Global warming is a serious environmental problem that must be confronted internationally. I have discussed this in detail in The Ratchet. However, I was reading a great book today by paleoclimatologist Curt Stager, Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, and he made a very interesting point that I had yet to thoughtfully contemplate. What would global climate look like in the future if we had left our fossil fuels in the ground? Stager explains (Stager, 2011):
Although this does not mean that global warming is a long-term net positive for human civilization, Stager make such a devastatingly good point that we should realize some of the positive long-term aspects of our fossil fuel consumption. Of course, there are almost no positive long-term aspects of global warming if we continue business as usual, as Hank Green of SciShow brilliantly demonstrated. However, there still can be long-term positive aspects of fossil fuel consumption if we stop burning them and convert to renewable energy in the next few decades.
One of those positive aspects was the fact that the next scheduled Ice Age will no longer occur. A recent study published in Nature, revealed that even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the current interglacial period should persist (Tzedakis et al., 2012). The researchers made that calculation by comparing our current interglacial with the several previous interglacials that have occurred in the past 2-3 million years. If the pattern is consistent, and CO2 levels were at pre-industrial levels, we should have expected the Earth to inter an Ice Age in 1,500 years time. We can now rest assured that our fossil fuel burning bonanza over the past 250 years has offset that natural cycle, which would have made most of North America and Eurasia unlivable. So, it seems that we can take some positives away from our experiments with industrialization if we change now to prevent a runaway greenhouse effect.
Of course, I am not trying to downplay the severity of the problem that global warming poses to our species. As I have said before, if we do not curb our emissions we should expect to increase carbon dioxide to 560 ppm which would result in a global temperature 2-4.5 C higher than the pre-industrial levels. Many of the most populous cities would be underwater, superstorms would intensify, and ocean acidification would lead to the collapse of ecosystems. Also, releasing our economies from dependence on fossil fuels is a win-win because it allows us to base our economy on near unlimited resources, as opposed to finite resources. And despite the fact that our actions have inadvertently removed the possibility of an Ice Age in the near future, the problems we must confront because of Global Warming are still severe. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels now, drought and heat waves are going to seriously disrupt economic growth in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Anyway, I thought Curt Stager brought up an interesting point, and it is an important one to consider. The Earth’s climate changes normally and humans will always have to adapt with it in positive ways to keep improving the standard of living for our species.
Stager, C. 2011. Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth. Toronto: Harper Collins.
Tzedakis, P.C., Channell, J.E.T., Hodell, D.A., Kleiven, H.F. & Skinner, L.C. 2012. Determining the natural length of the current interglacial. Nature, 5: 138-141.