On the Path to “Hothouse Earth”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Aug. 14, 2018

Excerpts from “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”

Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Sarah E. Cornell, Michel Crucifix, Jonathan F. Donges, Ingo Fetzer, Steven J. Lade, Marten Scheffer, Ricarda Winkelmann, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

PNAS August 14, 2018 115 (33) 8252-8259; published ahead of print August 6, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115

Edited by William C. Clark, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved July 6, 2018 (received for review June 19, 2018)


We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be. If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch (1) based on the observation that human impacts on essential planetary processes have become so profound (2) that they have driven the Earth out of the Holocene epoch in which agriculture, sedentary communities, and eventually, socially and technologically complex human societies developed. The formalization of the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch is being considered by the stratigraphic community (3), but regardless of the outcome of that process, it is becoming apparent that Anthropocene conditions transgress Holocene conditions in several respects (2). The knowledge that human activity now rivals geological forces in influencing the trajectory of the Earth System has important implications for both Earth System science and societal decision making. While recognizing that different societies around the world have contributed differently and unequally to pressures on the Earth System and will have varied capabilities to alter future trajectories (4), the sum total of human impacts on the system needs to be taken into account for analyzing future trajectories of the Earth System.

Here, we explore potential future trajectories of the Earth System by addressing the following questions.

  • Is there a planetary threshold in the trajectory of the Earth System that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization in a range of intermediate temperature rises?
  • Given our understanding of geophysical and biosphere feedbacks intrinsic to the Earth System, where might such a threshold be?
  • If a threshold is crossed, what are the implications, especially for the wellbeing of human societies?
  • What human actions could create a pathway that would steer the Earth System away from the potential threshold and toward the maintenance of interglacial-like conditions?

Addressing these questions requires a deep integration of knowledge from biogeophysical Earth System science with that from the social sciences and humanities on the development and functioning of human societies (5). Integrating the requisite knowledge can be difficult, especially in light of the formidable range of timescales involved. Increasingly, concepts from complex systems analysis provide a framework that unites the diverse fields of inquiry relevant to the Anthropocene (6). Earth System dynamics can be described, studied, and understood in terms of trajectories between alternate states separated by thresholds that are controlled by nonlinear processes, interactions, and feedbacks. Based on this framework, we argue that social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several millions of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.


Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.

Where such a threshold might be is uncertain, but it could be only decades ahead at a temperature rise of ∼2.0 °C above preindustrial, and thus, it could be within the range of the Paris Accord temperature targets.

The impacts of a Hothouse Earth pathway on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive.

Avoiding this threshold by creating a Stabilized Earth pathway can only be achieved and maintained by a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System, recognizing that humanity is an integral, interacting component of the system. Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia (88).

How credible is this analysis? There is significant evidence from a number of sources that the risk of a planetary threshold and thus, the need to create a divergent pathway should be taken seriously:

First, the complex system behavior of the Earth System in the Late Quaternary is well-documented and understood. The two bounding states of the system—glacial and interglacial—are reasonably well-defined, the ca. 100,000-years periodicity of the limit cycle is established, and internal (carbon cycle and ice albedo feedbacks) and external (changes in insolation caused by changes in Earth’s orbital parameters) driving processes are generally well-known. Furthermore, we know with high confidence that the progressive disintegration of ice sheets and the transgression of other tipping elements are difficult to reverse after critical levels of warming are reached.

Second, insights from Earth’s recent geological past (SI Appendix) suggest that conditions consistent with the Hothouse Earth pathway are accessible with levels of atmospheric CO2 concentration and temperature rise either already realized or projected for this century (SI Appendix, Table S1).

Third, the tipping elements and feedback processes that operated over Quaternary glacial–interglacial cycles are the same as several of those proposed as critical for the future trajectory of the Earth System (Biogeophysical FeedbacksTipping CascadesFig. 3Table 1, and SI Appendix, Table S2).

Fourth, contemporary observations (2938) (SI Appendix) of tipping element behavior at an observed temperature anomaly of about 1 °C above preindustrial suggest that some of these elements are vulnerable to tipping within just a 1 °C to 3 °C increase in global temperature, with many more of them vulnerable at higher temperatures (Biogeophysical Feedbacks and Tipping Cascades) (121739). This suggests that the risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 °C temperature rise and could increase sharply beyond that point. We argue that a planetary threshold in the Earth System could exist at a temperature rise as low as 2 °C above preindustrial.

The Stabilized Earth trajectory requires deliberate management of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System if the world is to avoid crossing a planetary threshold. We suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies is required. Even so, the pathway toward Stabilized Earth will involve considerable changes to the structure and functioning of the Earth System, suggesting that resilience-building strategies be given much higher priority than at present in decision making. Some signs are emerging that societies are initiating some of the necessary transformations. However, these transformations are still in initial stages, and the social/political tipping points that definitively move the current trajectory away from Hothouse Earth have not yet been crossed, while the door to the Stabilized Earth pathway may be rapidly closing.

Our initial analysis here needs to be underpinned by more in-depth, quantitative Earth System analysis and modeling studies to address three critical questions. (i) Is humanity at risk for pushing the system across a planetary threshold and irreversibly down a Hothouse Earth pathway? (ii) What other pathways might be possible in the complex stability landscape of the Earth System, and what risks might they entail? (iii) What planetary stewardship strategies are required to maintain the Earth System in a manageable Stabilized Earth state?


September 11th, 2018|Articles, home, Research, Science and Analysis|