Curt Stager: Decisions on climate now will last for 100,000 years

By Tierney Smith

We are currently living through the Age of Humans, says Curt Stager (Source:

Our choices in the next few decades could determine the lives of people to come for the next 100,000 years and beyond.

That’s the message of scientist and author Curt Stager’s latest book, “Our Future Earth: the next 100,000 years of Life on the Planet”.

While politicians and environmentalists alike look at timescales of the next 50 years and the next 100 years, trying to determine what the world would look like then, Stager aims to look far beyond those dates, into the deep and distant future of 100,000 years from now.

His questions include: What will the world look like then? What animals and ecosystems will have survived? Will there be any ice left at the poles, and how will life on earth have adapted to changing conditions?

For Stager this transition will see winners and losers – although he argues humanity’s fate is firmly in the balance.

For now the planet is stuck in the ‘Age of Humans’, and RTCC caught up with Stager to discuss his findings – and his belief that in the next few decades we have the power to determine the future of the planet the next tens of thousands of years to come.

RTCC: In the book, you describe the current period in time as the Anthropocene, could you explain what this term describes?

CS: It comes from an ecologist whom I mentioned in the book, Gene Stoermer, and it’s actually an interesting story because it is bubbling up now all through the scientific community and the general public. It’s misattributed to a more famous scientist Paul Crutzen.

It basically says that the impacts of humans on the planet are so large and diverse – from the climate effects to the loss of species – that if you took an objective view of our place in Earth’s history this would count as a new geological epoch, just like the Palaeocene and the Eocene and all those epochs you might have heard of. So these folks said “let’s name it the Age of Humans”.

They call it the Anthropocene and it really struck a resonant chord as it describes our situation very well. We have become a geologic force of nature.

RTCC: And when did this new Age begin?

CS: That’s another interesting thing; people are discussing that as they are looking at the definition. Gene Stoermer favours doing it from the start of the industrial revolution, because of the climate effects. But now that everyone is on board and talking about this, some people like myself say it started earlier.

I would go back to the end of the last ice age because that’s when we killed all the large mammals off – the Mammoths and Mastodons etc – and when we changed the ecology of the planet in a big way. But it is relatively recent, since the start of civilisation you could say.

The point of this book is that this is going to go on for far longer than we were thinking when we just had the short term view of the next 50 years or the next 100 years. We’re talking tens of thousands of years now.

RTCC: You also use the term Climate Whiplash within the book, could explain what this means?

CS: That comes from the longer view of what happens after 2100 AD, the imaginary horizon beyond which we are not letting our imaginations go. Climate scientists are now probing well beyond that to ask how long it takes for the atmosphere to recover?

When you look, you realise that it is tens of thousands of years. So then you have to use some common sense and look at the graphs and say well the warming phase we are in now is just the opening chapter.

Thereare going to be all kinds of challenges which are going to follow and it is kind of obvious that eventually we will stop emitting so much greenhouse gas – either because we choose to or because we run out. And when that happens the temperature will stop going up and then it will start to recover.

So if you imagine that; going up and up and up in temperature and then suddenly having to switch direction into a cooling, then it is like a whiplash effect.

You are adapting to rising temperatures, rising sea levels and all that kind of stuff and then anyone who makes it through this stage is then going to have to flip into reverse gear and get used to cooling temperatures and falling sea-levels  as the planet recovers.

RTCC: In the book you look at two scenarios for our future, how do these differ?

CS: Not only are the changes we are setting in motion so large, but the options are going to be decided within the next several decades. We are incredibly important in this gigantic story.

So rather than it being this overwhelming thing where you say well even in the moderate case we’re still going to have some warming and there is no way out of thousands of years of change – we should certainly acknowledge that and see that we’re setting huge changes in motion – but the empowering side of that is that we have the power to make that choice.

If we don’t do the rapid switch which we should do for many other reasons too – economic and social and all those others – then we would be risking the extreme case where we would be losing all of the ice, raising the Earth’s temperature many times higher and losing many more species and acidifying the oceans.

In addition to increasing the magnitudes of these changes we are also extending their durations up to maybe half a million years of recovery.

We’re going to make that choice soon. My first feeling when I first realised this stuff was of just being stunned by the scale of what we are setting in motion – almost despairing. But then it quickly switched to exhilaration.

Rather than feeling small and insignificant it made me feel incredibly powerful and important. We have some important choices to make, and we can make them wisely if we pay attention..

RTCC: But whatever we do now, there will be impacts, so is it too late?

