It’s not about saving the planet

The phrase “Save the Planet” was never meant to be taken literally. This hunk of rock that we live on is incredibly old and resilient, and despite what we may do on it’s surface the planet itself is in no danger. People who campaign under the save the planet banner by in large understand that the planet will be fine regardless of what humans do. Only a handful of wackos would disagree, and all of them should be simply ignored.

However some people who ought to know better, like Stanford University physicist and 1998 physics laureate Robert Laughlin, do take save the planet literally, and in doing so reveal their folly:

Common sense tells us that damaging a thing this old is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish—like invading Russia. The earth has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor.

The planet itself may be a survivor, but specific life forms are not. The dinosaurs for example did not survive. There is no guarantee that we will survive.

Laughlin even makes some statements that are completely at odds with our current understanding of the climate system:

Climate change, by contrast, is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself. The earth doesn’t include the potentially catastrophic effects on civilization in its planning. Far from being responsible for damaging the earth’s climate, civilization might not be able to forestall any of these terrible changes once the earth has decided to make them

Leaving aside Laughlin’s anthropomorphizing of the earth (the earth cannot explain itself, ask permission and it has no plan), much of our understanding of climate does indeed come from the past. What we now is that the earth’s climate responds to what climatologists call forcings. There are several forcings that have been identified and quantified (with varying levels of confidence), and our understanding indicates that CO2 is one of those forcings.

The fact that the climate changed in the past without any human influence does not exclude the possibility that humans are changing it now. Much like the fact that forest fires in that past have started without any human action, does not exclude the possibility of arson.

Laughlin goes on:

The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today’s. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will be only a brief instant of geologic time.

But we care about the human perspective. Looking at geologic time the whole of human existence is but the blink of an eye, barely noticeable, and completely insignificant.  But to us it is different, as Carl Sagan sated so eloquently:

To us, the human perspective is everything. What happens in many thousands of years doesn’t even begin to enter our minds as we plan for the future. Indeed we can scarcely comprehend in our minds a such a span. It is nothing more than an abstraction for us.

If the excess carbon di-oxide will be absorbed in several thousand years, or several million years matters little. We, the human race, will have to live with the consequences of the the excess CO2, for thousands of years, or longer. And even that is longer than most of us can appreciate, even if it is nothing on geologic time scales.

The major error made by Laughlin is to equate the survival of the planet with the survival of life. Or more specifically with the well being of human beings and human civilization.

Using the same logic, I could state that WWII was no big deal because in time all the damage it caused will be repaired (for the most part it already has). But that is small comfort to the people who went through an unimaginable hell during the war and the holocaust.

The question isn’t whether or not the planet will survive, the question isn’t even whether we will survive. As a species I have great confidence that even if we do nothing about climate change we will survive.

The question is how well we will survive. Will we continue to prosper, or will our civilization crumble under the worst-plausible-case scenario of climate change. That is the real question and it has precious little to do with whether or not the planet survives.

The phrase “Save the Planet” was never meant to be taken literally.

4 thoughts on “It’s not about saving the planet

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  1. Very well said. I was planning to write something about Laughlin’s comments, but now I can merely point my readers to your post.

    I find it astonishing how many ways various groups find to argue for doing little or nothing about climate change. There’s no warming, there is warming but it’s not our fault, there is warming and it’s our fault but there’s nothing we can do, etc.

    It’s hard to imagine the amount of unnecessary, additional pain we’re signing up for by delaying year after year, ton after ton of CO2…

  2. Thank you very much for this.

    When I read this nonsense yesterday I was thinking about putting something together myself. If this man sincerely believes this tripe, why would any of us be concerned about the Pol Pots or Darfurs or, as you say, major wars of this world. We wouldn’t even be worried about nuclear annihilation – the ball of rock would survive.

    This is the purest distillation of all the similar arguments we’ve heard from people of this ilk. The Carl Sagan piece is the perfect response.

    It’s our world, our civilisation, and it’s our job to take care of it.

    Thanks again.

  3. @ Lou

    A fun exercise is to look at the evolution of opinions by deniers. Most started out by denying the warming trend was real. That has become increasingly difficult to do, though some still try, so they shifted to saying it was a natural trend. As that becomes more difficult to support, many are shifting to saying it might be our fault, but it wont be so bad. As that becomes difficult to support, we begin to hear the claim that there is nothing we can because of China.

    @ adelady

    I actually had a reference to nuclear war in an earlier draft on this post but I removed it, I don’t remember why.

    On geologic time-scales nothing we do matters. But I happen to be rather fond of the present, and the near future.

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