Robert B. Laughlin is a professor of physics at Stanford University and a co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physics. He is warning his scientist friend that they are going overboard about climate change. In the latest issue of the American Scholar Dr. Laughlin explains that the earth has been through a lot worse.
The Earth regulates climate change in geologic time, Prof. Laughlin says, “without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself.” If the Earth determines that Canada should freeze again, the best response would simply be to sell your Canadian real estate. The Earth moves on, Prof. Laughlin says. So should we.
“Understanding the concept of geologic time and some basic science can give a new perspective on climate change and the energy future”
Geologic time is such a vast concept that it’s helpful to convert it to something more pedestrian just to get oriented. I like rainfall.
- The total precipitation that falls on the world in one year is about one meter of rain, the height of a golden retriever.
- The total amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the industrial revolution began is about 200 meters, the height of Hoover Dam.
- The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the time of Moses is enough to fill up all the oceans.
- The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the Ice Age ended is enough to fill up all the oceans four times.
- The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the dinosaurs died is enough to fill up all the oceans 20,000 times—or the entire volume of the earth three times.
- The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since coal formed is enough to fill up the earth 15 times.
- The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since oxygen formed is enough to fill the earth 100 times.
Common sense tells us that damaging a thing this old is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish—like invading Russia. The earth has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor. We don’t know exactly how the earth recovered from these devastations, because the rocks don’t say very much about that, but we do know that it did recover—the proof of it being that we are here.
Nonetheless, damaging the earth is precisely what’s concerning a lot of responsible people at the moment. Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This buildup has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets. Governments around the world have become so alarmed at this prospect that they’ve taken significant, although ineffective, steps to slow the warming. These actions include legislating carbon caps, funding carbon sequestration research, subsidizing alternate energy technologies, and initiating at least one serious international treaty process to balance the necessary economic sacrifices across borders.
Unfortunately, this concern isn’t reciprocated. 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. The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly 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. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time.
….Global warming forecasts have the further difficulty that you can’t find much actual global warming in present-day weather observations. In principle, changes in climate should show up in rainfall statistics, hurricane frequency, temperature records, and so forth. As a practical matter they don’t, because weather patterns are dominated by large multi-year events in the oceans, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation, which have nothing to do with climate change. In order to test the predictions, you’d have to separate these big effects from subtle, inexorable changes on scales of centuries, and nobody knows how to do that yet.
Humans can unquestionably do damage persisting for geologic time if you count their contribution to biodiversity loss. A considerable amount of evidence shows that humans are causing what biologists call the “sixth mass extinction,” an allusion to the five previous cases in the fossil record where huge numbers of species died out mysteriously in a flash of geologic time. A popular, and plausible, explanation for the last of these events, the one when the dinosaurs disappeared, is that an asteroid 10 kilometers in diameter, traveling 15 kilometers per second, struck the earth and exploded with the power of a million 100-megaton hydrogen warheads. The damage that human activity presently inflicts, many say, is comparable to this. Extinctions, unlike carbon dioxide excesses, are permanent. The earth didn’t replace the dinosaurs after they died, notwithstanding the improved weather conditions and 20,000 ages of Moses to make repairs. It just moved on and became something different than it had been before.
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.
It’s a mistake to suspend judgment on questions of population, climate, and carbon use just because they’re sensitive. If you do, you’ll become incapacitated by confusion. Earth scientists tend to be ultraconservative when it comes to the future, presumably because the scientific ethic forbids mixing speculation with fact, and go to extraordinary lengths to prove by means of measurement that the globe is warming now, the ocean is acidifying now, fossil fuel is being exhausted now, and so forth, even though these things are self-evident in geologic time. The unhappy result is more and more data but less and less understanding—a common problem in science but an especially acute problem in climatology. In such situations it’s essential to weigh facts more strongly if they are simple, and use this practice to sweep away confusion whenever you can.
