Bridging the political divide

Let’s prepare for the inevitable, and embrace the positives

To more fully understand the reality and implications of climate change, one must look to the science, but not to the theoretical science of computer models that attempt, very imperfectly, to predict the behavior of the Earth’s vast atmosphere. Instead, one must turn to geology, the science of rock hard evidence that chronicles the history of planet Earth and its biosphere.

Scientists estimate the age of the Earth to be somewhere between four and five billion years. Whatever the exact number, it is worth pausing to consider the concept of “geologic time.” Modern humans seem to have made their first appearance in Africa about 195,000 years ago, and anyone reading this piece has only been around for a few decades. It is perhaps natural that we humans tend to see the world in terms of our first person experience; yet in the context of Earth’s history, our experience doesn’t amount to the blink of an eye. Humbling though it may be to acknowledge this, humility is a good vantage point from which to consider the natural, ongoing dynamics of Earth’s geologic and climatic processes.

Geographically, a good place from which to consider these processes is the rim of the Grand Canyon. Those who have not had the awe-inspiring experience of viewing this spectacle in person have no doubt seen photographs of it: sheer canyon walls drop nearly one vertical mile from the rim to the Colorado River. Over the last 17 million years, that river and its prehistoric predecessors cut through the Earth’s surface, exposing layer upon layer of sedimentary strata, each documenting the environmental conditions that existed when the sediment was laid down.

In the Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center, dioramas and exhibits graphically illustrate the sequence of conditions that occupied this same patch of Earth over the course of the last two billion years. In short, this location was once at the bottom of a great, warm inland sea, then beaches emerged, followed by tropical swamps, desert dunes, before being inundated again by the sea, showered by volcanic ash, and layered by wind blown dust. Fossils attest that over the eons, this spot was occupied by all manner of flora and fauna, and the character of those long-extinct organisms attest to wide variations of precipitation and temperature.

Gaining a sense of geologic time and observing Earth’s history so eloquently written in stone gives the inquisitive thinker a truer perspective on climate change than can any computer model. Indeed, after contemplating the Grand Canyon one can only conclude that Earth’s climate has been and will be ever changing in response for forces greater than ourselves. To think that we can do something to alter climate change is an erroneous, if understandable, conceit.

If one accepts that climate change happens, what then is an appropriate response? Again, geology can point the way. California is underlain by a latticework of geologic fault lines that periodically slip, triggering earthquakes. Knowing that there is no way to prevent an earthquake, Californians have adopted building codes and devised construction techniques to minimize potential damage when quakes occur. This is a sensible response.

Rather than expend untold resources on futile efforts to influence climate, the world’s population would be better served by examining how to adapt, then taking practical steps to avoid the negative consequences and capitalize on the positive consequences of inevitable climate change. Although our species is new to this place, we have proved ourselves inventive; coping with climate change is not only possible, it could even bring unexpected benefits.

Keep calm and carry on.

John M. Lord lives in Peterborough.

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