Stanford physicist Robert B. Laughlin shared a Nobel prize in 1998 for helping explain something called the fractional quantum Hall effect. That particular phenomenon has nothing to do with climatology, and neither does the rest of Laughlin’s c.v. Still, one might expect something cogent about the public policy challenge posed by anthropogenic climate change if it appears under the byline of such a scientific luminary. One would, in this case, be wrong.
Laughlin’s thoughts are laid out in in an essay titled “What the Earth Knows” in American Scholar. The not-so-groundbreaking thesis is that the Earth will survive our puny attempts at short-circuiting the carbon cycle:
The earth has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor. We don’t know exactly how the earth recovered from these devastations, because the rocks don’t say very much about that, but we do know that it did recover–the proof of it being that we are here.
This is, in fact, one of the most hackneyed, well-worn and irrelevant of arguments against changing our ways. Of course, the Earth will survive human interference. No one who actually understands the facts involved in climate change is suggesting otherwise. There, of course, many other species that are facing even more dire threats from rising temperatures, atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels and falling pH levels in the oceans. But even if we were to cause a mass extinction comparable to the worst such events recorded in the fossil record, the Earth would do just fine. Things would change. Ecosystems would collapse and reassemble in strange new ways. But the planet will survive. The real question is what will be the effect of unrestrained fossil-fuel combustion on the human species and the civilization it has established?
Laughin does acknowledge the obvious:
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.
He also manages, through a lengthy exploration of the journey of carbon molecules through the oceans, atmosphere and lithosphere, to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the role of carbon in planetary ecology. How, then, to explain the remarkable non-sequitur at the end of his ruminations:
The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.
This is the sort of thing that geologists like to claim. Spend too much of your life immersed in Deep Time, and it’s not surprising that you’d come to the conclusion that humanity’s powers are comparatively limited. How dare we presume to play the role of the gods? We’re just mere mortals, after all.
But Laughlin fails to pay attention to what recent history is telling us. It’s telling us the speed at which we’re returning long-sequestered carbon to the atmosphere has no precedent in the geological record. We are changing the fundamental parameters of the radiative heat balance that produced a climate favorable to civilization. It might sound like hubris, but that doesn’t change the facts.
The fishing industry made the same mistake when it assumed that the oceans were limitless refrigerators. They aren’t. All of the world’s major fisheries are now being fished at peak capacity, or have already begun to decline. It would be the height of folly to pretend that the ocean’s food web will be just fine no matter what we do.
So yes, the Earth will be just fine despite our best efforts to destroy its ability to sustain us. We all know that. If Laughlin does, too, you’d never know it from his attempt to provide some context. Instead, his words are so poorly chosen that it didn’t long for one of Canada’s best known libertarians, Neil Reynolds, to seize on them in the Globe and Mail as confirmation global warming is nothing but environmental alarmism:
Excess carbon in the atmosphere? It happens all the time. And Earth deals with it. Anything that humans do to mitigate it will be a waste of time. Governments and citizens delude themselves when they think they can make a difference.
One expects such stuff from libertarians, most of whom seem incapable of accepting any useful role for government regulations, even when the overwhelming body of scientific evidence demands it. But one expects better from Nobel-winning physicists.