The Earth will survive

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.


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You say that the Earth will survive, and by that I assume you mean life on Earth. What then do you think about the claim in James Hansen's book Storms of my Grandchildren that there is a very small but possible chance that our CO2 emissions will drive feedback loops resulting in a climate similar to Venus, and all life becoming extinct? Completely impossible to happen, unlikely enough that questioning "of course the Earth will survive" is just pedantic, or actually something we should have some concern about, even if it's still very unlikely and a very long way off?

What does the "survival" of Earth even mean?
If the earth becomes a lifeless rock orbiting the sun, has it survived? How about if only bacteria and algea survive? Is it still "Earth" if there is nobody left to call it that?

Of course the Earth will survive, in some form. Humans may not, nor may much of the current species on earth, but apparently that doesn't really bother him that much.

By mousedude (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

Strong-enough motivation from {ideology/politics or economics, most commonly among the 25+ reasons I've seen for climate anti-science} can totally nullify scientific thinking, even among physicists of NAS or Nobel calibre.

Here's some evidence:
1) Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, William Nierenberg, i.e., the George C. Marshall Institute, as per Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's "Merchants of Doubt."

2) Last year's Petition to the American Physical Society, signed by 200+ physicists, including 1 Nobel physics laureate and several more NAS members.
Of course:
a) They got less than 0.5% of the APS membership
b) The demographics, compared to the APS membership were rather different - skewed heavily older, with a high percentage of retired/emeritus.
c) There weren't very many women.
d) Many of them had close personal connections with intense climate anti-science advocates who seemingly recruited them.
e) If political inclinations were visible, they tended towards conservative.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

But it is already being latched on to by right-wing know-nothing commentators. I find myself thinking that any system will achieve equilibrium: you can boost taxes to 90% and some sort of economy will emerge. It's a question of the consequences you're willing to endure to get there.

By Paul Paquet (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

The biosphere will survive but it's composition, integrity & resiliency will be altered. Diversity will recover but it will take on the order of ten million years. Entire ecosystems will be lost & creatures of large body size face extinction, including humans.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

Yes, the Earth will survive. But some of us--including you and me if not Laughlin--think it matters whether intelligent life on Earth survives.

To echo some earlier commentators: Yes, the earth will survive. It has been hit by an asteroid that set most of North America on fire -- and it survived. The dinosaurs didn't survive, but the earth survived. It survived something even worse about 250 million years ago, possibly triggered by enormous volcanic eruptions. The earth got through that episode without batting an eye -- but most species perished. As the eminent scientist, Dr. Alfred Neumann once remarked, "What, me worry?"

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink

But it is already being latched on to by right-wing know-nothing commentators. I find myself thinking that any system will achieve equilibrium: you can boost taxes to 90% and some sort of economy will emerge. It's a question of the consequences you're willing to endure to get there.

you can boost taxes to 90% and some sort of economy will emerge.

That's it! Our riposte to the right wing echo machine: "The economy has experienced all sorts of ups and downs, and it has always survived. A $100/ton carbon tax will not destroy it. The economy will survive."

On a more serious note, I wonder if the professor will issue a clarification once he sees what Glen Beck & Co do with his words. I suspect his essay reflects political naivete rather than maliciousness.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 21 Jul 2010 #permalink

I would like for living things far into the future to have me as an ancestor. Should note that past mass extinctions included the extinction or decimation of the previous dominant life forms (ignoring the bacteria).

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 21 Jul 2010 #permalink

Can any of the people claiming that the "Earth will survive" with such surety address James Hansen's fear of Earth's atmosphere ending up like Venus's? I know it seems unlikely, but you guys sound so sure of yourself, and unlikely doesn't equal impossible...

