Earth System in Crisis
“We don’t know how long we have before climate change goes from dangerous to extremely dangerous, but we know that continuing with business as usual makes such a shift increasingly likely.”
Can you explain the concept of the Anthropocene and its importance for understanding the current climate crisis?
Anthropocene is the proposed name for the present stage of Earth history: a time in which human activity is transforming the entire planet in unprecedented and dangerous ways. Scientists divide Earth’s 4.5 billion year history into time intervals that correspond to major changes in the conditions and forms of life on Earth.
The Pleistocene Epoch, which began about 2.5 million years ago, was marked by what are commonly known as ice ages. The glaciers finally retreated about 11,000 years ago, initiating what geologists call the Holocene Epoch, characterised by a relatively stable and warm climate. Holocene conditions made agriculture possible, and that in turn laid the basis for the rise and spread of human civilisations. As Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre says, Holocene conditions are the only ones that we know for sure are compatible with complex human societies.
In the 1980s a growing number of scientists became concerned that human activity was affecting more than local environments and specific ecosystems; that some changes were affecting the world as a whole. Examples included radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb tests, damage to the ozone layer caused by widely used chemicals, and global climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. These concerns led to the launch of the largest and most complex programme of international scientific cooperation ever undertaken — the International Geophysical-Biophysical Programme, which coordinated the efforts of thousands of scientists around the world from 1990 to 2015.
The IGBP’s work produced a huge leap forward in scientific understanding of the Earth System — including disturbing confirmation that human activity is not just disrupting that system, but doing so in ways that are more extensive and fundamental than anyone had imagined. In 2000, at an IGBP meeting to review its first decade of research, the Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen argued convincingly that defining features of the Holocene no longer exist — that the Earth had entered a new epoch. He suggested the name Anthropocene, from the Greek word anthropos, meaning human being.
Among the most important advances made by the IGBP is a much more complete understanding of the global carbon cycle and its relation to climate change. Scientists have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere regulates the global temperature by allowing solar energy to reach Earth as light, while restricting the reflection of heat back into space. If there was a lot more carbon dioxide in the air, Earth would be like Venus — too hot to support life. If there was far less, Earth would be like Mars — too cold for life. But while it was known by the 1960s that atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing, scientists didn’t know if the increase was unusual, and if so, how out of the ordinary it was, and what its effects might be.
Thanks to studies coordinated by the IGBP, we now know that for at least 800,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide has varied within a strictly limited range — never lower than 180 parts per million in cold times, never higher than 300 ppm in warm times. Over very long periods carbon dioxide has cycled between the atmosphere and the oceans, keeping Earth’s temperatures within surprisingly well-defined limits. Now, as a direct result of fossil fuel combustion, the concentration is over 400 ppm, and it is growing fast. Human activity has disrupted a complex natural cycle that took millions of years to evolve and stabilise, and that disruption is rapidly changing the state of the planet.
As Crutzen and Will Steffen wrote, “Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state. In terms of key environmental parameters, the Earth System has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over at least the last half million years. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change, are unprecedented and unsustainable.”
You say in your book that climate change is usually seen as a gradual process, but that the reality can be very different. Can you explain what this means?
Science has long known that conditions on Earth have changed over time — that much of the planet has at times been covered in ice, and that areas that are now cold were once tropical — but it was believed that such shifts took place very slowly, over thousands of years or longer. One of the most surprising results of recent research into past climate is that rapid climate change has been the rule, not the exception. The climate is remarkably sensitive to quite small changes in the atmosphere and oceans, and rather than gradually warming or cooling, it has tended to lurch from one state to another, in years or decades rather than millennia. As one prominent scientist puts it, Earth’s climate is an ornery beast that violently overreacts even to small nudges.
That’s particularly relevant today, when greenhouse gas concentrations are not only high, but are rising more quickly than ever before. That puts unprecedented stress on the climate system, greatly increasing the possibility of runaway climate change, of a relatively quick shift into a completely different climate regime. That could mean, for example, that what we experience today as extreme but rare heat waves could become common occurrences. If we cross such a tipping point, ecosystems won’t have time to adjust, species won’t have time to evolve, and human societies might not have time to adapt. Climate tipping points, by their nature, are impossible to predict: depending on the speed of change, we might not even know we’ve passed one until well after the point of no return.
