World of Wonders

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Climate Change: Take a chill pill?

According to columnist Neil Reynolds of the Globe and Mail, when it comes to global warming, we can all relax. As he advises in the title of his July 19th column, “Please Remain Calm: The Earth will heal itself.”

The title is the message Reynolds takes from an article by Nobel laureate and physicist Robert Laughlin in the summer issue of The American Scholar. In “What the Earth Knows”, Laughlin writes that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about climate change, nor our consumption of fossil fuels, because our planet has endured global devastations in the past and has always recovered. “The Earth,” he writes, “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.”

To be clear, Laughlin doesn’t appear to be a global warming denier. In his article he clearly states: “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 build-up 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.”

But the conclusion he comes to is the same as that of deniers: there is no need to act. There is no need to alter our profligate fossil fuel consumption. Carbon caps, carbon sequestration research, alternate energy technologies, turning off your air conditioner, refrigerator and television set, turning down your thermostat, driving a hybrid car—none of these measures are necessary. In his words, “the Earth doesn’t care.”

What’s more, “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.” At best, any changes we make in our use of fossil fuels will merely change the amount of time it takes to turn them into carbon, after which the planet will subsequently and naturally reabsorb them.

The problem is that Laughlin confuses global upheavals like volcanism, meteor impacts and mountain formation with a phenomenon like human-caused global warming. Thousands of air travellers grounded in Europe this year became only too familiar with our inability to control volcanoes. But while we may not be able to control such forces of nature, we can control anthropogenic climate change. We created it—we can un-create it. After all, we faced a similar global threat when we burned a hole in the ozone layer but, thanks to the Montreal Protocol in limiting CFCs, we are well on our way to defusing that danger.

Laughlin also confuses the enduring planet with the life on it. Yes, the Earth is a “survivor.” It has recovered from global upheavals much greater in magnitude than global warming. But there’s a difference between the planet and the fragile life-forms on it. We could consume all our fossil fuel reserves as recklessly and rapidly as possible, and the Earth would heal itself. It could put up with a rise in global temperatures and ocean levels, and drastic extremes in weather. The planet would survive—but that doesn’t mean we would. And that’s a chilling prospect.


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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shockley Au, Chris Sasaki. Chris Sasaki said: Climate Change: Take a chill pill? The Earth may survive, but what about us? #climate #globeandmail #laughlin […]

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