Often, when people want to express their concern for the future, they say we need to do something for the sake our children and grandchildren. For some, it’s paying down the debt, and for others, it’s preservation of the planet. But I wonder, why such short goals?
Recently a group of scientists published an article that was subsequently blogged in Scientific American suggesting that when we talk about climate change these days we’re focused so tightly on the 21st century that we appear to think the next few decades is the span of the problem. If we can make some progress by 2100, that will fix it.
Not so. We have already reached levels of CO2 that are irreversible for centuries. The effects of CO2 have warmed the atmosphere so that we’ve had 16 straight months of record-setting temperatures worldwide, and we have just begun to take steps to restrain even greater volume of warming gases.
The thing is, those atmospheric effects are just the beginning of much longer, much slower changes to things like the mass of water stored as ice in glaciers, Greenland and Antarctica. The changes in sea level will continue to play-out over thousands, not hundreds, of years. In this century we are setting up physical processes that will implacably unfold for a hundred generations. In practical terms, it’s permanent.
Millennia from now people will look back (assuming there’s anybody around) at our time as an inflection point in the state of the Earth and its inhabitants that deflected life down a specific path that is the norm they live with. I imagine their viewpoint will be like: “Look what the Neanderthals did!”
At least for me, the long view is kind of settling. We actually experience such tiny, tiny spans of time. A few years ago, before a vacation to Hawai’i, I decided to do a little research on the history of the islands. I learned the islands are just the immediate state of island formation that has been going on for 70 million years.
So, if you go to the north shore of Kauai’ (where we were staying) and look north all you see is the Pacific Ocean. But beneath the water to the northwest are islands – the Emperor Seamounts actually — that were once above the sea but are now under it because they simply settled and eroded away.
On the island of Hawai’i, active volcanic activity on the south shore is spewing fresh lava still building the island. And farther to the southeast the same rift in the sea bottom the Lōʻihi Seamount is building a future island that won’t even break the surface for 10,000 to 100,000 years. Yet this incipient island will inevitably rise as the current ones fade away. Bye-bye Diamondhead and Waikiki.
To my eyes, the long perspective makes our short-term concerns — like the imminent presidential election — kind of look like small potatoes.