This tweet from Anni Nasheed, former-President of the Maldives – a country progressively drowning under rising sea levels – was revelatory:
Climate change is now affecting us here in Britain and for similar reasons: our houses, rail lines, agriculture, roads and other infrastructure were built for a different era: the Holocene. We have developed our entire way of living, culture, landscapes and livelihoods for a different climatic era. But humans have utterly changed the global stage set. We are now living in the Anthropocene (a human-changed era), and the new ‘normal’ is of uncertain and extreme weather. Imagine if dinosaurs from the Jurassic or Triassic were brought to today’s world – they would immediately find it cooler, and the landscape, vegetation and animal species would be different. We are undergoing a change just as profound.
Just like Nasheed and his fellow Maldivians, like Bangladeshis and the people of New Orleans, Britons will have to adapt to the new conditions. We have to decide which places to protect through physical barriers, ecosystem or river-basin management changes, which places to abandon or relocate, and new infrastructure will have to be designed and built for the Anthropocene. Importantly, we need to make these decisions collectively, as we adapt socially to the conditions of this new era. Reactionary right-wing tabloid Daily Mail has responded to the current disaster with a petition calling for British foreign aid to be redirected to UK flood victims. In response, 38 Degrees has launched its own petition calling instead for fossil-fuel subsidies to be redirected to help the flood relief (there is a logical connection between the new climate and emissions from fossil fuels, after all). Meanwhile, British Sikhs, more used to rallying to support disaster victims in the developing world, have travelled from the Midlands to Somerset to bail out homes there. This is the new normal.
Christmas has come around again, which makes me realise that it’s been … ahem … some time since my last post. It’s been a busy busy year, leaving me little time to return here. This year, I have had a wonderful baby, written a book (which comes out next year), made several radio programmes (the most recent is here), and other bits and bobs.
I’m looking forward to a 2014 with plenty of exciting plans, but a less crazy pace. Which means I’m going to be writing here much more regularly, and pasting the odd video too I hope!
Wishing you all a relaxing and happy Christmas, and let’s meet again in the new year! xxx
…And wishing you all the best for 2013
Update: My BBC Radio 4 programme on the Anthropocene can be heard here:
London: I recently recorded a four-part radio series for BBC World Service about the Anthropocene, called The Age We Made. I spoke to lots of great scientists about the incredible changes we’re making to our planet, and how they will be recorded in the geological record for millions of years.
You can listen to the programmes here:
Ocean acidification and warming – both caused by the release of carbon dioxide when we burn fossil fuels – are threatening coral ecosystems around the world. I interviewed climatologist Ken Caldeira about the future of reefs for the BBC radio series The Age We Made, produced by Andrew Luck-Baker, who wrote this great post.
Only a short section of our conversation made it into the programme, but Ken had some really interesting things to say, so here’s a longer version of the interview.
In around 300 years time, 75% of all mammal species on Earth will have gone extinct. That’s the startling prediction if current rates of extinction continue and the animals already threatened or endangered are wiped out this century, according to Anthony Barnosky, a palaeobiologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Barnosky studies biodiversity changes and extinction rates that occurred in the deep past, and compares them to trends happening now. Since life first evolved, billions of years ago, flourished, diversified and made our planet truly distinct from any other we’re aware of, there have been five mass extinctions. Each was triggered by a cataclysmic event and resulted in at least 75% of all species going extinct. The last of these occurred 65 million years ago, when a meteorite slammed into Earth, throwing up persistent clouds of debris that darkened the sky for years. The climate change that followed led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all other animals.
Now, Barnosky calculates, humans are creating a mass extinction on the same scale – the planet’s sixth one – through a combination of habitat encroachment and fragmentation, hunting, climate change, pollution, and the spread of disease and introduced species. Some 30% of all species may be lost over the next four decades, conservationists estimate. Read more…
London: There have been a few times in the history of mankind when we nearly died out as a species. Anthropologists call these events ‘bottlenecks’, times when the population of humans shrank – perhaps to as few as 2000 people, some 50,000 years ago. At those levels, we would be categorised as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List, existing in even fewer numbers than wild tigers do today.
What our planet would look like now, if humans had gone extinct thousands of years ago? Earth would likely still be largely forested and roamed by large creatures, like mammoths and fearsome sabre-toothed tigers, as the planet headed slowly for the next ice age.
Perhaps a better question is: to what degree has the survival and triumph of our species changed our planet? From my desk, I see an entirely human world built of fashioned materials from glass to bricks. But we are not the only species to modify our environment – termites build towering castles in the sand and beavers deforest and divert rivers with their dams, for example. Tiny microorganisms such as bacteria and algae, arguably have the most profound effect on the planet’s environment, through their production of oxygen. So how do humans compare?
The best people to answer this could well be those with the grandest perspective. Read more…