Don Rogers: Never mind climate change
What if the carbon we’re spewing into the air, all this warming, holds off the next ice age and, you know, extends humanity’s grip on Earth instead of threatening it?
The last glacial period ended around 11,000 years ago. The next, absent our greenhouse pollution, would come in around 50,000 years. Theorists now forecast this is a good 500,000 years away.
What if that’s a good thing?
Five-thousand, 50,000, 500,000 years, a million — these are blips. Run a time-lapse view from space of Earth’s 4.5 billion years, and the polar ice caps would strobe in and out of existence. The oceans would pulse up and down hundreds, maybe thousands of feet. They’ve risen 400 feet in the past 20,000 years, no time at all. They’ll drop by more when the ice sheets return to Indiana, Ohio, New York City, St. Louis, Yosemite.
In the historical period, climate change may have emptied Siberia and inspired the Mongol hordes to conquer warmer climes. Cold spells have killed crops and starved large numbers of humans. Drought lasting several hundred years is the mostly likely villain in the great emptying of the desert Southwest.
Look at time by the millions and billions of years and you’ll understand this pulsing includes the cessation of nearly all life at least five times so far. Perhaps the sixth is on tap or, more likely, the meek shall indeed inherit the Earth in the form of deer, mice, cockroaches.
The Central Valley and most of Nevada were once and will again be vast seas. Wildfires have regularly scorched a landscape and seasonal climate tailored for them since long before people inhabited California and temperatures rose even higher than today’s.
The apocalypse may well be nigh, but it’s not the first time and won’t be the last. Nor is this the worst, if looking outside ourselves. Mother Nature would fare just fine shaking off her human infection.
SO MUCH HOT AIR?
Which brings us to Glasgow, where marathon talks last weekend led at last to the COP26 climate agreement. Permit me this sigh. I’m sure all that diplomacy and negotiation felt like bargaining to save the world. It was thus with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, all these grand agreements, all this talk masquerading for action.
Yes, there’s cynicism bleeding through the gilt. Countries that met the Kyoto emissions reduction goals did so by trading carbon credits and other paper slights of hand, were already reducing emissions for quite different reasons, and/or those came as a direct consequence of the global financial crisis.
And all those reductions, on paper and otherwise, were wiped out by China and United States alone. Add to this the sad fact that the European Union defines wood burning as carbon neutral, as in zero emissions, fueling a thriving wood-pellet industry across the American South. This is based on the logic that trees grow back. Uh, huh.
The United States pulled out of the 2015 Paris Agreement under President Donald Trump and still continued reducing emissions about on par with the rest of the developed world (not counting wood burning), in part from coal falling off even as the president tried to prop it up. Natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, a business decision as is increasingly becoming the case with solar.
It’s not that international climate summits are bad things or entirely a waste of fossil fuel. The agreements do have value. It’s just that we’re overlooking the more important work.
A hopeful counter to doubts about these pacts is the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Without fuss, the ozone layer is recovering on track with CFCs being phased out just as vowed.
But the real promise of these gatherings lies in trading information, sharing ideas, building relationships for further brainstorming outside the political posturing and earnest if empty proclamations about the need for this or that, along with yet more brimstone blather concerning our fiery end.
Yes, the danger is real and the evidence for humans changing the climate grows ever more compelling by the day. It’s clear we’ve been thoroughly rotten stewards.
But we’ve also gotten a lot better in many ways. Around here, we can consider the environment compared to the height of the Gold Rush for starters. The pollution warming the atmosphere is not beyond us to clean up, either.
As for coal being a major sticking point for the COP26 agreement, its time is passing fast regardless.
Climate change might be the defining crisis of our era, but it’s not the scariest.
Nature knows exactly how to convert carbon gas to solid form, and so do we. It won’t take us 50 more years to figure out how to do this inexpensively and at scale. By then we’ll be well unhooked from fossil fuels in the next great energy advancement already well underway. This isn’t even half a blink in Earth time. It wouldn’t be in 100.
But as these things go with us, a prime tool for solving humanity’s current existential challenge will lead inevitably into the next one. I worry that’s artificial intelligence, whether in the “dumb” specialized forms or the general one that outwits and outperforms us on our own terms.
And where will we fit in if this form of life or whatever evolves beyond us? God may love us, but a higher intelligence would likely be more discerning. What if it came to the reasonable conclusion that the problem here is not so much the carbon, but the people?
I mean, have you looked at a fever chart of the world’s population growth? We’re the pandemic. Cure this and a lot else gets solved, too.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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