Your Life as Planet Earth

“We can’t make sense of our future until we make sense of our past”, writes Howard Lee in his recent book Your Life as Planet Earth: A new way to understand the story of the Earth, its climate and our origins. The book demonstrates the very considerable sense that science has been able to make of our past. There are clear lessons for us as we forge our future, though whether the political leadership is able to take on board those lessons is moot.

In the first part of the book Lee provides a highly readable account of the turbulent history of the planet in the four and a half billion years of its existence. Geology, climate and the evolution of life are the recurrent themes. He measures this long history against an imagined human life spanning a century. It’s an entertaining and effective way of depicting the enormous spans of time before humans arrive on the planet. On this measure simple life starts in the teens of the centenarian’s life; oxygen arrives during the mid-life crisis; primitive plants and fungi start to colonise land in the late 70s; at 86 complex animals show up; in the 90s four-legged life evolves from fish; at 98 the dinosaurs are extinguished; homo sapiens doesn’t emerge until the 29th December in the final year. And in the few remaining minutes of that last year we have achieved a rapid rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels not seen since the Pliocene, three and a half million years ago.

Our rates and quantities of carbon dioxide generation are rivalling those of the great igneous eruptions which had highly destructive effects on the climate of their times, triggering global warming, ocean anoxic events and mass extinctions. We’re making our presence felt in no uncertain manner, and Lee sees no reason to assume we can avoid the consequences which attended past rapid escalations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Continue reading “Your Life as Planet Earth”

Monday mirth: Ken Ring reinvents botany, geology, and the oil business

Sometimes the best way to start the week is with a good laugh — an eruptive bellow, in my case. Do not read any further while handling or consuming hot drinks, because it’s that man again: NZ’s favourite astrologer, “moon man” Ken Ring, reinventing science (again) in service of his weird view of the world. As regular readers will recall, Ringworld is a place full of oddities, but even as a connoisseur of Ken’s creative interpretations of physical reality I was reduced to fits of giggles by a couple of his recent articles, as published at his Yahoo News blog. Here’s what set me off — the fourth paragraph of an extended rant about scaremongering:

Volcanoes throw CO2 into the air and it drifts slowly down. Rain brings most CO2 back into the sea, with the rest combining to form weak acid carbonates which embed in rocks. Earthquakes enable rocks to reach the sea and eventually underneath new volcanoes, the cycle taking millions of years. There are enough volcanoes every day beneath the sea and above to keep CO2 at a constant average of 350 parts per million of the atmosphere, across many centuries.

A constant average of 350 ppm? The planet has spent most of the last few million years in a series of ice ages, with CO2 levels around 180 ppm. During the short interglacial periods, CO2 peaked at about 280-300 ppm — until we came along and started liberating fossil sunshine and boosted that to 390+ ppm. Ken’s just making stuff up, again. There’s much more to amuse in the piece, as Ken reinvents developmental psychology, but for the real fun, you have to dig a few weeks further back in his blog archive… Continue reading “Monday mirth: Ken Ring reinvents botany, geology, and the oil business”

Welcome to the Carbon COP

The Polish National Stadium
The first week here at the climate talks in Warsaw kicked off with the super typhoon Haiyan hitting the Philippines in a terrible tragedy, brought into the meeting by the country’s lead negotiator Seb Yano, whose fast has been joined by many from civil society. The plight of his people has been a rallying call around the world as we all look at the aftermath of this storm with horror.  Is it a direct result of climate change? What we do know is that the sea surface temps were 1.5degC above normal, and that we can expect more intense cyclones as the earth’s temperature warms.  But  as NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth wrote:
“The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….”

As we’ve been all walking around in circles of the Polish National Stadium, trying to stay sane, looking at the images from the Philippines and the campaigning by their government to get a stronger outcome, it seems several governments have kept their eyes firmly OFF the ball, instead  taking the opportunity of the occasion to walk away from their commitments. Continue reading “Welcome to the Carbon COP”

TDB today: Keeling curves and carbon millstones

Any day now the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide measurement station is going to bump through 400 part per million, and stay there for a week or two. In my Daily Blog column this week I ruminate on what that means by taking a look at the last time CO2 stayed over 400 ppm for an extended period.

Pliocene climate is not something that crops up in many history lessons, but what it tells us needs to be much more widely appreciated. It shows where we are heading — where our apparently insatiable appetite for coal and oil is taking us: a drowned world. That simple fact needs to be shoved under the nose of anyone who argues that climate change isn’t happening, won’t be too bad, or will be something we can adapt to. It needs to be engraved on the hearts of the people negotiating international action on emissions, and the politicians legislating to do little or nothing.

My first post at The Daily Blog is also relevant. Comments over there, please.

Climate Show New Year podcast special: where it’s at and where it’s going

Here’s the podcast you’ve all been waiting for — The Climate Show New Year special. Glenn and Gareth review the big climate stories of 2012, discuss at the big picture post Doha, and peek into their transcontinental Skype-powered crystal ball to prognosticate on the next 12 months. The three sections were recorded shortly before Christmas for Glenn’s New Year Things You Need To Know for 2013 summer series on Radio Live. The first two aired last week – the final section will be broadcast on Wednesday, so consider this an exclusive preview.

Climate Show Podcast special

PS: My reference to CO2 at 400 ppm in 2013 should have been qualified with where it will happen — which is northern hemisphere, high (Arctic) latitudes.