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Option 1: Climate Change In The Anthropocene Global Catrastrophic Risk & Management

Dr Ken Addison


Unprecedented rates of rapid climate & environmental change are beyond doubt and greatly concern the international community, corporations and governments. Virtually all human activities disturb Earth’s environmental systems, increasing with the size and technical prowess of human populations since later prehistory 11,700 years ago. We are now redefining the present geological epoch as the Anthropocene as a consequence of our impact on Earth’s boundary layer ~ the instable envelope embracing the landsurface, atmosphere and oceans on which we and all other biological systems depend.

Global economic and political security depend on accurate scientific predictions of global environmental change, technological capacity to respond and political will to mitigate impacts. The latest, 5th Assessment Report of the widely-respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013-14 emphasised options for reducing environmental impacts, or facing consequences. Global financial crises from 2008, lack of a post-Kyoto accord (2012), excitement over natural gas fracking, tar-sand oil and Arctic Basin marine resources (made accessible by global warming !) threaten progress on carbon reduction and renewable energy, pushing us towards Dangerous Climate Change, evidenced by 2019 global weather extremes. Will the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement be implemented, binding ~ and in time ?

Why have global environmental crises arisen now? What triggered dramatic increases in environmental awareness, placing environmental issues on international agendas? How can we avoid or mitigate their effects. What happens if we cannot? Answers to these questions concern students and practitioners across socio-economic, political and natural sciences. Successful Earth Systems management and socio-economic and political stability demand we understand our environmental impact. Failure by wealthy industrialised and industrialising nations to respond to environmental impacts of sustained development raises international tension, especially amongst disadvantaged and marginalised nations.

Academic Aims

The Option’s prime aim is to extend awareness and understanding of key global environmental crises facing the international community to students irrespective of their academic backgrounds. We identify the principal components and dynamics of natural environmental systems and the context of rapid natural climate and environmental changes of the continuing Quaternary ‘Ice Age’. We examine how industrial, agricultural and other activities of human societies interrupt their operation, generating environmental disturbance and change. Impacts leave tell-tale environmental signatures so an important early step is to evaluate the nature of surviving evidence for environmental impacts and changes.

Having established these cause-and-effect relationships, we examine several crucial aspects of global environmental crises, with particular perspectives from Britain and the European Union. This most heavily industrialized and populated zone on Earth, and its intensive agricultural systems, render it self-sufficient in temperate foods. It also possesses one of the longest continuous records of human occupation since the most recent world-wide glaciation. Much of the origins and consequences of rapid environmental change are found here.

Academic Programme

Key Lectures and Seminars provide a general review of the principal themes, which students then explore in more detail in Tutorial essays or seminar papers, choosing a weekly topic from the list below:

Week 1: Nature & Context of Earth’s Climate & Environmental Systems

Key Illustrated Lecture : The Landscape legacy of the Late Quaternary Ice Age in Britain
Seminar/Tutorial : Archaeology & Geology ~ environmental detectives. Scientific & documentary evidence
of environmental change in the Landscape.

Week 2: Climate Change : past & present

Key Illustrated Lecture : Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change : Science, Impacts & Mitigations
Seminar/Tutorial : Quaternary cold & temperate stages. Holocene climate ~ the past 11,600 yrs.
The Medieval Warm Epoch (c. 800-1300 CE) & Little Ice Age (c. 1350- 1850 CE).

Week 3: Global Climate Forecast to 2100 CE

Key Illustrated Lecture : IPCC Global climate change forecasts to 2100 CE. The Anthropocene.
Seminar/Tutorial : “Greenhouse” enhancement. Ocean-Icesheet response. Atmosphere-Ocean circulation.

Week 4: Landsurface Impacts of Global Climate Change

Seminar : Earth-Atmosphere interactive systems ~ thermal, hydrologic & biospheric regimes & responses.
Tutorial : Sea level change & Coastline Management. Water Resources. Agriculture & the Biosphere. River Management & Slope Instability.

Week 5: Global Risk : Securing Earth’s Environmental Future in the Anthropocene

Seminar : Environmental governance in the Anthropocene. Dangerous Climate Change at + 1.5 – 2.0 °C
Tutorial : International environmental treaties & protocols. Greenhouse emissions. Environmental protection,
conservation & management. Sustainable Development.

Preliminary Reading
Students undoubtedly benefit from referencing some/all of these general texts reading prior to arrival in Oxford, when more detailed lists accompany Tutorial essay titles are distributed.

Smithson, P., Addison, K. & Atkinson, K., 2008, Fundamentals of the Physical Environment, (4th Edtn.)
London: Routledge (ISBN 10 0-415-39514-3)

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: 5th Assessment Report. Working Group II ~ Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge (UK) & New York:
Cambridge University Press. Summary for Policy makers & Technical Summary (ISBN 978-1-107-64165-5)

Ellis, E.C., 2018, The Anthropocen : A Very Short Introduction, : Oxford University Press. (ISBN 978-0-19-879298-7)

Richardson, K., Steffen, W. & Liverman, D., 2011, Climate Change : Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 978-0-521-19836-3)

Stern, N. 2009, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet : How to Manage Climate Change, London: The Bodley
Head. (ISBN 97818-47920-386)


© Dr Ken Addison, St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford: for 2021
St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford