The Earth System has become intelligent

Excerpt from “CLIMATE: a short book to walk a long way”. Frank Raes, European Commission, EUR 21837, 2005

The history of climate is in general bound up with the history of life itself, and in particular with that of the human race. It is likely that the emissions of CO2 from within the Earth and the consequent natural greenhouse effect laid down the conditions necessary for the origin of life, 3.5 billion years ago. Climate change and the transformations of forests into desert in East Africa were to offer other options for the development of that particular group of primates from which the forebears of mankind originated, 2,5 million years ago.

The relatively stable climate in the last 10.000 years corresponds to the development of civilization. Before then, human beings always had to adapt to climate changes, moving to better places to survive. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, when a warmer and more stable climate appeared, humans were able to give up nomadic life and develop farming and crop cultivation. The interaction of the human being with the environment, in particular the use of natural resources, enabled subsequent development to advance rapidly.

Since human beings are an integral part of the Earth System, the Earth System has become intelligent. Human beings can reflect on their own actions and adapt them. Human intelligence is a new feedback mechanism inside the System, but we are still not certain whether that feedback is negative or positive, whether it will lead to regulation or to explosion. Human beings are only now realizing that they are damaging the environment through unlimited use of natural resources. They have also brought about changes in that climate which, for 10.000 years, has created the conditions for their material and intellectual development.

At the present time, politicians are trying to control the negative collateral effects of that trend. The 1987 Montreal Protocol sets limits on the production of gases that deplete the protective ozone layer. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol requires the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions that cause warming at global scale. At the same time, scientific research aims at technical progress that leads to a more effective use of energy resources and control of pollution.

Even if political processes and technical developments are slow, it seems that human intelligence can act as a control mechanism in the Earth System. Human beings set themselves the goal of sustainable development, namely, development that does not end up putting obstacles in its own path.