That adds urgency to the crisis. We don’t know how long we have before climate change goes from dangerous to extremely dangerous, but we know that continuing with business as usual makes such a shift increasingly likely. What we do in this century, and probably in the next few decades, will determine the kind of world our grandchildren will inherit.
You focus on the Second World War as the point at which global environmental change takes off. Why was this?
When Crutzen recognized that we are in a transition to a new epoch, he suggested that the Anthropocene may have begun at the time of the Industrial Revolution. That was an important insight. As I show in Facing the Anthropocene, fossil capitalism was born in the 1800s, when factories and railroads and ships began burning coal on a massive basis. An economic and social system that must grow or die became dependent on fossil carbon to power its growth, and the history of capitalism since then has been marked by its ever-increasing use of coal, gas and oil.
That change began in the Industrial Revolution, but when scientists at the IGBP undertook the detailed work of quantifying the changes in the Earth System that define the Anthropocene, they discovered an unexpected pattern. In almost every case, graphs of long-term trends in the Earth System (atmospheric carbon dioxide, ozone depletion, species extinctions, loss of forests, and so on) show gradual growth from 1750 to about 1950, when a steep increase began. From 1950 to the present the trend lines have gone almost straight up. As the authors of IGBP’s synthesis report wrote, “The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of the species.”
More and more scientific research has confirmed that conclusion, and now most scientists involved in Anthropocene research argue that while the dependence on fossil fuels began with the Industrial Revolution, the new epoch actually began in the second half of the 20th century. They’ve dubbed the period since 1950 the Great Acceleration.
One of the principal things I’ve tried to do in Facing the Anthropocene is to explain the social and economic forces that drove this hockey-stick pattern. Why didn’t growth and environmental destruction continue increasing gradually? Or, to put it another way, why did all the trends suddenly accelerate together? When I studied long-term trends in fossil capitalism, including the growth of fossil production and use, the automobilization of Western society, corporate concentration and the rise of monopolies, the mass introduction of synthetic petrochemical-based products, the industrialization of agriculture, and more, I found that the Second World War played a key role in accelerating every single one.
Mainstream economists and historians typically treat wars as anomalies, as interruptions in capitalism’s normally peaceful development. In fact, capitalist growth in the 20th century depended heavily on military production and spending. The most destructive war in human history triggered a radical acceleration of environmental destruction that continues to this day.
How do you respond to those on the left who reject the Anthropocene on the grounds that it blames all humanity for environmental crisis?
I think it was Rebecca Solnit who wrote that some people on the left seem intent upon finding the cloud around every silver lining. She wasn’t talking about the Anthropocene, but her comment certainly applies. Here we have a huge advance in scientific understanding of the Earth System. We have an international discussion about what is to be done, a debate in which almost all participants agree that continuing business as usual is a road to disaster. Ideas that only a few radical environmentalists held until recently are now widely accepted by scientists worldwide, creating the possibility of a powerful science-based challenge to the present social order.
But instead of welcoming that remarkable development, some on the left focus on “proving” that the scientists aren’t proper anti-capitalists, that they have illusions about reforming the system, and that some of them see human beings as such as the cause of all environmental destruction, ignoring class and national differences. My response is two-fold.
First, I have to wonder whether such critics have actually read what scientists say about this. If they had, they would know that the scientists in the forefront of the Anthropocene project have repeatedly and explicitly rejected any “all humans are to blame” narrative. That’s been true from the beginning: in the very first peer-reviewed article on the Anthropocene, Paul Crutzen, the man who invented the word, said clearly that a minority of the world’s population was responsible for disrupting the Earth System. That’s been a consistent theme of Anthropocene research — the most recent update to the Great Acceleration statistics, published in 2015, says that it has been almost entirely driven by a small fraction of the human population. That’s not to say that their social analysis is complete or even adequate, but they are on the right track, and it is shocking that some left critics fail to recognize that.
