Drought risk in the Anthropocene: from the Jaws of Death to the Waters of Life

Sir James Bevan – Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, at a Royal Society Conference, 19 October 2021.

‘Thank you. Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m heavily outgunned by the expertise here today. Some of what I’m about to say is deliberately simplified so that I and our wider external audience can understand it. I apologise if it’s oversimplified. Your analysis of the issues I’m going to touch on will be much more sophisticated than mine. And some of what I say you may want to contest, which is welcome. But I hope and expect that we will have little argument over what the biggest problem we face today is – it’s the climate emergency.

It is an honour to speak to an organisation as prestigious and historic as the Royal Society. So historic that some would argue than when it was founded in 1660, we were in a previous epoch – the Holocene – to the one we are in now, the Anthropocene.

New epochs don’t come around that often. The Holocene began more than 11,000 years ago after the last glacial period and saw the dawn of human civilisation. Before that the Pleistocene lasted for 2.5 million years. It saw both major climate change and a massive extinction of life forms: those two facts are connected.

The Anthropocene – the epoch which started when humans first began to have a significant impact on Earth’s climate, geology and ecosystems – is itself a much-contested concept. There’s a live debate about when it started. Some argue that we should go as far back as 10,000 or so years to the shift from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers. Others say the Anthropocene truly began about 250 years ago with the industrial revolution, as the western world’s new fossil fuel-powered economy began to drive up global temperatures. And there are those who prefer to wait until the 1950s, when the acceleration of fossil fuel use, deforestation, ocean acidification, urbanisation, industrial-scale agriculture, habitat destruction, species extinction and wide-scale natural resource extraction made it finally incontestable that we had now significantly modified our planet. But whenever the Anthropocene did start, what no-one seriously contests is that we’re in it now.’  …..

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