America’s energy policy is often dictated by short-term requirements: increasing need, lags in the development of alternative energy sources, the discovery and exploitation of new sources of fossil fuels. Environmentalists have typically cautioned in the past that such short-term thinking is progressively more detrimental to the global ecosystem and responsible energy policy will account for long-term considerations.
Okay, said George F. Will. Let’s look ahead a few hundred thousand years. What we’re doing now, he concludes in this recent Newsweek column, has no effect on the earth in the long term. His column is based on (read: largely a rewrite and oversimplification of) a recent American Scholar article by Nobel-winning physicist Robert Laughlin.
What humans do to, and ostensibly for, the earth does not matter in the long run, and the long run is what matters to the earth. We must, Laughlin says, think about the earth’s past in terms of geologic time.
Will doesn’t seem to have the greatest grasp on science or its deeper policy implications.
For example: The world’s total precipitation in a year is about one meter—“the height of a golden retriever.” About 200 meters—the height of the Hoover Dam—have fallen on earth since the Industrial Revolution. Since the Ice Age ended, enough rain has fallen to fill all the oceans four times; since the dinosaurs died, rainfall has been sufficient to fill the oceans 20,000 times. Yet the amount of water on earth probably hasn’t changed significantly over geologic time.
Will is correct that there is approximately the same amount of water on earth as there ever has been. That’s because of something called the water cycle (or the hydrologic cycle if you want to get all science-y), which unless I’m mistaken is taught to every second grader in America.
Since, according to Will, the ocean levels have stayed roughly the same despite significant rainfall in the last few billion years, the earth will be just fine in the long run.
Someday, all the fossil fuels that used to be in the ground will be burned. After that, in about a millennium, the earth will dissolve most of the resulting carbon dioxide into the oceans. (The oceans have dissolved in them “40 times more carbon than the atmosphere contains, a total of 30 trillion tons, or 30 times the world’s coal reserves.”) The dissolving will leave the concentration in the atmosphere only slightly higher than today’s. Then “over tens of millennia, or perhaps hundreds” the earth will transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, “eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene.” This will take an eternity as humans reckon, but a blink in geologic time.
Again, Will is right only technically. But energy policy cannot be dictated by geologic time scales — a stretch of time useful only in academic research.
In his original piece, Laughlin, whose work has been in theoretical physics, does indeed reframe clime change in geologic time.
On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: all the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn.
In the short term, Laughlin says, of more immediate importance is the human population, which has been growing exponentially for some time. Humans are taxing earth’s resources to the limit and have already initiated what scientists call the sixth great extinction (the previous five being less serious extinctions, including the dinosaurs at the hands of a massive asteroid).
However, carbon dioxide, per se, is not responsible for most of this extinction stress. There are a handful of counterexamples, notably corals, which may be especially sensitive to acidification of the ocean surface, and amphibians, which are declining noticeably for unknown reasons. But, except in these few isolated cases, keeping carbon-based fuels in the ground a while longer won’t make much difference in mitigating the loss of biodiversity. The real problem is human population pressure generally—overharvesting, habitat destruction, pesticide abuse, species invasion, and so forth. Slowing man-made extinctions in a meaningful way would require drastically reducing the world’s human population. That is unlikely to happen.
Laughlin’s article is really quite academic in its scope, not useful to policymakers and politicians.
Energy procurement is a matter of engineering and keeping the lights on under circumstances that are likely to get more difficult as time progresses. Climate change, by contrast, is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself. … The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.
Will posits that Laughlin is telling us to simply give up on preventing climate change, something he is absolutely not promulgating. Laughlin is simply reframing climate change in geologic time, something that reveals some of the silliness around arguing to “halt” climate change. Extreme climate change not caused by man is going to happen, eventually — but not for any of us, or even our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren to see. That’s why Will has to shift from a short-term outlook to a geologic timescale; climate change is relevant largely in between those extremes, in the next century to millennium. Planning for less time than that would be disastrous; planning for more would be pointless.
The earth will be around in a few million years, Laughlin says — but will humans? Will hijacks Laughlin’s article (which, admittedly, presents climate change as a constantly changing and not-at-all-certain field, which it is) for his own anti-climate change purposes, and it borders on hubris.
Ultimately, Will’s argument is semantic. But “Save the planet” is not a literal mantra; instead, it advocates protecting the current environment from change so drastic and swift humans do not have time to adapt.
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