Thursday 19 May 2011

Deep into the future

Today I heard paleoclimatologist, ecologist and science journalist Curt Stager speak at the Sydney Writers Festival and got a glimpse of planet Earth 100,000 years from now. It was interesting, intelligent, inspiring and uplifting stuff. 

Why that far ahead? Stager says that most climate models look only as far as the end of this century, say 2100 AD, but it's possible to look further, and discover things that can inform us today. 

His main idea is that after global warming, there will be a "climate whiplash" when the trends we now see happening all over the world and will ultimately adapt to, will reverse. It's sobering, if not downright scary. But first: it was heartening that when Stager asked how many of us in the audience of about 200 believe climate change is real and human-caused, almost everybody shot their hands up. Yay. 

Here are 7 things I learned today:

1. We are currently in the Age of Humans or, as he called it, the Anthropocene Epoch – we’ve actually changed the world enough to warrant a new term acknowledging the impact human beings have had, and are having, on the planet. Scary. (He went on to list a few of our effects: extinctions, invasive species, farms and cities, pollutants and “trash”, reshaping of landscapes with dams and such, and, finally, greenhouse gas buildup). 

2. After global warming – when emissions, airborne carbon dioxide, temperature and sea levels will peak – there will be a “climate whiplash”. In other words, all these things won’t increase indefinitely. They will peak, and the planet will cool – which will also be challenging for humans.

3.  Some warming is inevitable, even if we take what he calls a “moderate” path within the next few decades, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will peak at 550-600 parts per million (they are now about 393ppm). The oceans will soak up most of this extra CO2, but it will take more than 100,000 years for them to do that. If we take an “extreme” path, this recovery will take 500,000 years, or more.

4.  Human beings have already prevented the next Ice Age, which was predicted to kick in 50,000 years from now. (The next, next one will be in 130,000 years).

5.  Things are more serious than at any other time in the planet’s history because previously when ice ages came and went, animals and plants migrated to survive the changing world. Now, because we populate the landscape with farms and cities, they can’t do this. Also, ocean acidification is going to wipe out many, many marine ecosystems. Scary again.

6.   Human beings (and many other species) are survivors. If Stone Age man can survive catastrophic drought,  with his Stone Age technology, 17,000 years ago (as he did), we've got to have an advantage with all our 21st-century know-how. Stager believes people will live through the climate whiplash.

7.  "We are a force of nature," says Stager. "We will decide this climatic future by acting or by doing nothing. Either way, we are incredibly important in the grand sweep of human history and Earth’s history.”

So, really, I had no choice but to buy Stager's book – Deep Future: The next 100,000 years of life on Earth. He's also got a blog, Save the Carbon (he believes carbon should stay in the ground, for obvious reasons). Now to get reading...

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