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Is managing global climate now our duty?

26. August 2008 by Erle 0 Comments

We live in interesting times.  We've now realized that our activities are changing global climate and thereby harming both ourselves and the rest of the biosphere.  And we are begining to do something about it.  International efforts are assessing and attempting to manage our climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions and many institutions and even individuals are taking action to become "carbon neutral".  While scientists and activists have advocated such actions for decades, it seems that humankind is (hopefully) poised on the brink of taking on the monumental task of reducing human alteration of climate.

  As others have noted, preventing global warming is perhaps the greatest moral challenge humankind has ever faced and will demand an unprecedented level of human cooperation.  We must change and maybe even eliminate some of our most cherished technologies, requiring significant sacrifices- though it will also generate tremendous economic opportunities for new technologies.  There are even proposals to "geoengineer" a cooler climate by injecting particulates into the stratosphere and by other methods, thereby offsetting our warming impact without requiring us to change our warmth inducing activities.  No matter what, the goal for the coming decades is just to keep global temperatures at "acceptable levels": returning global temperatures to pre-industrial levels is no longer a realistic option.

  Regardless of our ultimate success in controlling global temperature, intentionally managing global climate pushes us and the rest of the biosphere across a critical threshold.  Other species, including both photosynthetic bacteria and higher plants, have altered the atmosphere and global climate tremendously in the past and are still key regulators of atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate (eg Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis).  However, we are the first species to *decide* that Earth's natural climate regulation is no longer adequae to the task of supporting our species and others with an acceptible climate.  We have now made it our duty to maintain global climate at levels we consider acceptable.

  The scientific and philosophical implications of this are profound.  Does this mean that we are now responsible for managing the biosphere and the rest of the planet as well?  Is it now our job to manage nature as a whole?  If so, what precisely is the goal of this management?  If humans are managing nature, what is natural?  These thoughts have long been touched on by others, but in most cases only as grounds for invoking catastrophic visions of how humans are destroying nature.

  The more I think about this, the harder it is for me to accept that this development is negative.  It is true that we really have no clear plan, and certainly no experience, in managing global climate- this is truly an experiment.  Yet humans are the product of evolution, like all other life.  By what right is it a bad thing that homo sapiens will now control Earth's climate?  Might this not be a predictable evolutionary development on all planets, given adequate time and environment?  Are we now heralding a new age of earth systems, with humans now serving as a sentient thermostatic regulator of global climate, keeping temperatures within "acceptable" levels.  Will the climate of Homo sapiens be more steady than the regular glaciations that characterize "natural" climate?  Time will tell whether we are up to the task of managing global climate- and either way, the biosphere will live on.

Welcome to the Anthropocene!

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