The term 'catastrophe' in my title is not chosen idly, but reflects the now well-established fact that Earth is experiencing (anthropogenic) climate change at a rate and scale unparalleled in human history (IPCC 2007a). Dramatic events such as the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are so unexpected that one retains a clear memory of precisely when and where one learned of them. Regrettably, climate change is subtler, its effects slower, its consequences less immediately obvious. Yet something of the same is true. In my own case, I vividly recall the moment when I first grasped what it might mean. At the 1993 Kimberley meeting of the Southern African Society for Quaternary Research (SASQUA), a presenter commented that her palaeoenvironmental research, which reached back through the Holocene, might, perhaps, be relevant to modelling future climatic change. Back came the comment from another participant that the Holocene climatic 'optimum' was far from relevant; a bestcase analogue might instead be the conditions prevailing during the Pliocene, 5.3-1.8 million years ago.