Scientists hope to reverse damage to planet
HUMAN influence on our world over the past century has been so profound that it has changed the physical make-up of the planet.
A US academic said the massive growth in population, spread of towns and cities, ramping up of energy use and extinction of species has resulted in the Earth's history being dominated by human impacts for the first time.
Environmental historian Professor John McNeill also told the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin that a new term should be used to describe this phenomenon, the "anthropocene".
He said that scientists were now looking at new ways to address the ensuing problems caused by humanity, including climate change. He said that within 50 years they could be geo-engineering, with plankton being encouraged to grow in our oceans to 'suck up' pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
"Geologists are trying to make up their mind as to whether the Earth has entered a new epoch because of the impact of humankind," he said.
"There has been a geological timescale with lots of eons, eras and epochs. If the anthropocene exists, it is an epoch in the history of the Earth. I would argue it does exist since the 1950s.
"Some would say it's not new and that humans have had an important impact on Earth for 8,000 years. I would say an underlying reason is the tremendous expansion of energy use with the coming of cheap oil and continued expansion of coal usage around the world.
"Since 1914, the human population has quadrupled from around 1.5 billion to a bit north of seven billion. With respect to energy use, it's a 15-fold expansion in the same century. Fresh water use is up by a factor of six and nine fold."
The implications will be felt for generation to come, he said.
"My best guess is that we're in for some, at times, painful adjustments and some very unequally distributed pain. In terms of fresh water, there are parts of the world where shortages have long existed and have grown more acute. That will intensify in some places."
Science could be used to address the imbalance.
"There's the possibility that parts of humankind will try very hard to engineer the planet in a more conscious fashion. With climate change, there's ideas on the table including injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to stop sunlight coming to the Earth to counteract warming," he said.