3rd GEOSS Science and Technology Stakeholder Workshop
March 23-25, 2015, Norfolk, VA, USA

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The Need For A New Science to Guide Humanity's Transition Into The Post-Holocene

Hans-Peter Plag, Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA; Shelley Jules-Plag, Tiwah, USA

Humanity has left the Holocene and the “safe operating space for humanity” it provided to us. The Holocene, the last geological epoch that began about 11,700 years ago, had an exceptionally stable climate that allowed human beings to settle in one place for a long time and to learn agriculture. With 6,000 years of a stable sea level humans were able to build long-term settlements in river deltas and benefit from the rich ecosystem services and logistical advantages of being at a river and the coast.

During the last hundred years, many things have changed very rapidly: we grew in numbers several hundered times faster than ever before, our energy usage grew 1,600 times faster, and inequality among humans grew 100 times faster. These rapid changes led to an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide about 600 times faster than during the Holocene, temperature changed more than 100 times faster, and extinction rates of at-risk species increased dramatically. While we have seen many environmental factors changing rapidly, others are lagging behind and will soon exhibit accelerated changes. Sea level in particular has the potential to rise rapidly and threaten our global society.

We have replaced the time of stability by a time of rapid change, making the future for our children very uncertain. The planet is on a trajectory that is rapidly moving us away from the safe operating space. We discover thresholds normally (with a few exception) by crossing them. The rapid degradation of the Earth's life-suport system resembles the situation of a patient in the emergency room with rapidly degrading organs. The best news out of the emergency room is that the patient is stable, and the on-going changes within humanity and in the Earth's life-support system do not signal that this is the news about humanity in the emergency room.

Safeguarding the future requires a major paradigm shift in which we work towards slowing down these rapid changes so that we can reach a new equilibrium with the planet and it's life-support system. Our economy needs to safeguard the Earth’s life-support systems on which we and all future generations depend, instead of aiming for more wealth for a few. Our goal needs to be equity among humans both in time and space.

Current science is not explictly focusing on the knowledge needs that arise from this existential challenge to reach equilibrium and restore stability. If such knowledge emerges, it is a bi-product. We do not have a science adapted to being in the emergency room, and while there are emerging research activities that aim to find ways for humanity to thrive without degrading the Earth’s life support systems, there is no strategic science framework that would bring these initiative coherently into a major effort of humanity to generate the knowledge we need to meet the challenge. There is also a need for a coupled tactical science that could respond to rapidly developing new threats, which we should expect as a consequence of the rapid changes we are enforcing on the system that supports our life. With such a framework, science could generate the knowledge to be integrated into decision making for a safe journey into the uncertain future of the Post-Holocene. Like in the emergency room, having the observing system that provides comprehensive information about the states and trends of the both humnaity and the life-support systems is crucial for global governance to make informed decisions how to react to rapid changes and new developments.