The North Pole is melting! My beach is getting smaller! Polar bears are moving South! And carbon dioxide is hazardous to your health!
We’ve all heard the news, especially on a hot or cold day. In the US we have the added benefit of also hearing from climate change deniers. It remind me of when most Europeans thought Columbus would fall off the edge of the Earth. Denying reality can make for good politics, but lousy science. Oh heck, who am I kidding? Denying reality is what politics is all about! We’ll focus on politics another day, when we’ve both had more to drink.
Today I want to talk about climate. What is climate? Climate is the weather that you expect to get. What is weather? Weather is what you actually get!
Now, here’s the big idea for today’s entry; mankind has been altering the climate ever since we’ve been old enough to smoke! No, I don’t mean smoking the evil weed. I’m referring to FIRE!
But wait, there’s more. We’re not the only species that’s guilty of this heinous crime, if it really is a crime. It turns out that all life has been altering climate ever since, well, life itself! Here’s the crime scene. A tiny rocky planet, bombarded with watery comets and lots of dust, about 4 billion years ago. It gets cool enough to start thinking about a vacation in Alaska when suddenly some blue goo appears on the beach. Fine, not exactly “suddenly,” but you get the idea. In fact, we have no idea how life started, but we do know about the goo. There was enough of it that it formed hard layers in the early seas and hardened into rock.
The cool thing about this blue goo is that it was able to use the sunlight to take apart the atmosphere in such a way that it could feed itself; photosynthesis. The blue goo was algae, and the atmosphere was pretty much all nitrogen and carbon dioxide. A real bummer if you were an oxygen breather, but for CO2 beings life was great.
The greatest think about blue goo was that it took in CO2 and “pooped” oxygen. In fact it took a few BILLION years for the algae to make enough oxygen to make it worthwhile for us oxygen breathers to bother being born. Today there’s just enough oxygen to keep us breathing easy, but not enough to set the world on fire. Literally.
So the algae “terraformed” the planet, making it habitable for us humans. Did anyone complain back then? I can imagine the cover of the “Algal Times” as it must have appeared 2 billion years ago. “Experts claim climate change inevitable. Oxygen rising to dangerous levels! All life in danger! Film at 11!”
The papers were partly right – climate change did occur. But life didn’t die out, not all of it anyway. It partially died, while others took the opportunity to use this new powerful gas and went on to create millions of new species… including us.
All life changes our planet in some small way, simply by existing. The real question is, how much will it change? How much of that change is due to our “natural” behavior, and how much is “willful” or unnatural? Even more important are these last questions, how do we want to react to the coming changes. Can we ignore it? Or should we start learning how to swim?
I hope I don’t run into a polar bear.