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The Crisis of the Anthropocene

5 February 2020

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“Roughly fifty years ago, we crossed a threshold entirely unfamiliar to those who lived throughout the most of human history. We changed the surface of the Earth to the extent that future geologists may refer to the moment in which we now live as the Anthropocene era” says Professor Charlie Kennel, Director Emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a CSaP Visiting Research Fellow.

Since 2014, Professor Kennel has helped to curate an annual seminar series in coordination with CSaP and Christ’s College, Cambridge which has focused on the climate change and the consequences of human behaviour for our planet. As part of this year’s climate series, Professor Kennel, joined by Dr Joanna Depledge and Professor Mike Hulme, drew a crowd to a Christ’s College auditorium in late January, where Professor Kennel posited that climate change is no longer simply a scientific or technological problem, but rather a global and societal phenomenon which he described as “the crisis of the Anthropocene.”

This crisis – brought to the fore by the intensification of industrial activities after WWII, manifests through global challenges including climate change, population growth, and mass species extinction. In responding to these problems, Professor Kennel cautions that the Anthropocene is both a state of mind and a state of nature – our thoughts and actions today will impact our planet’s capacity to support life and civilisation in the future.

While there has been a concerted effort by policymakers and scientists to address this crisis – including through lauded processes such as the COP21 Paris Agreement, Dr Depledge emphasized that governments participating in international climate processes have thus far failed to translate agreements into the bold actions necessary to trigger a large emissions decrease. Professor Kennel described this failing as the result of collective inertia, which is caused by multiple forces including, he suggests, a global altruism deficit.

Suggesting that this altruism deficit has been caused by the pace of modernity, wherein rapid changes in our societies mean that we no longer feel a connection to the people of the future in the way in which the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages might have, Dr Kennel called for an alignment of planetary security with social justice. Under the status quo, humanity is unmindfully “trashing the future”, and Professor Hulme suggested that changing this behaviour may involve exploring how we can build a sense of responsibility for the future of generations into our societies, rather than simply treating climate change as an engineering challenge.

Throughout the evening, participants in the discussion highlighted several potential tools for addressing climate change, while emphasising that there is no single black and white answer to the challenges presented by the crisis of the Anthropocene. Here, Professor Kennel suggested that furthering the involvement of world religions may help to “enlist the hearts and minds” of people in the process of behavioural change. Meanwhile, from a technical perspective, geo-engineering and carbon storage – a nascent area of technological exploration – were posed as possible tools. Finally, Dr Depledge left listeners with the message that, as we look toward COP26, we need to move towards positive policy implementation rather than focusing on goal setting.

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Professor Kennel's discussion on the crisis of the Anthropocene was the second lecture in the 2020 Christ's Climate Series. You can learn more about other lectures in the series here.

Photo credit: Burnt Pineapple Productions - https://flic.kr/p/RqZKgx

Dr Joanna Depledge

Climate Policy Journal

Professor Mike Hulme

Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Professor Charlie Kennel

University of California San Diego