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Author: Andrew Gilkson
Source: The Conversation
Date: 18 November, 2012

In 1947 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set up a clock telling us how close we were to global calamity. It was initially set at seven minutes to midnight; then its hands shifted back to 17 minutes to midnight following the signing of the US–Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction treaty. In January this year, the hands were pointed at five minutes to midnight, the closest to doomsday yet.

The Bulletin announced:

Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed.

In fact, the global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere. The International Energy Agency projects that, unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification.

Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy — and emissions — for 40 to 50 years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect. Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late.

Homo sapiens: where to now?

In October, researchers, academics and commentators gathered at the Australian National Library to discuss the prospects for our species, at a conference held by Manning Clarke House and called “The future of Homo sapiens”.

Discussion covered climate change, biology, anthropology, medicine, human evolution, the role of fire, ethics, politics, and cultural, spiritual and philosophical perspectives.

Keynote speaker Philip Adams – in whose honour the conference was held – spoke of the existential threat to humanity and nature that is climate change. He had earlier expressed his increasing pessimism and particular concern that: “Western democracies may be unable to effectively tackle the problem. Politicians are not the most courageous people. In so far as they think at all they tend to think in the short time frames of the election cycle.”

The 2009 Copenhagen conference agreed to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. It is only thanks to industrially emitted sulphur aerosols that mean global temperatures have not as yet exceeded 2 degrees Celsius. But as Michael Raupach from CSIRO pointed out to the conference, it may already be too late.

How did we get into this situation?

Beginning with the mastery of fire, our creative and destructive powers culminated in the industrial age. The combustion of carbon stored in sediments over periods longer than 400 million years are transforming the atmospheric conditions from those which allowed the onset of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

Colin Groves explained how Homo sapiens developed as stone tool-making emerged, and gradually became more sophisticated. Brains were enlarged, the body changed shape and we interbred with other archaic human species. 

Read rest of the article in The Conversation.