What Happens After Global Warming (Part 2)

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This article is an adaptation of the introduction to J. Curt Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth(Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press), published here courtesy of the author and publisher.

This excerpt appears in two parts. Part II is printed below. To Read Part I, in which Stager describes two scenarios–one moderate, one extreme–as possible results of our response to climate change, click here.


We still have time to choose between these scenarios.  And although climatic instability, both in the near-term warming and subsequent cooling phases to come, is likely to cause great problems for many of our descendants, it’s not going to end the human race altogether.  Considering all that Homo sapiens has been through in the geologic past, it’s clear that our species is too tough, diverse, and resourceful to be killed off completely by a climatic shift, especially as some parts of the Earth become more hospitable to humans in a warmer future, particularly in the far north.  As coastal regions sink under the rising sea, regions just inland will become oceanfront property.  Where one region becomes drier, another may become wetter. And as some familiar cultures fade away, others will be born.  This is not meant to make light of the seriousness of the situation; rather, it’s to make the opposite point.  Our newly revealed influence on the deep future means that our decisions really do matter, because people are going to have to live through whatever version of the world we leave for them.

            But taking a long view of the future for a huge and complicated planet isn’t easy, and a confusing mosaic of positive and negative responses to human-driven warming is already under way.  Polar bears, ringed seals, and beluga whales are beginning to suffer from the shrinkage of Arctic sea ice, but that change is also allowing brown bears, harbor seals, and orcas to move into new territories.  An increasingly ice-free Arctic threatens traditional Inuit hunting cultures, but it’s also opening sea routes for trade between Atlantic and Pacific nations and is likely to support new polar fisheries.  And while melting ice pushes the oceans up and over our coastlines, it also unveils new farmland and mineral resources in Greenland, which may prosper as a result. 

            In light of this mix of pluses and minuses, how can we best decide what the climatic settings of future ecosystems and cultures should be like in 100,000 AD, not to mention 2100 AD?

            Thanks to the great reach of our carbon legacy, we in this century are endowed with the power – some might say the honor – to affect future generations for what amounts to eternity, and our far-reaching effects on what were once purely mechanistic processes now raise new ethical questions.  Any choices we make will bring benefits to some descendents and harm to others, and the complexity of this puzzle grows as we look farther forward in time.  For example, losing the ice on the Arctic Ocean may seem like an awful disaster to us, but imagine how peoples of the deep future will feel as the inexorable cooling recovery threatens what will by then have become ancient, open-water ecosystems.  Elders may then whisper, “I don’t remember ice forming here when I was a kid. If this keeps up, the whole polar ocean may eventually freeze over. What should we do?”

            Few rational people would seriously argue that choosing an extreme emissions scenario is preferable to a moderate one, or that either scenario is preferable to no carbon pollution at all.  But even in a moderate case, enough fossil carbon will remain in the air 50,000 years from now to prevent the next ice age, which natural orbital cycles would otherwise have triggered then.  In essence, this means that by unwittingly causing a near-term climate crisis, we have also saved future versions of Canada and northern Eurasia from obliteration under mile-thick sheets of grinding glacial ice. That’s a welcome bit of good news over the super-long term, but it also means that choosing a moderate emissions scenario over an extreme one could amount to sentencing later generations to glacial devastation.   Another ice age is due in 130,000 AD, and a moderate emissions pulse will have dissipated too much by then to stop it.  Must we therefore sacrifice one set of generations for the sake of another, or can some better solution be found?

            Saving the world with a minimum of collateral damage may be impossibly difficult, especially considering the limits of human altruism and today’s political demagoguery and media hype.  But the work of Archer and others like him give us a fresh view of the whole situation, not just our own relatively tiny blip of time and home turf.  Hopefully, it will help to support a more productive global conversation about what lies before us and what we should do about it.

            Here’s one idea in that regard.  If we leave most of our coal reserves in the ground rather than burning them when other energy sources are capable of doing the same work, then we not only avoid the most extreme consequences of near-term climate change; we also bequeath that fossil carbon in a naturally sequestered form to later generations who may want to use it as a defense against future ice ages.  The required switch to alternative fuels is inevitable anyway, because we’ll either do it soon by choice or be forced to do it later.  Who knows what cultures and technologies may be like by then, but even neo-stone age peoples could mobilize heat-trapping greenhouse gases by setting exposed coal seams alight if they so desired.  Leaving the decision to them not only relieves us of that responsibility; it would also reduce environmental damage in the near term and stretch the useful life of carbon reserves over millions of years, perhaps even long enough to regenerate some of them in geological formations.

            If we want to “save the world” over a truly long time frame, then perhaps that’s one more good reason to save the carbon.  Save it for later, for higher purposes than simple furnace food and for the benefit of both near- and far-future generations.  To me, that sounds like a win-win strategy that all of us should be able to support.

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