CS: There will still be natural changes on top of all this. The things we have already set in motion now are like heavy moving trains – when you stop accelerating there is just so much momentum that it is going to continue pushing us forward into a warming future for some time.

The point is that if we cut back now, which we should do anyway for many good reasons even if you don’t believe in climate change, I think, could be manageable in general.

We have had warmings of similar magnitude in the past between ice ages. You know in London when they dig up when they dig up the streets they sometimes find the bones of lions and hippos and things like that which used to tromp around up there in a warmer time when they had moved up from Africa.

Doing something now would avoid the worst extinctions and it wouldn’t melt all of the ice and I think it would be reasonable enough that we could handle it.

RTCC: In the book there is a theme of winners and losers of climate change; can we predict who will suffer and who could thrive?

CS: People are on to this now. Climate Change has begun to influence all corners of science and wildlife management and urban planning. People who know their ecosystems and know their species are starting to ask that very question, so you will be seeing more and more of those predictions popping up.

Things like how much acidification can marine life handle? There are some surprises that we are finding out where some species are fortunately more resilient than we once thought.

So my goal here of bringing up winners and losers is to sort of bypass the extreme hyper polarisation that you hear on the ideological divide, the “oh we’re all going to die, oh it doesn’t matter at all,” and try to stick to the science.

We should freely acknowledge that it’s not all negative. Some things are going to be beneficial but it’s also not all positive and some things are going to be hurt. Rationally, scientifically start making the list; what are the pluses, what are the minuses? And if it turns out it is mostly positives then maybe we want to go with that, although I personally consider that result unlikely.

RTCC: While hearing about “rapid” ice melt scares many people, hearing about the longer timescales can make some people complacent, how do you find that balance?

CS: I think the importance is to preserve science as well as all of these other things and I don’t think people realise the danger science itself is in when it is used as a weapon in these ideological battles. It reduces people’s confidence in one of humankind’s most important inventions, which distinguishes us from the other animals.

So I think it is really important dial some things back a bit and say, for example, that sea level rise is not going to drown you. You’re not going to go to the beach with your kid, put the kid on the sand, go over to the snack bar to get an ice cream, go back and find the kid has been washed away. People are literally afraid of it being that fast.

That’s not productive because when they find out it is wrong they may not listen to scientists anymore. I think it is important as a scientist to say “here’s what we’ve got, its not going to do the thing you saw in the movies but it is still very very serious for these reasons.”

I think it is important to realize that it’s not going to be terrifying death all over the planet but rather a long term corrosive thing which we are not going to be able to stop once we get going.

For example in the sea level rise case, what I end up saying – after saying it is not going to drown everyone – what country in the world would ever dream of giving up even an inch of its coastline to another country without a fight? So if you think of it that way why would we do this if we don’t have to? We are going to have smaller coastlines.

RTCC: With so much focus on dates such as 2050 and 2100, why did you want to do a book which looked so far into the future?

CS: I actually wrote the book because I came across some of the research articles which were looking that far into the future and they drew this graph of the warming going up and up, a quick whiplash and a long recovery. When I saw that I thought it is on the mind boggling timescales that I am used to looking at as a climate historian of the coming and going of ice ages. The climatic effects of our actions today will last long enough to interfere with ice ages.

So to me it is really really important to look at the long time scale because if you don’t and you only look to 2050 and 2100 you’re missing most of the story. It is like saying here’s this movie, I looked at the first 30 seconds of it and now I know the whole story.

It’s like there’s this elephant coming towards us and we have been looking at the toenail of the elephant and thinking we’ve got it all figured out and then you look around and see the whole animal. When you look at the whole picture you think “oh my gosh we’ve got to do something.”

There are entirely new changes that most of us are not even thinking of yet which are going to follow the warming. It’s the consequences of having the warming followed by the whiplash and cooling-off times which pose just such as threat.

And then ironically because of the huge timescales that it is played out on it will be slow enough that people in the future will be used to it being a warmer planet and so will ecosystems. So then when it starts to recover they’re going to have an entirely new challenge to deal with, which they will see as global cooling.

So we are going to make that happen too, and it wouldn’t happen without us either. It is just mind bending to think of what we are setting in motion. That makes it all the more important because we in the next few decades have the power to make this crucially important choice of possible futures – how extreme will this be?

You can get yourself a copy of “Our Future Earth: the next 100,000 Years of Life on the Planet” here.

Contact the author of this article at [email protected] or @rtcc_tierney.

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