“We’re in the driver seat now”

Climate scientist Professor Will Steffen has warned we have a decade to act or the Earth will face the worst impacts of climate change.

Prof Steffen is a Councillor on the Climate Council of Australia and former science adviser for the Australian Government. He was keynote speaker at a lecture presented by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation in Sydney on the subject, “The Anthropocene: The Challenges of the Human Age”.

Presenting his research, Prof Steffen explained that while over millions of years the Earth had experienced a cycle of ice ages and warmer periods, the current rate of change was unparalleled.

In a study entitled, “The Great Acceleration” Steffen and others mapped socio-economic trends such as population growth, energy use, GDP and telecommunications, alongside changes in earth system, including carbon dioxide levels, surface temperature and ocean acidification.

It is this rapid acceleration of change that Prof Steffen argues is the cause of a new geological epoch – one that is caused entirely by humans, called “The Anthropocene.”

“When you hit the Earth system with a rate of change this fast, it’s going to have an impact,” said Prof Steffen.

“We are pushing the earth into a new, and somewhat frightening geological and biological era.”

The term “the Anthropocene” was first used by Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen in 2000. Since 2009 an official working group of which Steffen has been a part has developed a proposal which suggests human activity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene, which began 12,000 years ago at the close of the last Ice Age, and into a new Epoch.

Steffen warned that as the Earth approached a number of tipping points, unless we made changes in the next decade or so, we could not go back.

“We’re in the driver seat now, we need to think really carefully about where we want to go.”

Prof Steffen said it was important to account for the inequalities in our social systems, with OECD countries responsible for 75 per cent of global consumption.

“Instead of blaming people (for climate change), we’ve got to look at the systems we’re operating in.”

Prof Steffen urged audience members to take collective action to remind our politicians of the need to act on climate change and now.

“We’re already there on energy (technology). It is only ideology that is stopping us.”

“We do not have any more time. We must let our politicians know that we care about the climate and push for them to take action on it.”

He finished by saying we needed to learn from Australia’s First People’s, the longest continuing culture on earth.

Quoting a Noongar elder, Prof Steffen read: “We’re only here for a short amount of time to do what we’ve been put here to do, which is look after the country. It’s a big cycle of living with the land, and then eventually going back to it.”

Uniting Church theologian Rev Dr Clive Pearson, whose current area of research is systematic theology and the Anthropocene, introduced Prof Steffen to a diverse audience from business, community and faith organisations.

Audience member Zubeda Raihman, President of the Muslim Women’s National Network, responded to the talk with a quote from Gandhi, “there is sufficiency in the world for our need but not for our greed.”

Ahmet Polat, Executive Director of Affinity, described the talk as a “sobering wake-up call”.

“The actions of the current generation will shape the planet that we pass onto our future generation,” he said.

“As human beings it is foolish to think we exist independently of one another. We need to take care of one another and treat all human beings and our environment with compassion.”