ESSAY: The oceans and the anthropocene in the climate change debate

A reflective essay related to environmental communications, particularly focusing on the role of the world oceans and the benefits of officially entering a new geological epoch in the climate change debate, written as part of my MA Global Media and Transnational Communications in November 2014 at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Islands are disappearing and countries such as the Maldives are taking measures such as reclaiming the land to keep the state from dissolving. Photo: Ahuren, Flickr

Islands are disappearing and countries such as the Maldives are taking measures such as reclaiming the land to keep the state from dissolving. Photo: Ahuren, Flickr

In September 2013, the scientific debate over the human agency on climate change took a small, yet impactful turn. Another report made by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) stated that there was now sufficient evidence that mankind was responsible for climate change (Harvey: 2013). The IPCC Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report gave an even clearer message to policy makers around the world:

‘Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems’ (IPCC 2014).

Our current era has been termed the Holocene, an interglacial period of about 11,000 years of climatic stability and warm temperatures. In October 2014, experts from around the world convened to discuss renaming the epoch the ‘Anthropocene’, a new time period defined by human activity being a major force influencing the climate, and therefore the history of life on Earth (Chakrabarty 2012). This shift in perception, as Sample (2014) suggests, could be one of the most momentous decisions in human history.

This essay will discuss humanity’s role in mitigating climate change, the potential impact of recognising the Anthropocene and the central role of the oceans in the debate. It will not attempt to give a detailed description of the background to what has caused climate change, i.e. which countries, corporations, ideologies or political parties are responsible for industrialisation and all the implications thereof. However, it should be noted that it is often argued that the Industrial Revolution (including the development of previously undeveloped countries, urbanisation, changes in land use, the burning of fossil fuels, pollution and so on) has been a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change. As the 2014 IPCC report showed, the modernisation of human life (alongside non-anthropogenic climate change that the Earth has undergone in cycles throughout history) has caused greenhouse gas emissions to rise to levels higher than the Earth can ‘metabolise’ and which have now triggered an unsustainable chain of domino-effect reactions, such as rising air and sea temperatures, receding ice caps, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, reduced biodiversity and severe weather events.

Although the evidence is growing stronger, not all scientists agree on the extent of humanity’s role in climate change. However, the arguments in this essay are based on the 95% certainty given by the IPCC report, arguably the most reliable reference available today.

A new epoch

The word Anthropocene was first used by climate scientists Crutzen and Stoermer in 2000 to stress the need for a new view of mankind’s central role in shaping the Earth (Sample 2014). This essay will not go into the scientific details of the suggested new epoch. Instead, it will focus on the potential benefits such shift could have in the debate around climate change.

The main benefits is arguably that if accepted, the ‘hypothesis’ of the Anthropocene will result in fundamental reflection on our current social structures (Vidas and Schei: 2014). In addition, such a shift could raise important questions about current laws and policies and prompt scrutiny of international laws. Because of fossil fuels, the world we inhabit now is profoundly different to the one before the eighteenth century (Lovelock 2014). The Law of the Sea and other treaties and conventions of today are made on the basis of our (what Lovelock calls) ‘Earth Systems’ being in a more stable, Holocene epoch. Moving forward, we need this new term to fix in our minds the huge effect that the presence of technically enabled humans has had and continues to have on our planet.

The Law of the Sea

Historically, the oceans played a large part in the development of industrialisation: alongside technological advances, the law of the (free) sea is a key proponent in facilitating free trade on a global scale thanks to industrial transport, keeping markets open and providing a stepping stone for globalisation (Vidas and Schei 2012). A large part of the Earth’s natural resources are found in the world oceans, which cover 71% of the world’s surface area, and over 90% of the global transportation of goods takes place at sea (Vidas and Schei 2012). Much of these resources are currently not owned or governed as they fall under the Law of the Sea, which was developed in the seventeenth century (although it has been amended several times since by giving back larger areas of the offshore belt of sea to coastal nations’ governance due to growing concern of pollution, waste and overfishing).

