invest, indeed to hope.

When disasters hit us, our leaders tell us to not worry, things will return to normal soon. But what does ‘normal’ mean in the Anthropocene?

In the Holocene, ‘normal’ means things will return to how we used to know them. The flood / bushfire / earthquake (whatever) will pass and good (normal) days will return. And then we can get back to business as usual because that’s how it has always happened in the past.

But in the Anthropocene, the past is no longer a good guide to what we can expect in the future.

Sleepers awake

Along with most people who believe in science, I am scared of what the future holds. As a species we are not living sustainably, but ‘business as usual’ trumps all other forms of business. Efforts at reform simply don’t seem to make any difference to accelerating economic growth and the impacts of that growth (be that impact in the form of rising carbon emissions or declining biodiversity).

There’s a profound cognitive dissonance here. The evidence tells us we are headed for trouble. But society keeps on with economic growth because it underpins our quality of life and expectations of an even richer future.

When the Great Barrier Reef underwent an unprecedented mass coral bleaching in 2016 I thought the scale of this disaster, and what it signified, would galvanise a nation-wide response, that it would serve as a wake-up call to our soporific negligence around climate change. But I was sorely disappointed. Many people expressed sadness at the stress the Reef was under, the Government threw a few more dollars at the problem, but life proceeded as normal.

Then there was another mass bleaching in 2017, but this event caused barely a ripple in the broader community – ‘mass bleachings; been there, done that…’

The climate wars continued unabated with claim and counter claim creating a dissonant chorus of fact, ideology and fake news. People switched off, and a party with no climate policy trumped a party with too much climate policy at our national elections in 2019 (less than a year ago, seems like an age ago).

And then came the historic drought and the unprecedented fires of our Black Summer – only just finished.

But before we could catch our breath the world has been plunged into a terrifying pandemic.

No certainty

Suddenly many of the certainties we believed in changed overnight. We lost our jobs, we were told not to travel, all sporting events and entertainment involving more than two people together were cancelled, and everyone is in quarantine.

The future is suddenly a very uncertain place. What we did yesterday is no guide to what we can do tomorrow, and we’re all quite scared.

This is what a no-analogue future looks like; except it’s not in the future, it’s here now.

Many industries (and regional communities) are on their knees because of the coral bleachings, the drought and the mass forest fires. Such disturbances stress society and depress regional economies. We turn a blind eye to these consequences however because we believe there will be recovery of some kind in the future. That’s what has happened in the past.

But the pandemic has shocked us to the core because the certainty of things being the same is no longer there.

Sleepers awake. This is the Anthropocene and we need to engage with what it means.

First indications with our pandemic wake-up call are that we’re still asleep.

There’s been another mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the third one in five years and more extensive than the last two. The Conference of Parties meeting to discuss the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions has been cancelled suggesting climate change is still not a priority to world leaders. And the rhetoric coming from many industry groups is that governments need to dial back environmental regulations so the economy can get to double speed ASAP as soon as this pesky plague passes.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Dawn of the new normal(?)

Is this a wakeup call we will heed? Or is it just more false light?

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

Was it when the rising seas swept away the last little native rat (a creature known as a melomys) from a tiny coral cay off the northern tip of Australia around ten years ago? This was reported as the first species extinction directly attributed to climate change.

Or was it Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when devastating bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people causing everyone to acknowledge that more intense wildfires could no longer be resisted.

Or was it in 2007 when our Prime Minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, declared climate change to be ‘the greatest moral challenge’ of our time (noting he was then displaced by a Prime Minister who claims climate change is ‘absolute crap’).

Or was it this Australian summer, dubbed by our current coal-loving Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to be our ‘Black Summer’? He then declared that we need to prepare for a ‘new normal’.

Of course, climate change has been impacting Australia for decades*, but it’s only been biting us with real venom in recent years. Unfortunately, rather than stimulate a significant, systematic and meaningful response, climate-change impact so far seems to have only galvanised the culture wars, entrenched the status quo and perpetuated inaction.

Scorched coral

To my mind, the inescapable consequences of ignoring climate change surfaced in the summer of 2016 with the mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. It destroyed around a third of the reef’s hard corals. It was then followed but another mass bleaching in 2017 destroying another third. The bleaching was caused by high water temperatures associate with global warming.

Of course, I say ‘inescapable’ because a larger more graphic example of the impacts of climate change would be harder to find; and it was an impact entirely predicted and widely communicated by a broad range of scientists. What’s more, those impacts came with severe economic, social and policy implications (in terms of World Heritage obligations) all of which had me believing this event would actually make a difference. (2016 also saw the massive loss of mangroves and kelp forests but these collapses didn’t carry the same direct human connection. They weren’t as visible, either.)