…The continents have moved up and down over the course of geologic time a greater distance than the sea is deep. We know this because the total thickness of sedimentary rock in some places exceeds four kilometers. After dating the Weald, Darwin also observed that the total thickness of all the sedimentary strata in England would total 22 kilometers if piled on top of one another. It wasn’t clear at the time how literally to interpret this fact, because nobody had mined straight down through all the layers; nor did anyone know for sure how deep the ocean was. But now the oceans have been thoroughly surveyed, and oil technologies such as echo stratigraphy and deep drilling routinely find sedimentary rock layers 10 to 15 kilometers thick. The most sensational example of such thicknesses is the Grand Canyon, which required a three-kilometer uplift from sea level to be cut by the Colorado River, and which forms, together with Utah’s Escalante Staircase, a total sedimentary mass 10 kilometers thick. The Grand Canyon also demonstrates that uplift and subsidence alternated, since it contains plant fossil layers sandwiched between marine fossil layers. Less famous but no less relevant to the vastness of geologic time is the nearby Animas River canyon, which cuts through sedimentary rock five kilometers thick. Around the world, sedimentary deposits over one kilometer thick are commonplace.
Sea level has not, however, moved up and down over the course of geologic time an amount greater than the mountains are tall. We know this because marine sediments have accumulated continuously for the last 600 million years, which they would not have done if continental erosion had stopped or the seabed had emptied. Moreover, you can work backward from clues left in the rocks to reckon what the sea level was in the geologic past. This process has methodological uncertainties, because it involves judgments about how layer sequences in different parts of the world line up, what constitutes evidence for shorelines, and how the earth’s crust yielded and rebounded as masses of rock came and went. However, it’s accurate enough to tell you that the amount of water on the earth hasn’t changed significantly over geologic time, and that the rise and fall of the oceans is adequately accounted for by the waxing and waning of the polar ice sheets and slow changes in ocean basin volumes. The sea level has had a complex and interesting history, but it has never deviated more than 200 meters from its present value.
…The major glacial episodes are spectacular examples of the natural climate change that has occurred in geologic time. They took place at regular intervals of 100,000 years and always followed the same strange pattern of slow, steady cooling followed by abrupt warming back to conditions similar to today’s. We know this because chemical records in polar ice, the patterns of which match those of the sediments, contain a signal that strongly tracks the earth’s precessional wobble, the 24,000-year cyclic drift of the earth’s spin axis caused by the gravitational tugging of the moon and sun. The precession is a clock-like astronomical quantity, so its appearance in the ice data enables a precise dating of the ice. That, in turn, enables a precise dating of the sediments. The last glacial melting, cross-dated at 15,000 years ago by the radiocarbon age of wood debris left by the glaciers as they retreated, occurred rapidly. The sea rose more than one centimeter per year for 10,000 years, then stopped. The extra heat required for this melting was 10 times the present energy consumption of civilization. The total meltwater flow was the equivalent of two Amazons, or half the discharge of all the rivers in all the world.
The great ice episodes were not the only cases of natural climate change, however. Six million years ago the Mediterranean Sea dried up. Ninety million years ago alligators and turtles cavorted in the Arctic. One hundred fifty million years ago the oceans flooded the middle of North America and preserved dinosaur bones. Three hundred million years ago, northern Europe burned to a desert and coal formed in Antarctica. The great ice episodes themselves were preceded by approximately 30 smaller ones between one and two million years ago, and perhaps twice that many before that.
Nobody knows why these dramatic climate changes occurred in the ancient past. Ideas that commonly surface include perturbations to the earth’s orbit by other planets, disruptions of ocean currents, the rise and fall of greenhouse gases, heat reflection by snow, continental drift, comet impacts, Genesis floods, volcanoes, and slow changes in the irradiance of the sun. No scientifically solid support has been found for any of these suggestions. One thing we know for sure is that people weren’t involved. There weren’t enough people around during the ice episodes to matter, and there weren’t any people around before the ice episodes.
The geologic record as we know it thus suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy. 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 earth doesn’t include the potentially catastrophic effects on civilization in its planning. Far from being responsible for damaging the earth’s climate, civilization might not be able to forestall any of these terrible changes once the earth has decided to make them. Were the earth determined to freeze Canada again, for example, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything except selling your real estate in Canada. If it decides to melt Greenland, it might be best to unload your property in Bangladesh. 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.
Indeed, there has been much evidence released lately, showing that any climate change that may be happening today has little to do with CO2 and a lot to do with regular cycles of the earth. Unfortunately the Scientific Cosa Nostra that is trying to prove that climate change in a man made phenomenon refuse to consider any evidence that distracts from their goal of shoving their hoax down our throats.