One of the friendlier aspects of the planet we live on is the very slow speed at which conditions change. Over time, the continents drift about, and new mountain ranges or valleys are formed, and the oceans slosh around in response, but all of that takes far, far longer than the lifetime of any species, let alone any one organism. This means that life has time to adapt to the changes
The climate moves slowly too. When we learn about the ice ages, it seems like a lot happening in not much time. From a geological perspective, that’s true. There have been periods when the climate was relatively stable for many hundreds of thousands of years, but our recent ice ages – the ones our distant ancestors lived through – happened on a cycle lasting tens of thousands of years.
What’s interesting is that while an ice age, or an interglacial period, or a hot period can last for tens to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, it takes far, far less time to get the climate rolling in a new direction. Huge, slow things tend to build up a lot of momentum, so once they get moving, they’re very hard to stop.
New research from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, looks at the long-term future of our climate, and compares the present with past climate changes. The results indicate something that many of us have long suspected: Even if we were to stop all fossil fuel use today, the planet would continue warming. Not only that, but the effects of what we’ve already done are likely to last 10,000 years or more.
I came to the realization some years ago that climate change was something I would be involved in for the rest of my life, but the reality is that it’s something that every organism on this planet will be involved in. This issue will not go away in our lifetimes, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes, or their great-grandchildren’s lifetimes. While we may have had an opportunity to prevent this future, that opportunity has been lost, barring some form of atmospheric carbon capture that works faster than the rate of increase from human activity, and from the numerous feedback loops that are already in action.
Of course, we can always make the problem worse – continued fossil fuel use, continued deforestation, and continued reckless farming methods could result in a much faster rise in temperature that would last much longer. There is no scenario in which it cannot get worse, up to the point where there’s no life left on the planet, so there will never be a point at which “we might as well give up” will be a legitimate argument.
But it is no longer enough to focus on reducing emissions. In reality, that hasn’t been enough for at least a decade. We need to reduce emissions, but we also need to prepare, if we want civilization to survive. We need to plan for a future in which the seas will not stop rising – not for hundreds, or thousands of years. We need to plan for a future in which farming conditions will never be reliable year to year, or decade to decade. We need to plan for a future in which diseases are no longer limited by the climates of different geographic regions.
Like it or not, we now live on an alien planet. It seems similar to the one that gave rise to our civilization, but it isn’t the same, and it will keep getting more different with the passage of time. The longer we avoid coming to terms with that fact, the more will be added to a death toll that is already climbing due to our actions.
It isn’t fair. Nobody in my generation chose this. A majority of “boomers” didn’t either. Not any more than they chose to be exposed to leaded gasoline or chose to be expose to cigarette smoke. And as much as I feel that I’ve been handed a problem that should have been solved before I was born, I’m one of the lucky ones. My country will do OK, overall. Provided we don’t start a nuclear war or something like that, we’ll do far, far better than the billions whose countries had no real role in creating this disaster, and the billions more who will be born too late to even remember when people were trying to prevent it.
I think that, as a species, we can weather this storm of our own making. I believe that we can, in coping with these changes, build a more resilient and just global society, and have a healthier relationship with the rest of life on Earth. We’ll have to, if we’re going to avoid extinction.
Like all those who have created or consumed post-apocalyptic entertainment, I can see many paths to a desolate future. I can also see many other futures, and they’re worth working towards. As a species, we have the power to build a future in which we surmount the obstacles placed before us by our elders, and to keep climbing to something better. There’s no easy path anymore – the easy path would have been to avoid this in the first place. But I can see futures worth working towards, and I think we need that right now.