A Middle Path on Climate Change: "Deep Future" by Curt Stager

There seem to be two points of view on the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and the global warming that we are starting to notice. One is that there is no problem, it’s all just the weather which is unpredictable and changeable. The other is that rising carbon levels are an unmitigated evil, dooming the planet to catastrophic change.

Could there be a third way to look at this issue? A middle way? I’m not talking about a political compromise, but a rational, fact-based analysis that points the way towards acceptance of what has happened, relieves eco-guilt, and offers policy guidelines for going forward.

Curt Stager’s book Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth lays out a just such a rational middle path by taking a long view. Carbon pollution has happened, and will affect global climate and ecology for thousands of years. There is more than one scenario of what these effects will be, depending on whether we can taper off from our carbon-based energy habit in the near future, or whether we wait to change our behaviors until after we have used up all the carbon-based fuel at our disposal.

Stager is a paleoecologist, a scientist who studies the ecology of the world in historical times. He applies his scientific knowledge of the past to analysis of the present and future. There have been periods in the past with higher carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures than the earth had at the time when human began to burn fuel and release carbon, and we can use what we have learned about those periods to make some predictions about the future.

Early in the book, Stager tells us that we have canceled the next ice age, which was due to take hold in about 50,000 years. He asks us to think about whether this could be a positive effect of carbon pollution. Another ice age would bury northern Europe and Asia and North America under a thick blanket of ice, destroying many centers of human civilization. To quote Stager, “But on the scale of planetary disaster, an ice age is to global warming as thermonuclear war is to a bar brawl.” This thought alone has relieved a great deal of the guilt I feel about the way I live. Even driving high mileage cars, installing solar panels, and heating partially with wood isn’t enough to reduce my own carbon emissions to neutral - yet.

He goes on to look at two past eras, which may give some insight into the warmer futures we face under a moderate emissions scenario and a burn-it-all large emissions scenario. The Eemian Interglacial, which began about 130,000 years ago, is his model for what may be ahead if we can slow down our emission of carbon. The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, which occurred 55 million years ago, is his model for the world that may result if we burn all of the oil and all of the coal.

In the course of the book, Stager also discusses other topics of concern raised by carbon pollution. A mass extinction may be one possible consequence of global warming, because species will be unable to migrate to more suitable locations due to human settlements. He examines the serious problem of the acidification of the oceans, which threatens all sea life. One chapter is also devoted to describing how we have messed up the system of radiocarbon dating we use to determine how old objects are. The release of fossil carbon from fuel makes the items of our world dating from the first half of the twentieth century test as older than they really are, while contamination from nuclear weapons testing makes the items of our world dating from the second half of the twentieth century test as if they will be created in the future. I was fascinated by this unexpected effect of our activities as a species.

Stager ends the book with another thought that took me by surprise: that we need to “save the carbon” to benefit future generations. He asks us to think about future humans, 100,000 years or so from now, after the effects of this era’s carbon pollution have faded, The earth will be cooling, and a new ice age will be in the offing. He suggests that our descendants may find it very helpful to have some stores of coal left in the ground that they can burn, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and starting another cycle of human intervention to prevent an ice age.

I found this book to be very well written and worth the time I took to read it. It’s not a fast read, due to the density of scientific information presented. It is notable for adding a different and relatively calm perspective on global warming to a polarized, emotional debate.

Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth by Curt Stager. Published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York in 2011. I read the Kindle edition.

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