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Rocks and Climate Change: How we can stop pulling the carbon trigger

On 11 May 2011, amidst much publicity, the Geological Society hosted a meeting on the Anthropocene, the proposed new epoch of geological time that marks the impact of Homo sapiens on the planet. The international geological community has a formal process for identifying stratigraphical boundaries: what happens if the Anthropocene does not meet the criteria for establishing a new epoch? We may imagine that those who deny that we are having a deleterious effect on our environment will have a field day, particularly those who deny the scientific evidence for the potential danger of our dumping of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere. Does it matter what the so-called sceptics say? Not very much, provided we can marshall effectively for a global public the broad range of observational science that so strongly supports the case for concern about human-induced climate change: not least evidence from rocks.

The message from the rocks is that we should stop pulling the fossil carbon trigger. If we fail to do so, we risk a repetition of a global warming event that took place 55 million years ago. Such a repetition would be fine for Earth, but not so good for us. The message from the rocks presents a particular challenge to the oil and coal industries, to which they can respond by helping us to make the transition to a low-carbon economy. For some years to come we shall generate a great deal of electricity by burning coal, around the globe. The oil industry can store safely underground the carbon dioxide captured from coal-fired power stations, at a price that will be reasonable compared with the alternatives.

We are not at present convincing ourselves of the need for effective action on the carbon trigger, even with a scientific case established beyond reasonable doubt. Can we make progress by repeatedly setting out that scientific argument in our customary fashion, replete with detail and caveats? The signs are not encouraging, and we do not have much time to waste. Now is the time to start telling the story written in the rocks in many different ways - in verse, in film, in song. Proof in the Puddingstone is a tale about a rock that just happens to be 55 million years old. You can’t argue with a rock.


Bryan Lovell


Bryan Lovell is Senior Research Fellow in Earth Sciences at Cambridge University, studying the effects of mantle convection on elevation of Earth’s surface and maintaining longstanding consultancy interests. He studied geology at Oxford and Harvard during the 1960s, lectured at Edinburgh University in the 1970s, then worked with BP Exploration from 1981-1996. Lovell contested Edinburgh South for the Scottish Liberal Party in May 1979. He was awarded an OBE in 1989 for services to Anglo-Irish relations. His Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009. He is currently President of the Geological Society of London.



Event Details

Date: 15 February 2012
Venue: The Geological Society, London
Speaker: Bryan Lovell



Naomi Newbold
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