Second, making such criticisms central to our response builds walls between scientists and the left, when what we should be doing is engaging with scientists, contributing our views and analysis to the global discussion. We need to seize this remarkable opportunity to unite the latest scientific findings with an ecological Marxist analysis in a socio-ecological account of the origins, nature and direction of the crisis. If the left stays out of the discussion, if we condemn it from the sidelines, we will be leaving Anthropocene science and scientists under the ideological sway of neoliberalism, and we will be irrelevant to the most important scientific development of our time.
In the 1980s, in the face of resistance from chemical companies, the world banned gases that were destroying the ozone layer. What lessons can we take from this for today’s crisis?
I devote a chapter of Facing the Anthropocene to the ozone crisis because it illustrates so clearly what scientists mean when they say that human activity in the Anthropocene is “overwhelming the great forces of nature”. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere is a vital part of Earth’s life support system — it literally makes life possible by blocking deadly ultraviolet radiation. It was only by accident that scientists realised in the 1970s that a family of supposedly harmless synthetic gases known as chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigerators, aerosol sprays and other applications, could destroy atmospheric ozone. The giant chemical companies that made CFCs resisted any restrictions or regulations, claiming that there was no actual proof of damage.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that ground- and satellite-based studies proved beyond doubt that the ozone layer was getting much thinner, much faster than anyone had expected. That led to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to phase out CFC production. Even then the largest CFC manufacturer, DuPont, only agreed to phase out production when it was well on the road to developing substitutes that would give it an advantage over its competitors.
One thing we can learn from that experience is that CFC use was reduced not by “putting a price on CFCs” and not by a “CFC cap and trade system” but by a mandatory programme of phasing out production, ultimately by an outright ban. That’s what worked. The ozone layer won’t fully recover for decades, but the process has begun. After two decades of failed attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “market mechanisms” I think it’s past time to apply the Montreal Protocol approach.
An even more important lesson is that corporations will always put their short-term profits first, even if life on Earth is at stake. DuPont and other chemical companies deployed all the arguments and tactics that we’ve seen from the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to prevent or delay any restrictions on their right to profit from deadly products. If CFCs had been as central to capitalism as a whole as fossil fuels are, the ozone layer would likely have been destroyed by now.
In Facing the Anthropocene you argue that fossil fuels are vital to capitalist development, so much so that you call it a “fossil economy”. Does this mean that there is no possibility of change while capitalism exists? Do we have to “wait for the revolution” to stop environmental catastrophe?
If you are asking, “Is a permanent and humane solution to the planetary emergency possible within a capitalist framework?” then the answer is almost certainly no. As I argue in my book, fossil fuels are not an overlay that can be peeled away from capitalism, leaving the system intact. They are embedded in every aspect of the system, in every industry, and there is no prospect of that changing short of an unprecedented global economic collapse.
We know that if fossil fuels continue to be burned the result will be environmentally catastrophic. A small minority of the world’s population might survive and even prosper, but most will experience a radical deterioration in their conditions of life. And that’s the best outcome. Unless we can replace the present system with one that does not need to “grow or die” — with what I would call ecosocialism — the long-term prospects for humanity are not good.
But that does not mean that nothing can be done short of “the revolution”. Capital is not all-powerful — as centuries of experience prove, it can be forced to accept reforms, even substantial ones, if it is faced by a strong enough counterforce. We may not yet be strong enough to stop and reverse capitalism’s destructive course, but we can unite the broadest possible range of people to make the political and economic costs of inaction on the environmental crisis unacceptable to the powers that be. In doing so we can win time for Earth and for humanity.
I’ll go further: if we don’t fight for immediate gains, if we can’t build movements that can stop pipelines or fracking, or that can win limits on greenhouse gas emissions, what would make us think that we can succeed in the vastly more difficult task of ending capitalism? It is only by engaging in such campaigns that we can build a broader movement for comprehensive social change.