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Goodbye Holocene, hello Anthropocene

A resounding 'no'. That was how Sir Bob Watson, chief scientific advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently answered his own question of whether the goal of staying below 2 degrees of global average heating is still politically feasible.

After the latest climate summit 'COP18' held in Doha, it has only got harder to disagree. Global emissions continue to accelerate relentlessly. The World Bank (not known for its eco-hysteria) in a new report counts to costs of a rise of 4 degrees Celcius degree rise this century. For Sir Bob, we are heading for anything between 2 and a staggering 7 degrees Celcius by 2100.

The headlines as the Doha Climate Summit ended could therefore have read something like "World gambles on leaving Holocene".

The Holocene began around 12,000 years ago and with its relatively warm and stable temperatures has been called 'the cosy cradle' of civilization. With a global population expected to reach at least 9 billion, leaving this behind is a gamble of geological proportions.

Geologists are now debating whether we have officially entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene or 'Age of Humans'.

We are now the main drivers of geological time: “Simply put, our planet no longer functions in the way that it once did. Atmosphere, climate, oceans, ecosystems… they're all now operating outside Holocene norms.” as one scientist says.

Regardless of the label, politics in effect just gave itself a whole new set of task: We no longer just have to manage society. We have taken on managing a whole host of increasingly wobbly Earth systems.

Managerialism has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand it has created the current mess. On the other hand better stewardship of the Earth could be seen as an ethical and practical imperative: 'we broke it so we fix it'.

Perhaps the starkest of Anthropocene choices so far is whether to reach for the global 'thermostat' and start directly attempting to regulate the climate – what has been dubbed 'geoengineering'.

Researchers are exploring the feasibility of regulating the climate directly. Some work by reducing the sunlight that reaches the earth ('solar radiation management', SLR) e.g. by injecting reflective substances into the atmosphere to create a 'sun shield'. Other plans (probably more difficult and expensive) involve sucking carbon back out the air in huge quantities (Carbon Dioxide Reduction, CDR).

For some this is another example of techno-hubris. Dramatic side effects are possible e.g. affecting rainfall patterns or the ozone layer. Even if it cools the planet, unless something else is done CO2 levels will continue rising with other effects such as ocean acidification. Switching the 'sun screen' off again will be difficult.

On the other hand, if 'Spaceship Earth' ship is already drifting and tilting – potentially dangerously – we need to construct a makeshift rudder and at least try to manage the process, perhaps until we get the mitigation and adaptation right.

So far 'geoengineering' amounts to little more than desk calculations, but the politics of it is in full swing. Opponents call it a 'rogue technology'. Others say 'we would be mad not to take it seriously'. Scientists plead to be allowed to find out how cheap, how mad, how seriously we should take it all.

The politics promises to be equally if not more tricky: how to decide when and to geo-engineer? How to weigh up the risks and compensate those who suffer from the medicine? What if the technologies have 'dual use' capabilities useful for war-making? Rather than buying time, it could distract us from mitigation and adaptation. This has been called the 'moral hazard' of geoengineering.

Equally the perilous prospect of geoengineering could focus our collective minds: with all the risks and headache of trying to manage a complex and chaotic climate system mitigation may look more attractive.

As we leave the cosy cradle of the Holocene we need to get a whole lot better not only at the engineering but also the politics of the Anthropocene. Time to grow up, quick.

This post was first published on Society Matters, OU Platform