Even Nobel Prize winners can say foolish things. This is demonstrated by the recent comments of Stanford University physicist and 1998 physics laureate Robert Laughlin, who has been arguing that human-induced climate change is no big deal, because the Earth has had worse:
Writing in the summer issue of the magazine The American Scholar, Prof. Laughlin offers a profoundly different perspective on climate change. “Common sense tells us that damaging a thing as old as [Earth] is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish â€“ like invading Russia.” For planet Earth, he says, the crisis of climate change, if crisis it be, will be a walk in the park.
Relax, Prof. Laughlin advises. Let it be. “The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we gaze into the future,” he says, “not because itâ€™s unimportant but because itâ€™s beyond our power to control.” Whatever humans throw at it, in other words, Earth will fix things in its own time and its own way.
The error in thinking here is to equate the continued existence of the Earth with the continued healthy existence of humanity. Yes, the planet has been through a lot, including some cataclysmic extinction events. That being said, compared to the Earth humanity is young and vulnerable. Civilization has only been around for 10,000 years or so, and during a period of unusual climatic calm.
While the greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere do not endanger the planet, in the sense that it might cease to be a huge ball of iron orbiting the sun annually, they do threaten the future health and prosperity of humanity. At the very least, there is good reason to believe that the costs borne by humanity if we allow climate change to run unchecked far exceed the costs of stopping the problem, and moving to sustainable forms of energy at the same time. And that is to say nothing of the suffering that will inevitably accompany dangerous amounts of climate change. Laughlin’s argument is somewhat akin to seeing a baby driving around on a bulldozer and saying: “There’s no need to worry, that bulldozer will be just fine.”
Laughlin also makes the demonstrably incorrect claim that the Earth is just too vast for humanity to affect:
The earth doesnâ€™t include the potentially catastrophic effects on civilization in its planning. Far from being responsible for damaging the earthâ€™s climate, civilization might not be able to forestall any of these terrible changes once the earth has decided to make them. Were the earth determined to freeze Canada again, for example, itâ€™s difficult to imagine doing anything except selling your real estate in Canada. If it decides to melt Greenland, it might be best to unload your property in Bangladesh. The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when weâ€™re gazing into the energy future, not because itâ€™s unimportant, but because itâ€™s beyond our power to control.
He obviously hasn’t been paying much attention to atmospheric chemistry. James Hansen has repeatedly pointed out how a single factory manufacturing CFCs (chemicals used as refrigerants and propellants, but which are also powerful greenhouse gases) could stave off the ice ages that used to be induced by the planet’s orbital variations. When it comes to the thermostat of the planet, humanity is now firmly in control, though our addiction to fossil fuels means we are doing all we can to twist it towards ‘hot.’
Laughlin is right to point out that the weathering of rock will eventually remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. What he neglects to explain is the implications of the relevant timescale; this process takes thousands of years, meaning it offers no immediate help for humanity. If, in the mean time, we have burned all of the world’s oil, coal, and gas, we will be dealing with a rapidly changing climate, eventual sea level increase of ten metres or more, and the kind of planet-wide destabilization that humanity has never known. He may take comfort from the Earth’s ability to endure, but shouldn’t suggest that humanity is equally robust.
[Update: 21 July 2010] Please see: Correspondence with Robert Laughlin