Geologists at the 5Cs are often misunderstood creatures. Subjected to sarcastic jokes about our love for rocks by even our closest friends, we geologists have forged the closest of friendships—undoubtedly a result of long car rides, camping in the middle of nowhere, and a common love for Earth’s systems that goes beyond nerd status.
Studying rocks, though seemingly inapplicable and stuck in deep time, is at the root of every facet of human society. Geologists seek to understand the very forces that shaped the Earth over time and led to our existence. They mine the metals in your iPhone and then figure out how in the world to clean up the mess. They help bring water to your pipes; engineer the soil for your food; predict and mitigate the hazards of earthquakes, eruptions, and tsunamis … you get the point.
One of the more urgent topics in geology as of late has been climate change, past and present. Though one might have a vague idea of ice ages and hothouses, many don’t realize just how unusual our current state is. A geological perspective on past change might help to contextualize the facet that someday, it’ll be hotter.
For starters, we live in an icehouse world, which means that our climate fluctuates in and out of ice ages based on changes in Earth’s orbit. There were a dozen or so of these fluctuations in the past 500,000 years, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations were no higher than 280 parts per million (ppm)—right now we’re at 395 ppm and rising. When no ice exists on the planet and CO2 levels are upwards of 1,000 ppm, we’re in a greenhouse state. We now live in the interglacial Holocene, an unusually stable period in terms of Earth’s climate, which has allowed human civilization and agriculture to flourish. Many would argue, in fact, that we’ve entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene.
The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) is one analogous period that paleoclimatologists use to imagine the idea of a hyperbolically warmer world. 56 million years ago, the world was five to eight degrees Celsius warmer on average, and turtles swam in the Arctic Ocean. For a bit of context, the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that if we continue to heavily use fossil fuels, we’re looking at a world warmer by two to six degrees Celsius by 2099. The PETM was triggered by the massive release of methane into the atmosphere, perhaps from the melting of permafrost. The carbon release took place over 20,000 years—not 150. It took about 100,000 years to scrub the excess carbon out of the atmosphere and return to baseline. For geologists, this is a short period, but for everybody else, it’s incomprehensible.
The fact is this: Earth’s climate as we have known it for the past 10,000 years is, in human terms, permanently gone. Humans, though once seemingly small and insignificant in the scope of our vast planet, are now agents of geological change. We have dumped millions of years of stored carbon into the atmosphere, drained and polluted ancient river systems, paved over virgin forests, and caused a geologically significant mass extinction. How far into the future do our ethics extend? Do we have an obligation—not only to our children, but also to the planet we call home—to respect and maintain the natural world? Do we have the will?
Divestment of our endowments from fossil fuel industries, though some say it is impractical and pointless, is about making a statement of moral obligation to our fellow humans and to Earth. It is about acknowledging that we, however small we feel, have an unprecedented impact on this planet and its people. Fossil fuel companies should not fund the education of the generation that will be tasked with solving this enormous problem. Furthermore, their economic power must not inhibit us from responding to this great crisis. At the 5Cs, we have an opportunity to make a statement to the country and the world that we are committed to being part of the solution. The temperature has risen 0.9 degrees Celsius already. Is it time to act yet?