Tackling the Effects of the ‘Anthropocene’

Last night the BES Policy Manager attended a lecture at the Geological Society, delivered by Nobel Laureate Prof. Paul Crutzen. Professor Krutzen’s lecture marked the end of a day-long conference on ‘The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?’ Prof. Krutzen explored the concept of the anthropocene – a term which he originated to describe the current period of history in which mankind is the predominant influence on the climate system – through a wide-ranging talk which also touched on his research interests and a potential solution to global warming through geoengineering.

Introducing Prof. Crutzen, Dr Bryan Lovell, President of the Geological Society, praised both his scientific genuis and his contribution to public affairs. Prof. Krutzen won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 for his work on the hole in the ozone layer. By characterising the period of time since the 18th Century as the ‘anthropocene’ he has highlighted man’s impact on the environment and climate to policy-makers.

In recent years Prof. Crutzen has advocated releasing particles of sulphur into the atmosphere, which could reflect sunlight and thereby cool the earth, if global warming results in temperatures increasing by more than 2 degrees centigrade over time. There are real issues with this approach which would need to be resolved before it could be considered however, including unforeseen effects. One point made by a questioner from the audience was also very pertinent; it is not clear how governments, which have found it incredibly hard to tackle a problem which is well understood – the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – will be able to agree about enacting a solution that they understand even less well. The release of sulphur particles to promote global cooling would also do nothing to tackle ocean acidification, caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide dissolving in sea water.

As Professor Crutzen’s talk made clear, mankind’s activities are impacting on both the biotic and abiotic components of the natural world; from species, to the availability of nutrients such as phosphorus, necessary for the growth of vegetation, to the rate of erosion of sedimentary rocks. The premise of the anthropocene is that man has created a new geological period, in which we are affecting the environment around us, have the power to do so deliberately, and therefore necessarily the power to address and reduce our impacts.

Further details of the event at the Geological Society can be found here.