Global Warming. Its very name gives shape to fear. What should we do about it?
Life has been around for several billion years, but Earth’s climate was never quite stable in the long term. To start with, our planet started as a giant heap of dust and iron, a state which humans would barely call agreeable. Then came a period of intense volcanism, and the planet was on fire. After this cooled down and we got an atmosphere, and Earth may have entered a snowball state (or it may not, opinions are split; either way, it was quite chilly).
But there is no need to go so far back to those extremes. We can look at the last 400,000 years (x axis – in thousands of years ago):
So definitely, our home has known some large fluctuations in temperature. Had mankind back then been able to monitor these effects and leave written evidence, we would certainly have found reports on “Global Warming”, “Global Cooling”, and “Ahh! Ice Age!”. Yet life is hypothesized to have started over 3 billion years ago. So surely, it had no problem surviving those harsh environments. Does this mean that we shouldn’t worry about climate change?
Of course not. To start with, we aren’t interested about life in general. Various breeds of cockroaches can stuff themselves pretty much anywhere, and can probably adapt to anything thrown at them; there are also enough types of bacteria and other simple organisms which make their living beside hot geysers in the bottom of the ocean, well protected by any catastrophe happening on the surface.
We are much more interested in how humans might have fared. Evidently, they fared quite well. Look at us now – rulers of the world – the ice ages that came along from time to time, followed by subsequent heating periods did not stop us.
I suggest that in terms of mortality and dependence on the environment, ancient man actually had it better than us today. For, 50,000 years ago, we did not have great cities and farming communities. Rather, our species was composed of hunters and gatherers.
In terms of food, we depended on a large number of sources. All kinds of fish, bird eggs, berries, fruits, vegetables, all huntable animals. Today, however, the majority of the world’s food comes from a limited number of sources. In particular, cow milk, livestock meat, and rice and wheat play a very large part in the worlds food production (and see FAOSTAT for details; also cereal on wikipedia). Suppose that temperature changes causes some species of animals and plants to go extinct. This may hurt the hunter-gatherer, but since he relies on a multitude of sources, he should be relatively alright, if not many are destroyed. Suppose, however, the the climate conditions on Earth are now such that wheat cannot be grown. This is a crippling blow to modern-day food production. Wheat, or rice, or cows (which depend on corn), are so important, that removing any of them from our system means massive starvation.
Hunter gatherers communities were also more agile and adaptive, in a way. Families or tribes never travelled in great numbers, and they were always on the move. A lack of a permanent home means that one can (relatively) easily transfer from one place to another. However, construction of megacities which house millions of people is a different matter. If, as is proposed by some, global warming causes sea levels to rise dramatically, so that all major coastal cities are submerged, tens of millions will be left homeless. Unlike the hunter-gatherer, this is not the natural state of things. Our current society is not well equipped to deal with so many people without home, job, or possessions. And that’s just the effect on the people themselves – wiping New York off the map will have economical and scientific implications as well.
I’m not saying that hunter-gatherers did not suffer because of climate change. Surely, they had their hard times, and many died in cold winters when no matter how much they travelled, they found naught but snow; and many must have died under the hard parching sun, denied of their usual water sources. However, these cases must have dealt a relatively lesser blow to humanity as a whole, when compared with the potential damage of extreme climate change in the modern era. With such a great number of people at risk, it would seem unwise to ignore the potential risks of global warming.
Of course, there are potential risks in many things, and just as we do not immediately construct an anti-asteroid defence system, so should we not rush to conclusions. Without doubt, 100% of the past climate change occurrences have been of natural causes. Only on this latest one, “Global Warming”, is there any conflict over whether it is man-made, or natural. One will be hard pressed to find any scientist who will disagree with the statement, “Earth’s temperature is on the rise”. However, just how its temperature rises, and what other effects might be caused, strongly depend on the reason for the this warming.
Hence, I call out: finding out the correct scientific explanation to global warming is of paramount importance. We cannot afford to ignore with a wave of our hands non-standard theories, which assume that man-made CO2 is not the main driving force of current heating. All serious models must be scientifically, and not politically, analyzed, and their conclusions weighed accordingly. Only once a good model has been established can we proceed to prepare for the predictions. Preparing for the wrong scenario might be even worse than not preparing at all.
Humanity has boldly triumphed while witnessing extremely different climates. However, this time, we have so much more to lose.