The way the oceans are currently governed is highly inefficient and will remain a serious concern for years to come, argue Vidas and Schei (2012:3-15). It is not only pollution, ocean acidification, rising temperatures and depletion of biodiversity that cause these worries. Central to this debate is also the battle between a rising population and the use of the oceans as a free provider of resources. Bearing in mind the evidence for anthropogenic climate change our common goal must be to channel scientific and technological knowledge and to use them to form radical, sustainable policies and laws to reverse and reconcile the human impact on the Earth System (Vidas and Schei 2012). In addition, humans would benefit from starting to consider the Earth System’s elements as essential building blocks for all life rather than human resources: needed to sustain life as a whole and not only to feed humans or to facilitate transport and energy. That said, it should be pointed out that attempting to govern such large and remote areas do not come with an easy solution. One of the issues with creating new laws is figuring out how to enforce them. This is a particular problem in the case of laws for governing the world oceans. The cost of implementation is high (Vidas and Schei 2011:11).

The Oceans

The oceans deserve a central role in the discussion of anthropogenic climate change, which so far has tended to focus on assigning blame for greenhouse gas emissions. For example, it is currently difficult to assign responsibility for ocean warming, which dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (IPCC 2013:9).

The video essay The Free Sea illustrates the oceans’ importance for a nation, using the Maldives as an example, where the country’s president called for the first ever underwater cabinet meeting in order to send an SOS message to the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in 2009. The Maldives, it has been predicted, will be submerged by rising sea levels within the next one hundred years, raising questions of an uncertain future for an entire country’s people and its sovereignty. If the current international law does not change, the Maldives could be legally dissolved, and unless they find a way to reclaim the land and maintain some islands, citizens will have to acquire other nationalities and be absorbed into other states, or be rendered stateless (Husberg and McLean 2014).

The injustice of how this affects different areas of the world and its peoples in different ways will only become more evident with time. Countries with no shoreline, such as Switzerland, have as much to say in the debate, even though rising sea levels do not yet have a direct impact on them. These and other climate change induced catastrophes, such as severe weather events, are likely to cause mass migration (which needs to be considered in the development of new human rights laws, since asylum seekers today are only accepted if they are refugees from war, not ecological destruction). It is yet to be seen how open nations are going to be to taking these refugees in unless global treaties covering eco-refugees are created. As Anderson (2006:3-6) argues, the importance of the imagined community that is a nation for people is not decreasing and it is feasible that borders will close rather than open in the future: ‘The end of the era of nationalism so long prophesied is not remotely in sight.’


There is a great deal of variation in the solutions proposed to mitigate climate change. Although this essay will not cover all of these in detail, it should be mentioned that leading theories include Naomi Klein’s theory of a need for political change away from capitalism and which includes radical geo-engineering and innovation. In contrast, James Lovelock describes the Earth (which he calls Gaia) as a single organism which, because anthropogenic (human made) climate change is so advanced, will inevitably shake off humans like a bad case of fleas. Vidas and Schei argue that among strategies, a re-examination of current laws related to the governance of the world’s oceans, both because of climate change and increasing globalisation (Vidas and Schei 2012) is needed.

Although capitalism, neo-liberal globalisation and free market absolutism often plays a central role in the ‘blame game’ of climate change, many theorists point out that a Soviet-style modernisation of the world would have produced similar consequences (Chakrabarty 2012). When it comes to the rich versus the poor countries, Chakrabarty also stresses that the rich often get the blame for climate change, ‘and rightly so’, but that when looking for a solution, such thinking will not be helpful as the developing world increasingly adopts the same industrial habits as they undergo a similar modernisation.

Turning around this global instrumentalisation (exploitation by humans) of natural resources requires an innovative way of thinking to start a new Industrial Revolution based on other values and techniques for extracting energy which do not deplete our natural resources, as we cannot always blame current technology (Feenberg 2002:3-9).

