Friday evening I had the privilege of hearing Hollins College physicist Marshall Bartlett speak on "Global Warming Now and Then: Geologic Perspectives on Climate Change." The title was probably a little dry for the average person (although the talk packed the recently refurbished WVU Parkersburg Theatre--over 150 seats filled plus people sitting on the stairs and in extra chairs set up on the stage!), but Dr. Bartlett drew the audience into the contemplation of deep time--500 million years or so of time. He took us back to a time when the largest organisms on earth were single-celled.
This voyage was good for me as I'm the sort of person who too often tends to respond with despair to the latest news of what we humans seem to be doing to our beautiful planet. When I read about the latest uptick in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, my thoughts go to all the species being pushed to extinction by our species' behavior, and it feels as if the best thing we could do for the world is vanish in a puff of power-plant smoke and let the rest of life get on with living. Friday's discussion of the revelations found in ice cores was comforting.
Not totally comforting: CO2 concentrations now are higher than they have ever been in the history of humans on this planet, and much of the world's human, animal, and plant populations are likely to suffer as a result. Still, from the perspective of planetary history, our carbon dioxide levels are nothing new, and not particularly high. The dinosaurs stomped around in a world of CO2 levels several times higher than ours, a steamy world of lush, giant plants and warm oceans. According to Dr. Bartlett, humans will still be able to breathe even if we reach those levels again. Life, even if it's not life as we have known it, will go on.
There will almost certainly be losses, but at least some of Mother Earth's kids will be all right.