A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Global Warming and the Fossil Record: Not What you Think

Global Warming and the Fossil Record: Not What you Think

There was a new report out this week with dire warnings about the consequences of global warming. As usual, the political right received this information with its usual response to expert opinion, sneering and eye rolling. Expert opinion? and facts, why would we need those? The political left meanwhile has welcomed it with much hand-wringing about how doomed the planet is. This gives me a chance to elaborate on an emerging sub-specialty of the Bentgrass Blog, the intersection of paleoecology and politics. As usual, the paleoecology calls into question the wisdom of our political positions because the climate positions of both the right and left are not rooted in evidence from the fossil record.

But first, I am going to call into question my own position about the Almanac section. In the Almanac section, I talk about what actually happened on the ranch in the real world (boo), instead of ideas, cold as a glacial phase and distant as a 450 million-year-old fossil record (hooray). This week we continued to settle into the new house, with many trips to the hardware store and a honey-do list that stretched out beyond the valley and the far reaches of the coast range beyond. I never thought Ikea would play such a central role in my life. But I am super grateful for the house, which has really taken shape, and for Hanna. This house is her work of art.

On Thursday, at first light I went down to the cattle pastures in the valley below to fix a fence problem. It was the first day that we had a heavy frost up on top of the hill. From up on top, there was a mercury lake of fog where the valley used to be. A mercury lake of bad metaphors polluting the Almanac section, which is supposed to be free of metaphors. On nights when it is clear, we get extremely thick fog in the valley. With the cold weather, all the fog had frozen in outlandish ways. It was like some imagined ecosystem on one of the moons of Jupiter, where organisms grow out of methane crystals or something like that. The trees and grass had turned to a lattice of glass and the whole thing was tied together with spider webs, made super visible because their threads had turned into crystalline baling twine. The fences had thousands of little streamers on them. At first, I thought these were spider webs too, but when I looked closer I saw that they were yard long strings of slush, where water had dripped off the fence. As soon as there was a fold in the fog and this ice world was touched by the sun, it disappeared, as if it were obeying some arbitrary fairy tale rule. Water, temperature, and landforms are simple systems. But watch out; when they all interact, they can produce some outlandish results.

Speaking of unexpected results from the confluence of water, temperature, and landform, the reality of global climate history is very different from the imaginary world of either political camp. Let’s start with the left. This recent study suggests that we are headed way out to the unexplored periphery of global climate. It is true that we are on the extreme edge of where global temperatures have been in the 450 million year history of terrestrial ecosystems. What they do not tell you is that we are on the periphery on the cold side. The last time temperatures were this cold (or CO2 levels were this low) was 300 million years ago, before the dinosaurs. And remember, temperature, moisture, and landform interact to create unexpected results. There have been periods of vast ‘equatorial deserts’ on our planet during hot phases. For instance during the Triassic/Jurassic warm phase 250 million years ago. But fifty-five million years ago, during the most recent hot phase on the planet, there was a different set of vegetation consequences. The effects of climate change are usually muted at the equator. During the last hot phase, the tropical rainforest belt started at the equator and moved halfway to the poles. We would have reason to believe that in a similar warm phase, tropical rainforest would extend up the West Coast as far as Vancouver, British Columbia. If we were to measure climates on the same metric we measure land management, I would have to admit that such a climate would likely lead to higher production and biodiversity.

Now, before you fire up your backyard coal pit… there are reasons to be concerned. When we back up from the macro-view and use paleoecology to look at shorter sections of past climatic change there are problems. There is evidence to support the idea that 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial phase, temperatures changed extremely quickly. In less than a decade, we went from glacial climates to our modern climates. During this period, here on the west coast, USDA plant hardiness zones moved 500 miles to the north. In the middle of the continent, they move thousands of miles. In that same decade, sea levels rose 350 feet. We will not have time to undo climate changes.

There is no way that our civilization could absorb these changes. Individual humans would survive, sure. But whatever they created and whatever held them together, it would be something totally different than what we currently call ‘civilization.’ Just remember all the turmoil created when there was a little dip in our real estate values, also a decade ago. What would happen if we lost 90% of the real estate value in the country? Not real estate values going down by 90%, but that we actually lost the real estate. As owners of a very hard-won property, most of which is less than ten feet above sea level, I can tell you that in the event of ten-foot sea level rise, I will extract that value from the oil companies, with my bare hands if necessary. But I don’t think it will come to that.

By looking at their responses to global warming, we can see that the two ends of the political spectrum are not coherent frameworks for understanding reality. If they were, I could make a case that it would be conservative to want to ‘conserve’ the sort of climates that have fostered our civilization. I could argue that it was a matter of protecting private property. I could also argue that it would be Progressive to sacrifice the mere property of the landed gentry in favor of ushering in a new green paradise. But that’s not how it works cause that’s not what political parties are, see last week for more on that. Rather we need to take a cautious approach to altering the climate, without resorting to blaming and hyperbole.

I think we are having this global warming fight as a culture because we are trying to avoid the actual problem. The problem is not really global warming. The problem is that our civilization is much too fragile. The earth will be fine, its us that we need to worry about. We have built our lives around a technological system that cannot weather the normal fluctuations of this planet, wherever they come from. That’s a real problem and it is difficult to start to come up with a solution. When humans are confronted with that sort of thing they usually shut down. If you want to shut down by denying the existence of climate change you will side with the right. If you want to shut down by blaming someone else for it, you will side with the left. But we don’t have to shut down like that. Making our agriculture more like the wild plant communities in the ecosystem will do a lot to make our civilization more resilient. The first step in that process is understanding this planet’s past and our present politics.


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