The anthropocentric view

In the anthropocentric point of view, humans are superior beings in a world which exists to serve them alone. However, this does not necessarily have to mean that humans cannot recognise the intrinsic wrongness of anthropogenic environmental devastation. This is arguably because such destruction will harm the well-being of human beings (something for which we now see increasing evidence), since our well-being is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment, including access to resources. Environmental ethics emerged as a new subdiscipline of philosophy in the early 1970s. It challenged anthropocentrism by questioning the assumed moral superiority of human beings and suggesting an alternative: the possibility of rational arguments for assigning intrinsic value to the natural environment and its non-human contents (Brennan and Lo 2011).

It is yet to be seen both if humans can come together as well as why they do so. But as the Chinese scholar Feng Han argued (as quoted in Chakrabarty 2013): ‘Human values will always be from a human point of view.’ It could be argued that given the evidence of anthropogenic climate change and the fact that humans in the developed areas of the world have more or less been aware of their own impact on the Earth for a long time, at least since the 1970s, there is little evidence in favour of optimistic ideas of people coming together voluntarily, because it is “the right thing to do” unless incentivised. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is still conceivable that humans will come to an agreement, as it implies saving their resources, and therefore themselves. The notion of their own impact (in the form of an anthropogenic epoch) on the Earth’s resources could therefore help as a “wake up call” is needed (Vidas and Schei 2012).

Scientists, policy makers and now, increasingly, lawmakers, are starting to look at climate change from a geological point of view taking into account ways of assign responsibility for past, current and future environmental destruction. Consequently, it is useful to look at ethics and ideological dilemmas around climate change when discussing policies. This section will briefly discuss human responsibility for non-human damage as well as damage made to other parts of the world. This is something which will become increasingly important as the impact of our resource usage in the developed world is increasingly impacting underdeveloped countries (Vidal 2013). In terms of ethics, Zylinska (2014) argues that humans begin to engage in thinking about life when confronted with the prospect of death, human or nonhuman. ‘Life typically becomes an object of reflection when it is seen to be under threat.’ (Zylinska 2014:15-19). The question of how policymakers can reach out to people is therefore important. Although what the planet needs is action rather than stories, narratives of human extinction and implications of anthropogenic climate change have an impact on humans and can have a performative effect. Arguably, such narratives are powerful tools in the climate debate, and this is where adopting the new term ‘Anthropocene’ could have positive influence.

If successful, such a shift could provide an incentive for humans to take responsibility for their own immediate environment through laws and policy agreements as well as ecological damage and other issues created by climate change on a global scale. This could also involve a radical and much needed change in the way the oceans are perceived: from a sense of entitlement to them to taking responsibility for them by developing laws that apply to areas both within and outside national jurisdiction (Vidas and Schei 2011:7). These suggestions further highlight the need for global treaties. However, the outlook on such agreements being achieved either at the next major UN Climate Summit in Paris in 2015 or later is bleak, as it is yet to be seen if humanity is able to come together. For as Chakrabarty (2012) points out, humans are complex in this matter: while the need to cooperate is ‘deeply evolved’, their instinct to defend the nest is ‘hardwired’ and poses the question: ‘Do we value the non-human for its own sake or because it is good for us?’


This essay has discussed the benefits of gaining understanding of the extent of the human impact on Earth Systems by recognising the new geological epoch the Anthropocene and the need for appointing a more central role to the world’s oceans in the global climate change debate. This debate has thus far been somewhat paralysed by carbon credit when it comes to assigning blame, which steers the attention of policymakers away from reviewing the Law of the Sea. Perhaps a more successful agreement on mitigating climate change could be reached if the oceans were allowed to take centre stage in the debate.

As Zylinska (2014) argues, humans have produced narratives about different forms of apocalypse ever since we developed the ability to tell stories, Arguably, such narratives are powerful tools in the climate debate, and this is where the new anthropogenic narrative could find its place.


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