In the past we’ve discussed the importance of shocks and crises in breaking policy deadlocks. And I really thought the coral bleaching episodes might be a tipping point that might overturn our climate-change inaction. But I was sorely disappointed. Far-right, populist pollies like Pauline Hanson said the reef was in fine form, while holding up a piece of healthy coral from a portion of the reef unaffected by the bleaching; the Government said their policy settings were fine, while government agencies were putting out status reports describing the reef’s outlook as very poor; and fear campaigns on the possibility of losing regional mining jobs in Queensland outweighed concerns for the reef and led to the re-election of a conservative government with no effective policy for climate change.

Rubbing salt into the wounds of my incredulity, the head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, a guy named Col McKenzie, urged the Federal Government to stop funding marine biologists because their reports on coral bleaching were “harming the tourism industry”.

The summer of 2016 (and 2017) left me somewhat desolate. If the ongoing death of Australia’s most beloved and precious ecosystem wasn’t a sufficiently powerful wake up call, what was?

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

I was sad about the ecological implications of the mass bleaching (and what it portends for the economically important eco-tourism industry of Queensland); but, truth to tell, it didn’t directly affect my quality of life.

The Black Summer of 2019/20, on the other hand, has shaken me to the core. In addition to scorching forests and beaches dear to my heart, it’s trashed the economies of regional towns where I know people; it’s battered the life out of the city in which I reside; indeed it’s poisoned the very air that I breathe. I’m also bracing myself for a set of dramatically increased insurance premiums on policies I’m already struggling to sustain.

All that has happened this past summer has been predicted by our climate scientists and climate workers (such as emergency service agencies). All of this has largely been discounted by our national government for most of the past decade.

But never before have so many Australian’s been hurt by so many climate extremes over such a large area and over such an extended period; nearly 80% of Australians according to a new survey. First it was drought, then wildfire (and smoke), flood, storms and hail.

Summer is almost over (according to the calendar) and it can’t come soon enough. ‘What else could go wrong,’ I asked myself. And, then, last night as I was closing down I spied an emerging story on the news wire – another wave of coral bleaching is hitting the Great Barrier Reef as temperature levels surge above average. Indeed, it could be even more extensive than the 2016/17 episodes.

In the next month we’ll see the extent of this bleaching event but it’s not looking good.

The new normal

In environmental terms, the ‘new normal’ has been with us for over half a century. Earth systems scientists have long been warning that the impact of humans on this planet has pushed our ‘spaceship Earth’ into a new way of behaving. Our activities are now distorting our planet’s very capacity to provide us with the stable habitat we need. Many refer to this as the Anthropocene.

This Black Summer is but a foretaste of the conditions we will need to endure in the summers ahead; summers that will likely be far blacker than this one past.

Our Prime Minister presents this new normal as merely a management issue, a need to organise our response agencies a bit better; so they can act with greater co-ordination if, god forbid, we should ever again see fires as bad as this seasons. He’s called a royal commission and seems to be looking among other things for a recommendation for new laws so that the Federal Government can declare states of emergency, call out the army and so forth without needed a request from the States,

But he’s not questioning our nation’s inadequate carbon emission targets or making any effort to show leadership to address the unsustainable trajectory our species is on. His ‘new normal’, then, is really just a minor iteration on the ‘old normal’. It simply isn’t going to do the job.

A new light of day?

A growing segment of the community is coming to this same conclusion. The student protests of last year, prior to the Black Summer, were suggesting the status quo may be breaking down. And the impact of these recent months may, finally, be the catalyst for genuine action.

And though I was upset over the lack of action following the bleaching events of 2016/17, the ‘truth’ they spoke about what is unfolding around us was heard by many, even those recalcitrant lobbyists for the reef tourism. Col McKenzie was much derided for suggesting marine biologists were the problem (rather than climate change). But he changed his tune. Following that episode he said it is time “to take a more public stance” on climate change.

“It was the bleaching events in 2016-17 that drove the message home,” he said. He added that it was reluctance within his 11-member board – particularly from tour operators who refused to accept ‘man-made’ climate change – that had restricted his own ability to speak out in the past. But those climate-change deniers have largely gone quiet, he said. “They realise it’s bullshit and we can’t be continuing it.”

So if the bleaching events of 2016/17 belatedly convinced this cohort of deniers, maybe there is reason to believe our Black Summer may belatedly raise the nation to action.

