What is Climate Change?

Here are the slides for a 15-minute talk I’m giving on Friday for the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What is Climate Change?

This will be the first talk of the workshop. Many participants are focused on diplomacy and economics. None are officially biologists or ecologists. So, I want to set the stage with a broad perspective that fits humans into the biosphere as a whole.

I claim that climate change is just one aspect of something bigger: a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

I start with evidence that human civilization is having such a big impact on the biosphere that we’re entering a new geological epoch.

Then I point out what this implies. Climate change is not an isolated ‘problem’ of the sort routinely ‘solved’ by existing human institutions. It is part of a shift from the exponential growth phase of human impact on the biosphere to a new, uncharted phase.

In this new phase, institutions and attitudes will change dramatically, like it or not:

Before we could treat ‘nature’ as distinct from ‘civilization’. Now, there is no nature separate from civilization.

Before, we might imagine ‘economic growth’ an almost unalloyed good, with many externalities disregarded. Now, many forms of growth have reached the point where they push the biosphere toward tipping points.

In a separate talk I’ll say a bit about ‘what we can do about it’. So, nothing about that here. You can click on words in blue to see sources for the information.

6 Responses to What is Climate Change?

  1. ‘Nature’ was never separate from civilization or us human beings. We as humans are a part of nature–we cannot be separated from it, or anything in nature cannot be separated from itself. It’s just that we now think about it more because we have to, but that has always been a reality in human existence or the existence of anything in space and time.

    • John Baez says:

      True—I hope nothing I said gave a different impression.

    • nad says:

      ‘Nature’ was never separate from civilization or us human beings.We as humans are a part of nature–we cannot be separated from it, or anything in nature cannot be separated from itself.

      A crucial difference is that the evolution of mankind is getting less and less “nature dependent” but more and more “human dependent”. That is mankind is more or less able to force nature on earth and exploit it, sometimes though with unforseen consequences (as pointed out by John this phase is called the antropocene). Like mankind is able to kill all natural mammal predators with the help of weapons, apart maybe from the predators among itself. Mankind has sofar been able to keep even other predators like viruses and bacterias at least somewhat in check. A lot of humans are not anymore subject to survival in a natural setting but rather in a manmade setting. A lot of children don’t learn anymore about poisonous plants in the woods or how to make fire with a flintstone but eventually sit in laptop classes while being more or less infused with streamlined learning content. So what we enter here is more a survival within different manmade concepts/ideas/realizations. Of course last but not least these manmade things come from humans which are part of nature, but the evolutionary fight is now to a great extend between humans only and not between individual humans and a natural environment in the traditional sense.
      A very interesting simulation described in the article:
      War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies illustrates to what this may be connected with: namely to the formation of organisatorial bodies.
      Outside pressure furthers social cohesion. In particular wars among different groups of humans lead to the development of stronger laws (sometimes also identifying rites etc.) among the entities of a group (i.e. humans can here be seen as kind of cells of an organisatorial body and the laws as some kind of bonds/exchange channels etc.) or if you want one can also say “wars” or milder forms of conflicts often lead to a higher grade of “civilization” (this might include stages which some wouldn’t like to call civilization) and institutionalization within a group.
      In the simulation the very concrete geography plays an important role since it is linked to the availability of resources. So it seems it is less and less the individual which is fighting about resources within a natural environment, but organisatorial bodies.
      Moreover nowadays the respective organisatorial bodies are less bound to national states as in ancient times, but like for the case of big corporations they may move around even in the real space-time sense. They are also less consisting of “human-only-cells”, that is the connectivity like via machines and the preparation of ressources via machines etc. play also a great role in the power and formation of the bodies. And different to ancient times is the fact that human goups can’t just anymore easily move on if they mismanaged their resources, or if resources ceased like due to natural disasters. In particular moving along to other planets will rather probably if at all only work for smaller groups than for all of mankind (and certainly not for a lot of animals), except mankind shrinks drastically or if one moves earth itself. Which seems to be an important issue to discuss if one considers time-scales of 4-5 billion years (and given that the current predictions about the sun’s age are correct).

  2. nad says:

    I wrote:

    In particular moving along to other planets will rather probably if at all only work for smaller groups than for all of mankind (and certainly not for a lot of animals), except mankind shrinks drastically or if one moves earth itself.

    One should add that even if aliens would interfere then it is less to be expected that they would transport all human kind (and animals), but rather again either the whole earth or a some subsamples.

  3. nad says:

    By the way John where is this nitrogen chart above in your talk?

  4. Ian MacKenzie says:

    I just finished Arne Naess’s Ecology, Community, Lifestyle (1990) — and this analogy late in the book might be valuable to you in the context of your remarks on the Anthropocene:

    “Mankind during the last nine thousand years has conducted itself like a pioneer invading species. These species are individualistic, aggressive and hustling. They attempt to exterminate or suppress other species. They discover new ways to live under unfavourable conditions — admirable! — but they are ultimately self-destructive. They are replaced by other species which are better suited to restabilize and mature the ecosystem. If mankind is to avoid being replaced, then the struggle against nature must cease.”

    I’m not sure the “ultimately self-destructive” part isn’t a bit of (dark) wishful thinking, but the analogy is compelling.

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