The next weeks will be intense for climate change activists. In Copenhagen from December 8 to December 18 sixty five world leaders are meeting for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The Obama administration showed its commitment to the issue of climate change in its joint statement November 24th with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh committing both heads of state to “contribute to global efforts to combat climate change.”
Then the EPA opened the way for executive orders on climate issues from the White House when it announced December 7th that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and the environment. Climate change opponents like Scripps Howard News Service editorial writer Jay Ambrose screamed “tyranny.”
President Obama underscored his concern about global warming the same day when he met at the White House with climate champion Al Gore. And President Obama will make a personal appearance at the Copenhagen climate talks on December 18th. Meanwhile, anti-climate change forces have put private emails from the University of East Anglia's climate research unit online to discredit the scientific leaders of the climate change research community. That’s triggered a flood of accusations from the right, which has dubbed the release of these emails “Climategate.”
What’s the public reaction to this free for all? A Washington Post-ABC News poll released November 24th indicated that the public was losing its faith in the inconvenient truth promoted by climate change proponents. And a Harris Interactive Poll on December 8th backed that up when it revealed that belief in climate change was dropping fast, sliding from the 71% of Americans who believed in climate change in 2007 to 51% today.
There’s good reason for the fuss. A multi-trillion dollar bet and the very future of humanity may hinge on the accuracy of the climate change activist’s primary policy claim—that decreasing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere can stabilize the earth’s climate.
But that bet has almost no chance of panning out. Not for the usual reasons. Not because the climate change activists are wrong about the instability of the climate.
But because climate instability is far greater than they imagine.
Climate change will happen with or without carbon sequestration and green technology—much as green technology and green energy are necessities. How do we know? There have been 60 ice ages in the two million years during which we’ve climbed from Homo erectus to our current peak as Homo industrialus. And there have been 20 sudden global warmings in the 120,000 years since we emerged from our pre-human state to our current physical form as fully modern humans, Homo sapiens.
The 12,000 year stretch from the end of the Ice Age to today has been an abnormally long period of climate stability. We are long overdue for a major climate flip. And frankly, we do not know whether that flip will be a rapid warming or a dip into an icy deep freeze like the ones that plagued us during the Pleistocene era. There’s only one thing we can be sure of, one thing we must prepare for—massive change.
There were no tailpipes and smokestacks from two million years ago until the invention of agriculture. Yet the climate fried and froze more than 60 times. Why?
Man and biomass are not the only determinants of climate. The earth is on a journey that takes it through dangers stranger than those that encountered by Frodo the Hobbit on his way to the Lonely Mountain The earth goes through strange tilts and wobbles as it circles the sun. Those twists, those precessions, give us the massive weather changes of the Milankovich cycle, a cycle we go through every 22,000, 41,000 and 100,000 years.
But the wobbles of the earth are nothing compared to the journey we take as inhabitants of a solar system on the move. Our sun and its tiny clutch of planets circles the black hole at the center of our galaxy once every 226,000 years. That trip takes us through spiral arms of the galaxy, arms whose cosmic rays wreak havoc on our weather every 143 million years. Our journey around the galactic core also takes us through “galactic fluff,” clouds of cosmic dust. In a normal year our outer atmosphere collects 30 million kilograms of cosmic dust.
But when we whiffle our way through the “fluff,” that amount triples, once again causing massive climate change.
Then there’s the sun itself, which not only undergoes shifts in eleven year patterns but which is now 43% warmer than it was when the planet earth first formed 4.5 billion years ago.
That’s a heavy-duty climate warmer.
What’s more to the point, our passage through the worst the galaxy can throw at us causes shifts in weather patterns that wreak havoc on life. Those weather shifts—plus the occasional meteor--have produced mass extinctions every 26.5 million years. That’s roughly 142 mass extinctions since life began its adventure nearly four billion years ago. All without tailpipes, smokestacks, and capitalism.
When geologists like James Hutton and Charles Lyall first began to read the past of our planet in fossils and in the strata of rock 200 years ago, they noticed something ominous. There were fossilized seashells on mountaintops. Mountaintops had once been at the bottom of seas. What’s more, solid land had once been swamp. And coastal real estate had been the most unstable of all, ending up underwater or high and dry. We humans are coast-hugging creatures. As Plato put it, we are like frogs dotted around a pond. Over 60% of us live near coasts. And coasts are fragile places to be.
The bottom line? Weather change will come. Massive weather change. It will come with or without the mitigation of greenhouse gases. And—like the indigenous people of Indonesia’s Aceh who build their houses on stilts--we have to be prepared to triumph over disaster. We cannot waste trillions on just one form of climate change. We have to be prepared for both fire and ice. Or, to put it differently, we have to realize that Mother Nature is not nice.
Howard Bloom is the author of The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“exhilaratingly-written and masterfully-researched. I couldn't put it down.”--James Burke), The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History ("mesmerizing"—The Washington
Post), and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century ("reassuring and sobering"—The New Yorker). He is also founder and head of The Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell and members from NASA and the National Science Foundation.