Stanford University physicist Robert Laughlin says governments - and
people generally - should proceed with more humility in dealing with
climate change. The Earth, he says, is very old and has suffered
grievously: volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain
formation "and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people
could inflict." Yet, the Earth is still here. "It's a survivor."
Writing in the summer issue of the magazine The American Scholar,
Prof. Laughlin offers a profoundly different perspective on climate
change. "Common sense tells us that damaging a thing as old as [Earth]is
somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish - like invading
Russia." For planet Earth, he says, the crisis of climate change, if
crisis it be, will be a walk in the park.
Relax, Prof. Laughlin advises. Let it be. "The geologic record
suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we gaze into
the future," he says, "not because it's unimportant but because it's
beyond our power to control." Whatever humans throw at it, in other
words, Earth will fix things in its own time and its own way.
Prof. Laughlin is the co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for
physics. Brilliantly imagined, incisively expressed and vastly
entertaining, Prof. Laughlin's essay on climate change (What the Earth
Knows) has been adapted from his forthcoming book on the future of
fossil fuels. (His 2008 book,
The Crime of Reason, documented pervasive government and corporate "sequestering" of scientific knowledge.)
You can't discuss climate change, Prof. Laughlin says, without
looking backward across geologic time. He puts ordinary rainfall into
perspective to illustrate the point. The rain that now falls on the
world in a normal year measures a metre - "about the height of a golden
retriever." The rain that has fallen since the beginning of the
Industrial Age measures 200 metres. The rain that has fallen since the
age of dinosaurs would fill Earth's oceans 20,000 times. The rain that
has fallen since oxygen formed would fill the entire world 100 times.
Yet, the amount of water in Earth's oceans hasn't changed
significantly in all of this time. In Earth's most recent glacial
melting, 15,000 years ago, the sea level rose by one centimetre a year
for 10,000 years - and then abruptly stopped. The heat required to
produce this melting was 10 times the total energy consumption of all
Excess carbon in the atmosphere? It happens all the time. And Earth
deals with it. Anything that humans do to mitigate it will be a waste of
time. Governments and citizens delude themselves when they think they
can make a difference.
"The Earth doesn't care about any of these governments or their
legislation," Prof. Laughlin writes. "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 will dissolve the bulk of this atmospheric carbon dioxide
in its oceans, a process that will take roughly 1,000 years. (The oceans
now hold 30 trillion tons of carbon - 30 times the world's coal
reserves.) Over tens of thousands of years, the Earth will transfer
excess carbon dioxide into rocks, a process that will ultimately restore
carbon dioxide concentrations to the same level that prevailed before
How do we know the Earth will turn excess carbon dioxide into
limestone? We know because the world's carbon dioxide levels are
determined "by a geologic regulatory process." The proof is in Earth's
Prof. Laughlin concedes that excess carbon dioxide could - "in a
handful of examples" - contribute to the extinction of species. He cites
corals as an example. But he insists that keeping carbon in the ground
for a little while longer won't make much difference to animal or to
The real extinction problem, he says, is human population pressure:
habitat destruction, pesticide abuse, overharvesting, species invasion.
This is a distinction of great importance because it might help direct
environmental concern to goals that people can actually achieve: Forget
Gaia, save a marsh; forget the planet, save a frog.
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.