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Ol’ Ma Gaia

Ah, gits weary
An' sick of tryin'
Ah'm tired of livin'
An' skeered of dyin',
But ol’ Ma Gaia,
She jes'keeps rollin' along!

Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Laughlin has written an essay on deep time and the futility of even attempting to do anything about climate change. His thoughts were commented upon recently by libertarian journalist Neil Reynolds in the Globe and Mail. Laughlin’s argument roughly goes:

  1. The Earth is old, truly, staggeringly old.
  2. On one hand: Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This buildup has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets.
  3. On the other hand: Climate change, by contrast, is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself.
  4. The only practical thing we can do is to short Bangladeshi real estate.
  5. We’re screwed and entirely helpless but, not to worry, alarmists, ol’ Ma Gaia, she’ll jes’ keep rollin’ along.
    Hard-core deniers among us may find point 2) a little hard to swallow, but we can easily gloss over it (like Neil Reynolds did) for the purposes of argument because, trust me, Mr Laughlin doesn’t use it as a Trojan Horse for smuggling in a World Communist Government.

    Mr Laughlin devotes most of his article taking us on a geological field trip from his beach in California, through the Weald in England and onto the oldest rocks on Earth. He gets a few details wrong (indulge us geologists in nitpicking to alleviate our
    physics envy) but his main point is that the Earth is really old and has been through a lot worse than a CO2 blip.

    Let’s try to illuminate Mr Laughlin’s argument with an analogy.

    Imagine that we’re in a vehicle and let’s call her “Gaia”. The
    gas pedal is known to function because we’ve had a heavy foot on it for more than a century. We haven’t yet tried the brakes or the steering, so let’s just assume that they won’t work. The windshield’s pretty foggy, so the best way to figure out where we’re going is instead to look intently into the rearview mirror. There, we see that the vehicle has survived some nasty accidents long ago; collisions with asteroids and the engine blowing a gasket or two. Sometimes the passengers got hurt but the car itself survived with just the odd minor dent. Even though some of us are busy clearing the windshield and claim to see the blurry outline of a brick wall ahead it would be folly to ease up on the gas pedal because that would merely slow us down, buy a little time and reduce the impact of the impending collision. Laughlin’s take-away point is that whatever futile things we do, and whatever calamity comes to pass for human civilization, the car will be OK, so DON’T PANIC.

    dont panic
    Some fellow travellers even claim some affection for the vehicle itself but their romantic anthropomorphism is punctured by Laughlin’s observation that their love for the third pet rock from the sun is unrequited:

    Unfortunately, this concern isn’t reciprocated. On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn’t care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn’t care whether you turn off your air conditioner, refrigerator, and television set. It doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car. 

    A warning: Laughlin’s article is not an easy read. It contains sentences such as:

    The age of the earth isn’t important for energy discussions except in establishing that cosmic events, not value judgments, set the overall scale of geologic time.

    The geologic record as we know it thus suggests that climate is a profoundly grander thing than energy.

    Those thoughts are real head-scratchers for non-laureates like me. I wonder if our readers can help. Answers on a postcard, please…