The Hidden Sting in Global Warming—The Disaster Is Not Where You Think
This is not an article about anthropogenic climate change. It is not an article about fossil fuels man-made greenhouse gases, and the human impact on earth’s atmosphere. Thousands of other scientific thinkers have applied themselves to those topics. They are being well taken care of.
This is an article about what is being ignored.
There’s a scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which a World War II aircraft, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, is hit by flack over Avignon. A radio-gunner in the tail is wounded, and the central character—Yossarian–is sent to the damaged rear section of the plane to save the injured man’s life. The radio-gunner has lost his leg. Yossarian sees a thigh wound, a massive one, pouring blood. Yossarian works frantically to stop the bleeding and to sanitize what’s left of the thigh. Meanwhile, he tries to comfort the radio gunner as the wounded man weakens and begs for help. The radio-gunner whimpers “I’m cold, I’m cold, I’m cold,” a sign that he is bleeding to death. So Yossarian tends to the massive wound where a thigh used to be.. He tends to it with panic and urgency. He needs to stop the flow before the gunner can die of blood loss. Finally Yossarian gives “a long sigh of relief.” Why? He sees the unmistakable sign that the gunner is “not in danger of dying.” How does he know? The blood is coagulating in the wound and it’s “simply a matter of bandaging him up.”
But the gunner dies. Despite all of Yossarian’s work. Why? There’s something Yossarian failed to see. Hidden in the radio-gunner’s “quilted, armor-plate flack suit,” the man had not just one wound but two. Shrapnel had pierced his stomach wall. His intestines were falling out. The real blood loss—the real threat–was not just from the wound in his thigh.
Mistaken perceptions, mistaken visions of what the problem is, can lead us astray.
Our obsession with man-made global warming may well be like Yossarian’s mistake. Anthropogenic climate change is important. But it’s not the really big source of climate instability. It’s not the 800 pound gorilla on the couch. It’s not the elephant on the living room rug. So what is?
This is a planet of climate change. In fact, it’s a planet of climate catastrophe. It’s a planet of ice ages and of hot-house eras, a planet of periods when even the icy arctic and Antarctic have turned to tropical swamps. It’s a planet that alternates between a sauna and an iceball. Or, to put it in anthropomorphic terms, it’s a planet whose nature is not nice. A planet whose nature is not nurturing and mothering.
To see nature’s real nature, let’s go back to the time roughly 3.85 billion years ago when there was less than a teaspoonful of life. A teaspoon of life on a planet of punishment. 3.85 billion years ago the earth was still at the tail end of a merger and acquisition binge. It was, guess what? Materialistic. For 200 million years, it had grabbed as many material things as possible and held on to them with all its might. Why? In reality, the early earth wasn’t what you and I would call a planet. It was a greedy scrapheap competing in a non-stop tournament of gravitational showdowns. Competing in the great gravity crusades. Two gravity piles would come within each other’s sway and would have a faceoff. The bigger would win. Its prize? To swallow the other whole. As you know, astronomers have a name for this rapacious violence. It’s cannibalism.
Roughly 3.85 billion years ago when life first began, when life first dared to yank itself together, the proto-earth had gone through over ten billion of these showdowns and had won every time. And this battling rock pile wasn’t finished. It was still running into high speed chunks of stone called planetesimals, snagging them with gravity, reeling them into its surface, and smashing them into its pile of winnings, into its great, galumphing, growing gravity ball. It was still pulling chunks of stone at full speed into its face. Which means that the surface on which life was trying to get a start was not a warm and nurturing planet. It was like the surface of a pudding smacked by the back of a spoon. It was splattered and earthquaked.
What’s worse, this bald, barren, shuddering ball of stone on which life first arose was slapped around by a motley rogues gallery of additional cataclysms. Take the simple six-hour cycle of torture that came from one of the new planet’s many hyperkinetic tics, its rotation. Our growing gravel ball spun at five times the speed of sound–4,000 miles an hour. Which means that this planet wannabe swiveled around its center, its axis, like a top every six hours. Four times as fast as today. And the six-hour swivel was a non-stop disaster. It prevented any sort of equilibrium. For one thing, the spin was an instant climate-changer, a creator of non-stop weather shock. It refrigerated the temperature, ratcheting it down roughly 82 degrees in a mere three hours, then sizzled the temperature back up by 82 degrees again. It took the surface from unbearable heat to shivering freeze and back to heat again every three hours.
But this rollercoaster of temperature extremes was just one of the insults delivered by the planet’s spin. There was yet another way in which the environment shifted as abruptly as a Porsche traveling at full throttle, then shifting gears into reverse. Every three hours the surface was flooded, lashed, and whipped by radiation. Then the surface was plunged into three hours of utter darkness. These climate disasters were primordial day and night.
And there were other cycles of climate apocalypse. Take the Milankovich Effect, a wobble of the infant earth’s orbit around its mediocre yellow sun, a wobble that smacked the planet upside the head every 22,000, 41,000, and 100,000 years, ripping apart what few dependable patterns of climate there might have been. A climate shifter that still goes on today. And there was yet another nasty trick of the new planet, a twitch that wrung, racked, and tortured it once every 26 million years. A twitch that would produce mass extinctions that remain unexplained to this day.
Frankly, even the sun around which this cataclysmic embryo of a planet rotated could not be counted on to anchor things. That sun turned up its intensity by roughly 10% every billion years. Yes, it kept getting hotter. And it shimmied through a tinier tremble of unreliability every eleven years, its sunspot cycle, a cycle in which the sun’s magnetic polarity reverses utterly, a cycle that added yet one more punch to the planet’s temperature slaps. Topping it all off, the sun was seized by spasms called coronal mass ejections, convulsions whose electromagnetic shockwaves wreaked havoc on everything that dared orbit within its vicinity.
