A new equation has been published that has the potential to settle the debate of how big an impact human activity has had on the environment, in comparison to natural forces. This equation, created by the authors that proposed that we’re living in a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, is meant to offer a mathematical formalization of our everyday discourse regarding global warming — putting hard numbers to what can oftentimes devolve into a nebulous argument — and the result of the equation is alarming.
The equation in question, dubbed the "Anthropocene equation", was arrived at by Owen Gaffney of the University of Stockholm, and Will Steffen of the Australian National University. The equation takes into account a variety of known factors from natural forces that have influenced Earth’s life support system, including geological and astronomical forces. The equation then compares the outcome of that side of the equation with the human side of the equation.
And the outcome is quite damning: in the equation’s expression, nature itself has averaged a temperature decrease of only 0.01ºC per century over the past 7,000 years, while human impact has had an increase of 1.7ºC over a mere half-century — that’s 170 times the impact, and over a time period 14,000 times shorter than the baseline provided by nature.
The seeming lopsidedness of the equation’s result comes from one factor: that nature, on average, tends to move slowly in regards to changes in climate, but humanity’s impact has been, on a geological timescale, extremely abrupt.
"In the equation, astronomical and geophysical forces tend to zero because of their slow nature or rarity, as do internal dynamics, for now," Gaffney explains. "All these forces still exert pressure, but currently on orders of magnitude less than human impact."
Gaffney and Steffen are hoping that, by illustrating the issue with hard numbers, their equation will end the argument over the extent of humanity’s impact on the environment. But will the debaters listen? Gaffney is optimistic, saying in an article in New Scientist that he believes the Anthropocene equation "creates an unequivocal statement of the risks industrialised societies are taking at a time when action is vital."