Earth’s “Self-Correction”

No Excuse for Environmental Destruction

by Kai MacTane

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British scientists are now saying that the Earth “shook off” an ancient period of global warming, according to the BBC. Not only that, but they now understand just how the Earth’s environment managed to correct itself. And this isn’t just good news in terms of human knowledge about the world we live in; it’s also wonderful news for those of us who worry that rampaging industrialization and callous pollution will wreck the Earth’s environment forever, and encouraging news for those who support the Gaia Hypothesis (whether in “weak” or “strong” form).

But the worrisome problem is, it may be the best news of all for the polluters. This may turn out to be more fodder for the Bush Administration’s desire to avoid doing anything to inconvenience big industry in its plans to rape the Earth’s resources to the last drop. I predict that it won’t even be April before we hear some Bush Administration spokesperson or flack claim that, “even if global warming were a problem, it wouldn’t matter, because the Earth’s environment will just auto-correct the problem.” So before that happens, let’s take a closer look at the details, and see if this is really a solution.

The image we’re likely to get in the political, policy arena is that of the Earth continually compensating for what we humans do, keeping the climate more-or-less like we’ve been used to. But the image that emerges from the BBC article is entirely different: according to it, the Earth’s temperature originally shot up by roughly 5°C (9°F), some 180 million years ago. It then leveled off, coming back to its original temperature average, over a period of 150,000 years.

That’s longer than I’d personally like to wait before the damage done by reckless use of CFCs is undone. It’s certainly longer than I want my nephews and their descendants to have to wait — to say nothing of any children I might someday have.

It’s also worth taking close note of exactly how the article says this climatic correction was achieved: the UK scientists state that “this warming caused the weathering of rocks on the Earth’s surface to rapidly increase by at least 400%”, and that this “intense rock-weathering effectively put a brake on global warming through chemical reactions that consumed the atmosphere’s extra carbon dioxide.” Now, “intense rock-weathering” may sound like a very interesting concept to a geologist — especially one who’s confronting the idea at a remove of 180 million years from the actual event — but what does that actually mean for someone who has to live through it?

At a rough guess, I’d say it means some incredibly intense weather. The scientists say that, while they found no direct evidence of increased precipitation during the time studied, they believe there were “no limitations on water” during that time. It all sounds terrifyingly reminiscent of John Barnes’ Mother of Storms, which delves into meteorology and climatology to postulate that a global temperature spike could easily result in mammoth hurricanes, an order of magnitude greater than anything seen in recorded history.

Of course, that’s a more apocalyptic scenario than might be suggested by a mere 400% increase in rock weathering. But the minimum lesson to be gained from that statistic is the weather will be four times worse than it is now. Even that sounds at least as bad as the perpetual rain of Blade Runner — again, not the sort of thing I want to see the human race subjected to for the next 150,000 years. To get even a vague idea of how long that is, consider that we haven’t even had agriculture for one tenth of that time — a mere 15,000 years ago, all of humanity lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and the first permanent settlement still lay roughly five to seven millennia in the future.

As the UK scientific team’s leader put it to the BBC, “What we have learned... is how the Earth can, over a long time, combat global warming. What we need to discover now is why and at what point it goes into combat mode, and precisely how long the conflict takes to resolve.” That may be the mission of science, but it’s something we should discover through lab work — not through the painful experience of our descendants.

Kai MacTane is the webmaster of Freak Nation. He doesn’t like rain, and really doesn’t like it when it rains for 150,000 years. He’d like to believe that his species is smart enough not to deliberately mess up their only planet’s environment...