Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Sarah E. Cornell, Michel Crucifix, Jonathan F. Donges, Ingo Fetzer, Steven J. Lade, Marten Scheffer, Ricarda Winkelmann, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber


We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be. If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch (1) based on the observation that human impacts on essential planetary processes have become so profound (2) that they have driven the Earth out of the Holocene epoch in which agriculture, sedentary communities, and eventually, socially and technologically complex human societies developed. The formalization of the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch is being considered by the stratigraphic community (3), but regardless of the outcome of that process, it is becoming apparent that Anthropocene conditions transgress Holocene conditions in several respects (2). The knowledge that human activity now rivals geological forces in influencing the trajectory of the Earth System has important implications for both Earth System science and societal decision making. While recognizing that different societies around the world have contributed differently and unequally to pressures on the Earth System and will have varied capabilities to alter future trajectories (4), the sum total of human impacts on the system needs to be taken into account for analyzing future trajectories of the Earth System.

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Here, we explore potential future trajectories of the Earth System by addressing the following questions.

  • Is there a planetary threshold in the trajectory of the Earth System that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization in a range of intermediate temperature rises?

  • Given our understanding of geophysical and biosphere feedbacks intrinsic to the Earth System, where might such a threshold be?

  • If a threshold is crossed, what are the implications, especially for the wellbeing of human societies?

  • What human actions could create a pathway that would steer the Earth System away from the potential threshold and toward the maintenance of interglacial-like conditions?

Addressing these questions requires a deep integration of knowledge from biogeophysical Earth System science with that from the social sciences and humanities on the development and functioning of human societies (5). Integrating the requisite knowledge can be difficult, especially in light of the formidable range of timescales involved. Increasingly, concepts from complex systems analysis provide a framework that unites the diverse fields of inquiry relevant to the Anthropocene (6). Earth System dynamics can be described, studied, and understood in terms of trajectories between alternate states separated by thresholds that are controlled by nonlinear processes, interactions, and feedbacks. Based on this framework, we argue that social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several millions of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.

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