Our Sun is a variable star. Astronomers know that its bolometric magnitude, its total energy output, is slowly increasing. At most, our planet has about 1 billion years left until the oceans will boil off, and that will make it a rough go for any living things, at least fragile ones like us.
But humans have very short windows of thinking into the future. And it’s increasingly obvious that we are not helping the habitability of our planet on shorter scales. Climate change is the most significant problem we face on Earth, despite the ignorance of many politicians to understand the basics. The science of pumping too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the awful effects on habitability are painstakingly simple. Folks, this is second-grade level science. Nothing sophisticated about it. If you need a good example of what excess carbon dioxide does to a planetary atmosphere, just see our next door neighbor, Venus. This afternoon’s current mean temperature on our planetary neighbor is about 870° F (465° C), much hotter than a temp that will melt lead. The folks who deny the existence of human-driven global warming are either magnificently stupid or, for the most part, have a stake in ignoring the facts, either for political or financial reasons.
But as George Carlin famously joked, the planet doesn’t care. The planet has been through far, far worse — the Late Heavy bombardment, catastrophic volcanism, impacts by comets and asteroids, immense blasts of radiation. The planet will be fine, as George reminded us. From climate change, it’ll be the people who are f***ed.
In any case, a great number of scientists, unlike certain politicians, actually do study climate change and take it seriously. Two recent books on the subject ought to be required reading for anyone who truly cares not just about themselves, and the next few years, but generations of our descendants long into the future.
First of all, an easy-to-read and very well illustrated title is Jeffrey Bennett’s A Global Warming Primer: Pathway to a Post-Global Warming Future, 2d ed., 146 pp., paper, Big Kid Science, Boulder, Colo., 2024, $15.
Bennett is a well-known astronomer and educator who has spent parts of his career at Caltech and the University of Colorado. Aimed at adults, this work is nonetheless a relatively basic explanation of the science behind human effects on the climate, well illustrated with numerous diagrams. The writing is clear and understandable, and countless questions about all sorts of aspects of climate change are posed and answered. Such a work ought to be mandatory for the climate deniers, who don’t grasp the basics of what is going on, or pretend (?) to be morons in front of cameras inside or out of the U.S. Capitol. Chapters cover the basics of the science, the skeptic debate, the expected consequences, present and future solutions, and a pathway for the future.
Sample questions are basic and the answers address the realities such that anyone can understand them. They start with asking how we know that carbon dioxide production makes a planet warmer, and goes from there. The walk through the data, both current and historical, explains away some of the naïve assumptions some climate deniers like to pose as potential arguments, such as natural temperature variations in Earth’s history. In short, this book makes clear the realities of climate change for anyone who is halfway intelligent and doesn’t have a private interest in sticking their head in the sand.
The second new book is Michael Mann’s Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis, 320 pp., hardcover, Public Affairs, New York, 2023, $30. Mann is a Presidential Distinguished Professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and a frequent contributor to the press on climate change topics.
Mann’s new book offers a sweeping history of the conditions of our planet. It offers quite an intellectual analysis of what is going on, beginning with understanding the tapestry of Earth’s 4.54-billion-year record. As Mann demonstrates with substantial evidence and reasoning, the emergence of our earliest proto-human ancestors some 2 million years ago was enabled by the very thing that now threatens us — climate change. As the tropics eventually dried, creating savannas in what is now Africa, humans spread and could hunt more effectively than before. More recently, during the “Younger Dryas” just 13,000 years ago, thawing of the last Ice Age helped enable agriculture to take hold and cities to take root.
But Mann reminds us that human habitability is hardly guaranteed as a one-way street. Earth as a habitat is fragile, and always has been. Our view of it as a continuously supportive, immune colony that can withstand anything and give us life forever and ever is a fantasy. We need to maintain a balance for life ourselves, and the industrial revolution of the past couple of centuries has given us the power to move our own best long-term interests backward.
Mann’s book is a critically important lesson in both science and history, and offers hope for the future. But only if we take heed of our intelligence and our cumulative knowledge rather than ignoring it.
In the old days, at Astronomy Magazine, we used to have a slogan about covering stories on our home. “Earth is a planet, too!” we would say. Never before has it been more important to remember this, and to realize that what humans do will invariably affect the conditions for life on our planet for untold generations to come.