Where on Earth are we going? An Interview with Climate Comissioner, Professor Will Steffen

‘We don’t need consumption to be happy. We need social equality and strong family and community values.’

Report after report, study after study, have told us the world is rapidly changing. It is also beyond doubt that humans are causing this change. But honestly, do we really need scientific evidence to tell us that? Just look out the window. What you see speaks for itself – we live in a human dominated world, and the statistics are startling. Of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass of the world, 32% comprises of humans alone, while another 65% is animals domesticated for human uses. 3% is wildlife. Just 3%. Put another way, there are 10x more humans by biomass on the planet than all the elephants, lions, kangaroos, deer, bears, birds, and every other animal, combined. 2000 of these species are considered at risk of extinction. In fact, we are now facing the 6th mass extinction, and unless we manage to drastically reverse current trends, it will be upon us within 3 generations. It’s a sobering thought.

These changes have gone so far that many scientists now claim we are leaving the Holocene (which began 12,000 years ago) and entering a new epoch – the Anthropocene (from anthropo for ‘man’ and cene for ‘new’). So what does this mean for humanity, and the planet?

I recently attended a lecture on this exact topic presented by Emeritus Professor Will Steffen, who heads the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, and I had the opportunity to interview him afterwards. Having served as Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm, Sweden (1998-2004), the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (2010-11), and currently serving as Climate Commissioner, Steffen certainly has the credentials and experience on this matter.

He raised some interesting (and frightening) points.
First of all, what defines a new epoch? Over the last 400,000 years our climate has fluctuated naturally, following glacial and interglacial trends, with each significant change in climate marking a different epoch. The latest epoch, the Holocene, began 11,700 years ago and was defined by the stabilisation of the climate. As Steffen put it, this stability ‘became a sweet spot for human expansion’, supporting the development of agriculture and the formation of civilisation. While human impacts gradually increased from this point, it wasn’t until the 1950’s (post WWII), that the human enterprise exploded. Termed the ‘Great Acceleration’, it was from this period that population doubled and economic growth, fertiliser use, globalisation, urbanisation, transport, and communications all rapidly intensified. In response, so did our environmental impact, with spikes in greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, fishing intensity, degradation of terrestrial and marine environments. Consequently ‘the stratigraphic signatures of the Earths system have shifted well above Holocene norms’, officially starting a new epoch of geological time.


So, we’ve left the Holocene. But where are we going? Well, according the Steffen and many in the scientific community, the future is looking pretty shaky. The IPCC projections indicate a warming of 4°C by 2100 if we continue ‘as per normal’. 2100 may seem like a long way off, but it is only two generations away. And while a temperature raising by 4°C might not seem that much, this is the same average global temperature difference between the ice-ages and warm periods over the last 400,000 years. Clearly, the rate of change is much faster now, and that is where the real issue lies. The Earth’s systems simply aren’t able to adjust fast enough. We have ‘broken outside the confines of the ecological envelope’, and are now entering uncharted territory. There is no turning back. The big question now is- can we stabilise the Earth in time to stay within the limits of interglacial variations, and therefore within what, given time, the planet is able to cope with? Or, will we surpass the Paris Agreement of limiting warming to 2°C, and leave the bounds anything the Earth has ever experienced before? The projections for this scenario are alarming – the 6th global mass extinction, climate chaos, and significant sea-level rises.

The Anthropocene means we are responsible for what happens next. We are the stewards of the Earth. So what do we do now? Clearly, there is need for some pretty drastic changes. Unfortunately, our social system and political atmosphere make such change difficult, if not seemingly impossible. I asked Steffen if he thought there was any hope, and what we need to do to get there. He proposed two fundamental steps – to stop denying the Anthropocene exists (not just climate change), and to realise that the actions we need to take to address the Anthropocene, which will benefit society and wellbeing on a whole. ‘We don’t need consumption to be happy. We need social equality and strong family and community values.’

In response to the issues of our political climate, the answer was both disheartening and encouraging. ‘I don’t believe we will ever change the minds of our current political leaders on climate change action. Instead, we need to move beyond them, and get over this idea that old white men are the only people who can run things’.

He used the Climate Council as an example. ‘It [the Council] has been extremely successful, and that success is attributed to two things. Firstly, it’s run by young people, and secondly, it’s run by women’. It is this combination, and the collaboration between people with a wide range of skill sets, that will ultimately lead to the political and social changes we desperately need, Steffen stated. Already, there are many organisations already demonstrating this near in Australia- the AYCC (Australian Youth Climate Coalition), Getup, and many others.

So it’s up to us – the youth of society, to make the changes and rectify the mistakes of the generations before us. Fair? Maybe not. But can we do it? Definitely. The success of groups like AYCC and Getup during the last election go to show the power of dedicated groups if individuals. If we work together, we can tip the balance away from the long-standing political powers of the last few decades and ensure a stable future of ourselves and our children. But the clock is ticking, and we have a long way to go before we get there.


By Ali Roush, FUSA Environment Officer.


A big thank you to the Flinders University School of Environment for organising this lecture. To find out more about similar events coming up, keep an eye on the Flinders News page.

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You can also watch Prof. Will Steffen’s lecture here.