Remember Global Warming? “The Earth doesn’t care about governments or legislation.”

Posted on September 14, 2010


By George Will…..The cover of The American Scholar quarterly carries an impertinent assertion: “The Earth Doesn’t Care if You Drive a Hybrid.” The essay inside is titled “What the Earth Knows.” What it knows, according to Robert B. Laughlin, co-winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics, is this: What humans do to, and ostensibly for, the earth does not matter in the long run, and the long run is what matters to the earth. We must, Laughlin says, think about the earth’s past in terms of geologic time.

For example: The world’s total precipitation in a year is about one meter—“the height of a golden retriever.” About 200 meters—the height of the Hoover Dam—have fallen on earth since the Industrial Revolution. Since the Ice Age ended, enough rain has fallen to fill all the oceans four times; since the dinosaurs died, rainfall has been sufficient to fill the oceans 20,000 times. Yet the amount of water on earth probably hasn’t changed significantly over geologic time.

Damaging this old earth is, Laughlin says, “easier to imagine than it is to accomplish.” There have been mass volcanic explosions, meteor impacts, “and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor.”

Laughlin acknowledges that “a lot of responsible people” are worried about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. This has, he says, “the potential” to modify the weather by raising average temperatures several degrees centigrade and that governments have taken “significant, although ineffective,” steps to slow the warming. “On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation.”

Buy a hybrid, turn off your air conditioner, unplug your refrigerator, yank your phone charger from the wall socket—such actions will “leave the end result exactly the same.” Someday, all the fossil fuels that used to be in the ground will be burned. After that, in about a millennium, the earth will dissolve most of the resulting carbon dioxide into the oceans. (The oceans have dissolved in them “40 times more carbon than the atmosphere contains, a total of 30 trillion tons, or 30 times the world’s coal reserves.”) The dissolving will leave the concentration in the atmosphere only slightly higher than today’s. Then “over tens of millennia, or perhaps hundreds” the earth will 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.” This will take an eternity as humans reckon, but a blink in geologic time

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