WITHIN a few weeks, a bunch of international geologists are expected to pick a spot to mark the birth of what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene, the latest epoch in our planet’s history, distinguished by the direct impact of human activities on Earth’s geology.
There is no consensus on the origins of the Anthropocene, although the current weight of opinion seems to lean towards the mid-20th century, notably the dramatic changes wrought by the “great acceleration” that followed World War II.
Anthropogenic climate change is among the various distinguishing features of this era, and its reach is far and wide. Who would have thought, for instance, that it was even contributing to the extinction of languages? Well, it so happens that some of the most linguistically diverse places on earth are also most vulnerable to rising sea levels.
On the Pacific island of Vanuatu, 110 languages are spoken among a population of around 320,000. Most of them will wither away as the islanders migrate to safer shores. At the current rate of loss, it is (optimistically) estimated that half of the world’s 7,000 living languages will have disappeared by the end of the century.
The Anthropocene may turn out to be short-lived.
Of course, colonialism in its malevolent forms has historically served as a more efficient means of diminishing linguistic and broader cultural diversity. Likewise, climate change is only one of the contributors to the startling diminution in biodiversity, with much of the loss of habitat attributed to human activities, eg, forest clearance, plastic pollution and overconsumption.
Any switch to renewables might not offer much of a panacea, given solar and wind farms are not necessarily conducive to the preservation of biodiversity. Amid predictions of the most devastating mass extinction event since the demise of the dinosaurs, a purportedly historic deal was reached last month at the biodiversity COP15 in Montreal, signed by 200 nations (excluding the US, as usual) to protect 30pc of the planet for nature by 2030, and to restore some ecosystems.
The trouble with such deals is that the initial exhilaration usually gives way to despondency when non-binding commitments go unimplemented. That is the problem with the better-known climate COPs.
The 27th iteration of the latter event, held in Sharm El-Sheikh last November, is a case in point. Its only notable achievement was a purportedly historic deal for the most relentless carbon emitters to compensate nations in the Global South bearing the brunt of climate change without having contributed much to it. In the wake of Pakistan’s horrific floods, Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman was a prominent presence at Sharm El-Sheikh and a leading driver of this deal.
However, much like the $9bn flood aid promised to Pakistan in Geneva last week, there is no guarantee the commitments will be met. The dominant attendees did not even pay lip service to the seemingly lost cause of restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That level could be breached as early as next year if the El Niño predicted for 2023 transpires.
Meanwhile, like clockwork, COP28 will be conducted in November, this time in Dubai, with its presidency gifted to the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company who is also his nation’s special envoy for climate change and chairman of the board at Masdar Clean Energy. Such demonstrable conflicts of interest are common.
“It’s like a big tobacco CEO hosting a cancer conference,” British academic Bill McGuire commented in The Guardian. “It beggars belief that the UN thought it a good idea to allow an authoritarian petro-state to host such a critical meeting at the height of the climate emergency.” Late last year he described the annual climate summit as “a bloated travelling circus”. This week, equally appropriately, he called it “a carcass to which the fossil-fuel flies are attracted and buzz in ever greater numbers”.
The fossil fuel lobbyist numbers increased from 500 to 600 between COP26 in Glasgow and COP27. COP28 might carry the steady hijacking of the conference to its logical conclusion. Fossil fuel companies have been leading sponsors of the event in recent years, with the fairly obvious intention of stalling progress in efforts to steadily slow down further oil, gas and coal extraction by acknowledging the need to reduce emissions while thwarting the means to achieving this.
A scientific study published last week noted that Exxon scientists had predicted the trajectory of global warming caused by fossil fuels with remarkable accuracy since the 1970s, while the company continued to query climate science for decades.
Perhaps the biggest culprits, though, are Western governments beholden to vested fossil fuel interests. If the Anthropocene doesn’t last very long, fossil fuel companies and Gulf states will only be accessories to the crime.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2023