Our species' written history is not very long and yet within that time frame our human civilization has experienced some dark ages. They might not be the sterotypical eurocentric idea of what a 'dark age' is, and they may not have been as universal over the last 5 thousand years, but there can be no denying that if human history is going to continue to inform us as to the future we should recognize that major declines are probable at some time in our future, regardless of whether it's due to climate/technology/astronomy/geology; there are lots of ways to cook our goose. I'd rather society focus on getting beyond earthbound industry and put all that stuff up in some orbit where it can use the sun's energy directly and send it to us later when we need it, as we return the planet back to it's better condition as it was before we went a 'little overboard'. The key is in our not experiencing a dark age in the mean time.
Creating a way to get into orbit in a heavy industrial kind of fashion, so that it's as cheap as a commodity as it can be, like a railroad-train out of the gravity well we call home, is as good a place to start as any. The technological transformation we've seen since the space program was first conceived should suggest that we're ready to go beyond the cold war era of skinny little rockets designed to deliver bombs originally. It's time to start launching appropriately scaled payloads for the real task ahead; permanent stations where people live and work for long times and in colonies: simulated gravity by rotation and adequate shielding, and safeguards and lots of cheap energy. Environmentally speaking, the best place to make stainless steel, if we're going to have it as a industrial feedstock as it is now, is 200 miles away from Gary Indiana or anywhere for that matter; straight up.

Since climate science is so inherently complex, do you think this new computational tool might help? Just in at
"Data mining made faster: New method eases analysis of 'multidimensional' information "

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 22 Jul 2010 #permalink

My greatest fear is that the Neil Reynolds quote at the end is dead on correct. Just not in the way he intended. "Governments and citizens delude themselves when they think they can make a difference."


Try this to see George's prescient remarks on the subject.

Here's a thought: Most AGW denialists are also obsessed with immigration (or emmigration, depending on their location). Even within the brief history of anatomically modern humans on
Earth, we've seen that global temperature changes of 1-2 degrees C. cause massive human migration. Immigration and emmigration are artifacts of modern nation states; human migration is a fucking force of nature, like bison or wildebeest or, hell, Monarch butterflies. Long before climate change threatens the Survival of Humanity, it will trigger massive human migrations, as it did 60KYA, as it did 30-15KYA, and as it did during the Little Ice Age within recorded history. And ports and border crossings will not be able to stop it.

I hate to rekindle the "framing" debates, but I wish that the world's conservatives would cotton onto the fact that, long before we see massive die-offs of human beings, we will see massive migrations. (Let's paint a picture of a Swahili-speaking Saskatchewan.) Maybe preying on the racial and nationalist fears of reactionary/denialist elements in the Western world is the way to achieve real change now, when it can make a difference.

There's always tomorrow to work toward a more enlightened, egalitarian world. But if we can leverage racism and ethnocentrism to get people to pay attention to the current situation, I think it's foolish to take the high road.

George Carlin is Glen Beck or Joseph Goebbels with a sense of humor.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 23 Jul 2010 #permalink

George Carlin is actually a real socialist leftist. He's also a comedian. His opinions about global warming, or for that matter anything relating to science at all that requires a scientific understanding of the facts? They mean nothing.

Just like Glenn Beck, Dennis Miller, Al Gore, Keith Olbermann, and the rest of the punditry, left and right. They don't know what they're talking about, because they haven't studied it. Some of them (Gore) seem closer than others (Beck), but they're ALL demonstrably wrong a lot of the time.

Science is for scientists.

Science is for scientists.

Hear! Hear! Let the scientists determine the science, and the body politic decide what to do about it.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 23 Jul 2010 #permalink

While we all agree the standard of the 'Earth's survival' (whatever that means) is clearly too high a threshold for action, I would argue that even humanity's survival that most of you seem to be conjecturing about is laughably too high. Even if we were to make the assumption that humanity will live on indefinitely until evolution renders us a distinctly different species, action would be warranted to reduce carbon based simply on the decimation of standard of living and ecosystem devastation to which inaction clearly points.

"Science is for scientists."

I've seen some pretty stupid things posted on this blog but that statement may be the most idiotic.

That's like saying music is for musicians.

Science is the process by which humans strive to better understand the universe.

I guess it's not surprising that people that want to declare scientific validity based on counting the number of PhD's that line up on one side of an issue might wish to express this basic misunderstanding of the nature of scientific inquiry.

While becoming a scientist does require a great deal of education and training the results of scientific inquiry are open to any one that wishes to invest the time to evaluate the evidence, procedures and conclusions of the researcher.

Science is NOT a priesthood practiced by the anointed that is not to be questioned by the laity.

Lance, I think you'll be mollified by this simple emendation:

Doing science is for scientists.