But these were not the only reasons that the third gravel pile from the sun was so unsafe and so riven by climate flips. Among other things, this infant earth was not tucked into some cozy corner of the cosmos where it could be sheltered and coddled. It was not nested, swaddled, and walled off. Far from it. The newly clenching stone fist we call terra firma was a voyager yoked to its very young sun. It was an unwilling traveler trekking through dangers that would have frozen the blood of Frodo the Hobbit. Like a duckling following its mother, the infant planet and its seven siblings were dragged by their youthful sun on a giant orbit around the core of the galaxy, a circular trip that took 240 million years. On their way, the sun and its baby planets traveled through spiral arms that showered the new gravity balls with cosmic rays, salvos of savage high-energy particles that sand-blasted our planets’ atmosphere and whacked its climate into appalling change.
In addition, the eight infant gravity balls and their mother sun snowplowed through dust clouds of “galactic fluff.” Which means that in a normal year, our planet, the planet infected by life’s first teaspoonful of cells and DNA, accumulated sixty six million pounds of space dust in its outer atmosphere. That was a normal year. But once every 100,000 years things went abnormal and our newborn planet whiffled through a cloud of interplanetary powder that tripled that amount. Cosmic rays from the spiral arms of the galaxy and the pileups of space dust–each of these travel mishaps changed the newborn planet’s weather dramatically. Each brought a tsunami of climate change. And those recurring travel disasters still thwack this planet today.
But there’s more. Environmental scientist Vaclav Smil calculates that supernova explosions have machine-gunned this solar system with high-energy radioactive particles every two million years. Smil says that ten times in the last five hundred million years alone supernovas have strafed our rock pile with almost enough radioactivity to kill off every animal with a backbone that has ever crawled, walked, or flown.
And putting the cherry on the climate-upheaval cake, at least twice this planet has frozen completely and has been encrusted in three thousand feet of ice at its warmest point, the equator. Yes, this third stone from the sun has turned into a snowball earth not just once but twice.
This is not harmony. This is not equilibrium. This is not the sort of loving, balanced nature some call on to nourish the human soul. This is bakeoff, burn, broil, and freeze. This is non-stop climate catastrophe. On this harsh pebble circling a middling yellow star, about the only thing you can count on is change. Dramatic, atom-shuddering change.
Yes, nature has given us the crazy pinball of climate change. Think about it. We modern humans, we homo sapiens, have been around for a mere 200,000 years. And in just the last half of that time, in just the last 120,000 years, there’ve been twenty global warmings, twenty quick sizzles in which the temperature has shot up between ten and eighteen degrees in a decade. To make things worse, from 2.2 million years ago until a mere 12,000 years ago, there have been roughly eighty glaciations, eighty ice ages. Twenty of these ice ages have frozen the planet in just the brief 200,00 years since the evolution of humankind.
But there’s more. 1.4 billion years ago, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere shot up to between 20 and 200 times what it is today. And until 10,000 years ago, the Gulf Stream shifted its route every 1,500 years, shoving the weather into devastatingly alien patterns, making cold places warm, warm places cold, wet places dry, and dry places into marsh and flood. Then there were the collisions of tectonic plates, leading to a pileup of earthquakes that put seabeds on mountaintops and mountains at the bottom of the seas??. And there were volcanos whose sunlight-blocking spew of black smoke plunged the planet into a dark ice box. A winter that lasted years. Not to mention the occasional chunk of rock from space, the occasional meteor striking with the power of a million nuclear bombs. Like the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The Chicxulub impactor.
No, our little rock heap, our little bit of orbiting gravel, was never a warm and fuzzy place. It was never loving and kind. In fact, its insistent upheavals have produced roughly 142 mass extinctions. All without tailpipes and smokestacks. So if you’d been real estate shopping for a nice place to settle down 3.85 billion years ago and you’d had any brains, this poison pill of a planet would have been the last place you would have picked to land. And if you’d been betting on this gravity ball’s odds of harboring life, you’d have been forced to bet against it thirty billion to one. Yet we would someday call this smashing, searing, freezing ball of stone our earth. Our precious mother. Our nurturing bosom. We would someday call it our home. How in hell would this turnaround take place? How would an entire planet go through a plastic surgery so radical? How would it go through such a total identity change?
Or, to put it differently, how would the fragile first teaspoon of life manage to thread this planet’s murderous obstacle course? How would life turn its torturer into a nurturer? How would life so radically resculpt its environment that we would misinterpret the result as something that had been here all along? How would life twist the arm of its punisher into becoming what we’d someday call nature? And a mothering nature at that?
But before we answer that question, we have to watch out for the Yossarian mistake. We have to prevent a climate Catch 22. We have to recognize that climate change is inevitable. Taking man-made greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is a promising move. But it won’t stop the massive climate shifts that come with this gravity ball that we call home. If removing man-made greenhouse gases is a step toward climate stabilization technologies, that’s great. We’ve been working on climate stabilization technologies ever since we sliced the fur coat off of an animal and wore it ourselves. Ever since we built the first tent of mammoth ribs and mammoth tusks supporting a mammoth hide walls and roof. Now it’s time to take climate stabilization technologies to a higher plane if we’re going to avoid the Yossarian mistake. If we’re going to make it through this planet’s next totally natural climate change. If we’re going to make it through the next great global warming or the next ice age.