We are living in anomalous times. Instead of being deep into the next Ice Age, we are experiencing an increasingly warmer planet. What changed over the last 400,000 years has spun the axis of the climate debate on its head between the climate deniers and climate change believers?
In the analogy of author and cool-headed geologist E. Kirsten Peters, four epochs of time represent four football fields laid out in a row, in which one yard equals 1,000 years. On each one of those fields, 90 yards is an Ice Age, while the last ten yards a warm period before the next frozen era.
In the twelfth millennium since the melting of the last age of glaciers and ice sheets, we humans have changed the clock that was supposed to descend us back into bitter cold. What shutoff the switch between the hot and cold climates?
In a fascinating new book -- The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change by Prometheus Books -- Peters explains how the media and politicians have distorted the facts on climate change, have come to the wrong conclusions on its causes, and have failed to prescribe real antidotes to the runaway greenhouse gases that are building up in the earth's atmosphere.
The Hype of Sustainability
Early on, Ms. Peters tears away at the misguided belief that if we develop sustainable technologies and change human behavior it will prevent the globe from "flipping" into the next Ice Age. It will not. We have delayed the latter some ticks of the geological clock, but we can't stop climate change, because that is what the earth has been doing for millions of years -- long before people walked upright.
Sustainability as a construct that humans can control the variables that impact the planet, with respect to climate, is a faulty ideal. She points out that many of the lofty fixes that have been batted about for the public, from documentaries on climate awareness and hockey stick analogies, to electric cars and lowering power plant emissions will not make a noticeable difference in the rise of carbon dioxide and methane into the air.
Kirsten Peters, ever the pragmatist, has a simple solution that I haven't heard before: Put out the thousands of coal mine fires around the world. "If we fear anthropogenic climate change due to greenhouse gases, and I think we rightly do, it's past time we take action about coal blazes at home and abroad," she wrote.
Before I address her dousing coal fire prescription to slow the build up of gases, Peters' book on geology and geologists needs to be told to explain how humans inadvertently changed the earth's biologic clock for the better, however temporarily.
Two Centuries of Geology
At the start, the author lays out her argument that for us to really understand the processes of earth's climate change cycles that a multidisciplinary approach to the science needs to be taken, and not conducted through the media or by climate scientists alone in their quest to secure the next research grant. Geologists, volcanologists, oceanographers, paleontologists, and many other disciplines are required to answer: What is the earth's normal state? And how did humans alter the climate?
The answers will surprise you, as it did me.
The author spends the first half of the book taking the reader on a 200-year journey of discovery, from the founding roots of geology to the collaboration between scientists, researchers, and universities on both sides of the Atlantic.
She begins with Louis Agassiz in the second chapter "The Ice Time," who as a fossil fish expert in 1800s French-Swiss Jura Mountains -- the name given to the Jurassic Age (who knew?) -- needed to escape his research by hiking the alps one summer. With his head clear of fish bones, Agassiz noticed the telltale signs of the past Ice Age, of glaciers that were no longer on the scene. What he saw were the moraines, screeds, rock striations, carved out valleys, boulders as large as house sitting where they shouldn't be, and angular rocks shaped by the torrents from melting glaciers.
Climate change on that scale in the late 1830s brushed against theocracy. Biblical believers in those days were still married to the 10,000-year timeline of world history as explained in the Old Testament. Still, Agassiz forged on with his research. Soon he would be joined by the next generation of scientists, who mapped the deformation of glacier movement down into valleys, who found the terminal borders of the North American ice sheet in the middle of the United States, and who discovered the affects of glacier rebound in Scotland and Scandinavia, where ancient shorelines were set counter-intuitively above sea level, even as it has risen for centuries due to the melting ice caps.
Many such gems and stories lead to the modern era of environmental science of ice cores, and other planetary-solar observations, debates, hypotheses, and theories on the impact of climate change with all its variables and unanswered questions. The title of the author's third chapter, "Staggering Complexities and Surprising Side Effects," captures the essence of where climate science is today and the road it needs to travel to flesh out the missing data for a fuller picture on climate change.
Farming and Climate Change
Toward the end of The Whole Story on Climate, Kirsten Peters gives the reader a high-level view of the problem that humans have contributed to the extended warm epoch. She notes that if we had a satellite image of the world 10,000 years ago the planet would have been blue with water and dark green with forests on land. Today, large swaths of brown and light green would have cut those prime colors due to development and farmland.
As we invented farming and irrigation, for predictable food sources, and cleared the land for rice paddies in Asia and wheat in the West, we removed the "carbon banks" that trees and their roots naturally process and store in absorbing carbon dioxide.
Ice cores confirmed that this warming period is different than the three similar periods that took place before, as humans removed too much of the natural storage system of one of the main greenhouse gases. With a warming planet that's melting permafrost, methane is being released into the air at an ever-increasing rate.
The tradeoff of deforestation for farmland as the main culprit and industrialization with fossil fuels as the accelerator, we have changed the climate by holding off the next Ice Age. But the tipping point of today's temperate climate -- by shutting down the Gulf Current due to denser, colder fresh water melting into saltwater as a negative feedback loop -- could plunge us within decades into a much colder era.
My only complaint about the book, and it's a minor one, is when Ms. Peters writes about the sudden disappearance of megafauna from North America during the Younger Dryas era, a 1,500-year deep freeze after the melting of the last Ice Age, or the cold period five millennia ago, she doesn't bring up the controversial theories of how comets might have triggered those two mini ice ages. A chapter on the Clovis Comet debate and Sodom and Gomorrah Comet that struck the Austrian Alps would have been helpful to explain possible triggers for those climate-altering events.
In the end, Ms. Peters simple remedy to put out the world's runaway coal fires, which will have the biggest payoff in mitigating carbon dioxide from spewing into the atmosphere, holds greater value than any other manmade remedy. Solar and big wind isn't there yet with their limited technology, and carbon tax and offsets are a faulty economic serum that allows us to continue to pollute for a price.
So why hasn't our green president, Barack Obama, taken up such a logical fight with other global leaders, scientists, and corporations that care about how we can fight one of the main contributors to climate and find the will and way to bank out the thousands of coal fires that are threatening our quality of life?
Go read the book, draw your own conclusions, then write your congressman. It's time to help the planet, while help ourself.