Or, if you want to be quibblissimo, here's an even better version:

The practice of carrying out scientific research and interpreting its results for nonscientists should be done only by professional scientists, except in rare and special cases of devoted amateurs who have mastered the pertinent scientific issues.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 25 Jul 2010 #permalink


Each inquiry must stand on its own merits.

The word "scientist", or the degrees of the researcher, have nothing to do with the quality of research.

Is it more likely that a trained scientist will produce quality research, in a field which they have studied for years, than an interested amateur? Certainly.

That being said each scientific study must be judged based on the merits of the work not the qualifications of the investigator.

I am in complete agreement with you, Lance. I myself am an amateur who has participated in a rather expensive scientific experiment; I was invited to participate because I have some background in this particular (and very tiny) field. My functions, however, were primarily technical rather than scientific. In all scientific matters, I deferred to the Principal Investigator, because even though I know a lot about this, he knows more. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it: I got to see an astronomical event that less than a hundred people on the planet have witnessed.

So yes, there are rare circumstances in which amateurs can participate (as it happens, I am even now preparing for a new experiment). But I have no grandiose beliefs that I know better than the experts. If the PI says "do it this way", I do it his way.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 25 Jul 2010 #permalink

Not to get all cosmic while we're basking in the geologic, but in the end, of course, the Earth will not survive.

" the end, of course, the Earth will not survive."

Ironically, if current estimates of the cosmological constant are correct, the entire Universe is fated to "die" from "heat death", albeit 10^100 years hence.

Before you AGW'ers get all excited "heat death" is actually the term for reaching maximum entropy and would make the universe a very cold place indeed, just above absolute zero.

Maybe we can hide some SUVs and an oil tanker or two in a worm hole to heat things back up in a pinch?

The possibility of Earth becoming like Venus seems extremely outlandish to me. The high temperature of Venus is not just due to a high proportion of CO2 (over 95% I believe), but also an atmosphere nearly 100 times denser than Earth's. I just don't see how we could ever approach that level of heat trapping, even using gases far more potent than CO2. Maybe in some semi-plausible SF scenario the average temperature of Earth could be raised close to the boiling point of water, but hot enough to melt lead? No.

Mentat -

Actually, the Earth will eventually 'go Venus'; once you reach a certain temperature for the planet, the oceans evaporate in a positive feedback cycle, water vapour being a strong greenhouse gas. Without oceans and a water cycle, carbonate rocks don't form so CO2 accumulates - tectonic cycling will ensure that over time, all of our limestone deposits revert back to CO2 and silicates.

The water in the atmosphere will break down under the solar wind, although this may take a long time for Earth.

It seems that we will reach this point in between 500 and 1000 million years naturally.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 24 Aug 2010 #permalink

Andrew, thanks for your comment. I'm quite interested in the model you present, as it is new to me. (Talking here of long-term evolution of Earth's climate, rather than what humans can do over a few centuries.) My understanding heretofore has been similar to what is presented on the Wiki entry for "Earth": the evaporation of the oceans in about 1.5 to 2 GYr, and a mean surface temperature of 70 C.

It also claims that increased surface temperature will actually accelerate the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by inorganic means, which is contrary to your point about carbonate rocks. My knowledge of these mechanisms is weak. Incidentally the page also says that a cooling interior will reduce vulcanism (and thus CO2 recycling) although nothing quantitative is given.

Can you refer me to anything more detailed on your scenario? This calls for more investigation.

I happen to agree with Robert B. Laughlin. Its pure arrogance to think we can destroy all life. In regards to us killing ourselves i say: Dinosaurs lived 165 million years before they went extinct, if we cannot match that, then intellegence is not the evolutionary advantage we think it is. 99% of all the life that has ever existed is now extinct and we somehow think we are going to be different. thats not to say that we shouldnt be more responsible, but short of (destroying all the buildings, cars and structures weve made to build everything in underground hobit like homes with a sustainable system, only use stone cups and bowls and utensils and no longer use plastic)we arent going to do much for the environement to help us. We are far too comfortable using cars and such. At this point its likely we are a lost cause. Another failed evolutionary mutation.

That wasn't me.

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By Guess The Word (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink