A Geological Perspective on Climate
A great benefit of studying geological time, even at the introductory class level, is an opportunity for seeing things in a broad perspective. We know our sun will burn out one day and life as we know it on planet earth will no longer be possible. We also know that, for the vast majority of the planet’s geological history (about five billion years), no habitats were capable of supporting mammalian life. In earth’s geological history, mammals showed up very recently, and primates even more recently than that.
And yet many of us seem to have the implicit sense of entitlement that we “deserve” to continue enjoying our human-friendly habitats indefinitely. Naturally we worry about the habitability of the planet, as well we should. But when it comes to something like our contemporary concerns about climate, we should be more cautious about confusing cause and effect as well as causation and correlation.
In the popular media, at least, the buzz-phrase “climate change” actually indicates anthropogenic climate change — i.e., a climate altered by human activity, especially involving fossil fuel consumption and the release of carbon dioxide. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
The planet has been generally warming for the past 11,000 years or so, since the last ice age (called the Wisconsin glaciation in North America). This is why people could walk from Siberia to Alaska, across the famous Beringia land bridge, which is what we now call the Bering Strait sea passage. This is also how prehistoric people painted on the walls of Cosquer Cave in southern France, a cavern now accessible only to the most skilled of scuba divers. It is how and why a freshwater lake (north of contemporary Turkey) became the Black Sea, leaving archaeological traces of human settlement on the former lake shores as well as a record of all the freshwater life killed more or less instantly when all that saline ocean water came pouring in.
In any case, there is no doubt the planet has been warming for millennia, with worldwide sea levels now around 300 feet higher than they were during the last ice age. That geological warming, by the way, has made places like Canada habitable to its current levels of population.
Have humans been enhancing this geological warming since the Industrial Revolution? That is the real question, far more debated among climate scientists than the general media and their main source of information (the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) would have you believe.
If the mainstream media is your only source of information, it might come as a shock to you to learn that not all climate scientists believe carbon dioxide is the global warming culprit that climate change alarmists think it is. But let’s ignore that for a moment and ponder why we are not capturing and sequestering carbon on a massive scale? There is no doubt we are releasing massive amounts of atmospheric carbon with fossil fuel consumption — why not capture the carbon and sequester it? Carbon capture technology goes back at least to the onset of the nuclear submarine era, and in more recent decades engineers (particularly in Europe) have devised various sequestration techniques for storing or even using captured carbon. Granted, carbon capture is still in its Model T phase, but I have hope it will soon be in its Tesla phase. Theoretically, we could have zero carbon emissions in relatively short order — in fact, if we wanted to, we could probably even remove more atmospheric carbon than we are introducing.
All of this would be expensive folly if atmospheric carbon dioxide turned out not to be the global warming culprit of popular belief. But even so, in the vast history of follysome human activities, I would be surprised if this one would even end up making the top ten list.
Compared to carbon dioxide, most climate scientists agree that methane has far more potential as a climate-altering gas. Certainly we could mitigate methane release by reducing beef consumption and thus cattle farming. Americans in particular might see significant health improvements thereby. But what would we do if volcanoes and ocean floors began releasing more methane than they have since our species came to populate the planet? Beyond carbon capture improvements, I also hope someone is tinkering with the idea of methane capture technology!
But we should remember that, long before the advent of homo sapiens, there were geological events that significantly altered the climate — probably none more profoundly than the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (about 55 million years ago). The PETM was massive non-anthropogenic climate change.
So of course we should care about our only home, planet earth. But current fears of “climate crisis” (as the media calls it) have more to do with sensational journalism and science corrupted by policy agendas. After all, not that long ago a “consensus” of scientists were warning us of an impending ice age. No matter how it turns out, the entire phenomenon will mean little in the broader swath of geological time.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
I cover some of the above, with all sources in numerous footnotes, in Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism: The Grand Responsibility of Stewardship (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2019). Otherwise, the reader might consult the following:
Phil Jardine, “The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,” Paleontology Online 1:5 (Jan. 10, 2011), 1–7.
Barbara J. Finlayson-Pitts and James N. Pitts, Chemistry of the Lower and Upper Atmosphere: Theory, Experiments, and Applications (San Diego: Academic Pr., 2000).
Tor Håkon Inderberg and Jørgen Wettestad, “Carbon Capture and Storage in the UK and Germany: Easier Task, Stronger Commitment?” Environmental Politics 24:6 (2015): 1014–1033.
William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1998).
Andreas Tjernshaugen, “The Growth of Political Support for CO2 Capture and Storage in Norway,” Environmental Politics 20:2 (March 2011): 227–45.
Copyright © Will Sarvis, 2020; re-posted, March 2022. All rights reserved.