*Climate change is not a new phenomenon. Climate deniers will often suggest we don’t know enough or the jury is still out or it’s only an emerging science but the truth is the science has been around for over a century and the evidence confirming it has been conclusive since the 1970s – that’s 50 years ago! For an excellent guide to this history see the very readable ‘Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change’ in the New York Times.

Image: Bushfire smoke filters the sun in late January 2020. Image by David Salt

Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

Reflecting on the moment the world changed

By David Salt

Seventy four years ago, at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, the US military detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Code named Trinity, the test was run out on a lonely New Mexican desert on an air force bombing range. Small by the standards of later tests, Trinity still managed to light up the surrounding mountains brighter than day, fuse the sand underneath it into radioactive green glass and generate a shock wave felt over 160 km away.

Yet the significance of Trinity extends way beyond that New Mexican desert, and even beyond the end of the Second World War which, with the aid of atomic weapons, was now only weeks away.

By some reckonings, 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, marks the beginning of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Seventy four years on, the trajectory of the Anthropocene should be at the fore front of all our thinking.

Written in stone

The Anthropocene is not yet an ‘official’ geological time period. Such decisions require a formal review and proclamation by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a fairly conservative scientific panel not keen on mixing their science with fashion and politics (and the ‘Anthropocene’ is jam packed with political ramifications).

According to the ICS, planet Earth is still officially in what’s known as the Holocene Epoch, which began after the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago.

But many scientists have been unhappy with the title ‘Holocene’ believing human activity is now dominating the Earth system, and this should be reflected in the stratigraphic nomenclature – the Earth’s geological rock strata reflecting the deep history of our planet. The name ‘Anthropocene’ was proposed by the atmospheric chemist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Crutzen back in the year 2000.

For a new geological epoch to be declared the rock strata above a proposed boundary needs to distinctly different from those below, suggesting some major change in the processes that created them. But this difference also needs to be evident all around the world, indicating that the change is global and not merely regional in character.

Can human activity be seen in the geological record? You betcha! Particles of plastics, concrete and aluminium, all of undeniable human origin are now widespread around the planet and found in today’s emerging strata. But possibly the most undeniable material of human origin being found in the strata are radionuclides from atomic bombs, beginning with Trinity in 1945. Nothing like these substances had existed on Earth prior to 1945, but now they coat the planet.

While the radionuclides serve as an easily detectable marker, they only exist in trace quantities. Other artificial materials are so abundant we’re drowning in them. The total amount of concrete that humanity has produced, most of it in the post-1950 period, amounts to about a kilogram for every square metre across the entire surface of the Earth. The amount of plastic wrap produced since 1950 is enough to cover the entire planet in plastic. And enough aluminium foil has been manufactured to wrap the continent of Australia.

All of these stratigraphic markers begin to appear in significant amounts around the middle of the 20th century. This coincides with a time that is now commonly referred to as the Great Acceleration, a period of unparalleled economic growth and development. And it wasn’t just plastic production that skyrocketed; so too did water use, energy use, fertilizer consumption, international tourism, dam construction and paper production. Underpinning it all was a swelling human population and an insatiable drive to grow the economy.

When did the Anthropocene begin?

When Crutzen first began writing about the Anthropocene with colleagues he proposed that it began with the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution from the second half of the 18th Century. This was because this period coincided with increasing levels of carbon dioxide associated with greater levels of coal consumption.

Other scholars have suggested the Anthropocence began much earlier, back with the Agricultural Revolution some 5-8000 years ago. The spread of agriculture also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions through changes in land management.

Others have suggested even earlier dates with human making their mark through the extinction of mega fauna in areas where they appeared.

Each proposal for the beginning of the Anthropocene has its strengths and weaknesses depending on your frame of reference.

From an Earth systems perspective, however, it is only from 1950s that the cumulative impact of human activity began to distort the Earth system itself. Humanity was changing the very behaviour of our planet. None of the earlier ‘start’ dates can claim this.

And, when you combine this with the crystal clear signal of radionuclides and their sudden appearance, I believe Trinity is the best candidate for the opening of this latest planet-shifting epoch – the Anthropocene. The fact that Trinity also symbolises our ‘mastery’ over matter by unleashing the dangerous power of the atom only reinforces the significance of the 16th of July 1945.

So, 74 years into the Anthropocene, where is it taking us? I don’t think we’ll need another 74 years to find out.

Image: The Anthropocene began with a bang. The Trinity explosion is pictured here 16 milliseconds after the detonation. The highest point of the explosion’s dome in this image is about 200 metres high. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)