Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Will the planet survive?

As the climate talks in Copenhagen take place, public awareness of issues surrounding climate change is undoubtedly growing. Climate change is considered by some scientists to be the most important scientific and political issue of our time. Unfortunately the issue has been heavily politicized, resulting in partisan rhetoric rather than clear thinking in public discussion of the matter. Conservatives tend to doubt the science and liberals tend to believe everything they hear from Al Gore or other pop-science sources. Both parties could benefit from actually looking at the data.

For example, one commonly hears things like, "our planet is in peril," or, "if we don't act soon, we won't have a planet at all."

The history of our planet says otherwise. For example, the Earth was about 15 degrees C warmer than it is currently around 50 million years ago, during the Eocene. Our planet was very warm and largely ice-free, even at the poles. Yet it survived. Carbon dioxide levels have also been much higher in the past, perhaps even a dozen times higher in the deep past. What does this mean? It means our planet is not in peril; it has experienced much warmer temperatures than today, and even being ice-free does not somehow spell doom for planet Earth.

Climate change does threaten the specific species we have currently on Earth. In other words, some of the life on Earth is put in danger by climate change, not the Earth itself. Living things will have to adapt to a changing climate or diminish and possibly go extinct. The obvious example is the polar bear, as at least some polar bear populations are declining. If the Arctic ice does completely disappear, as some scientists are predicting, they will indeed have to adapt or perish.

So, while talk of the destruction of our planet may be rhetorically useful, it is inaccurate to say that the planet itself is somehow in danger, or to say that it will become uninhabitable. Rather, the planet itself will be fine, as will its ability to support life in general. For many species though climate change will be a growing threat, and if we desire preservation of our current ecosystems we will have to take the necessary steps to curb our influence.

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