Originally published on May 4th, 2014 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
The end of this week found me in a room full of some of the greatest interdisciplinary thinkers around climate change--at a conference on "Historicizing Climate Change." As a sheltered physical scientist, I'm still not entirely sure what "historicizing" means, but the byline of the conference was "How will future historians discuss climate change?"
This question, as difficult as it is to wrap my head around, got me thinking about thereally big picture of how we interact with our planet.
Prof. Richard Somerville, a venerable and now retired member of the climate science hall of fame, presented the conference-goers with a thought experiment:
We currently live on Planet A--a planet where we've burned lots of fossil fuels but also happen to have developed really powerful computers and satellites that have enabled climate science to answer a lot of the questions that society is now asking of it.
There isn't necessarily a reason why humanity had to evolve this way. We could be living on Planet B--a planet where we've burned lots of fossil fuels but also didn't invent advanced computing or satellite technology. When this was mentioned at the conference, the image popped into my head of a sort of reverse steampunk world of coal-fueled locomotives and questionable corset choices.
This is an interesting thought experiment to me. Perhaps it is just a lucky coincidence that climate science has "come of age," as Prof. Somerville put it, at the same time climate change pushes society to look to climate science for answers. Then again, society is only asking climate science these questions because climate science itself made society aware of climate change. Theoretically, though, we could have been aware of climate change without satellites or advanced computing--Svante Arrhenius, the 19th century Swedish physicist, theorized the greenhouse effect in 1896, and most of our measurements of longterm increases in carbon dioxide and temperature come from ground-based observations. We just wouldn't have had all the tools we currently have to fully visualize the problem, test our theories, and predict things into the future.
On the other hand, perhaps it was the development of a technology-minded society in which we wanted vast amounts of energy to do things like shoot satellites into space or run giant supercomputing centers that has led to the huge amount of fossil fuel combustion that happens today. Perhaps a society in which we didn't develop things like climate models is also one in which we didn't use fossil fuels heavily enough to create the magnitude of problem that climate models are useful in addressing.
All of this mind-boggling hypothetical musing reminded me of the Anthropic Principle, a pseudo-philosophical idea from astrophysics.
The basic idea of the anthropic principle is that we observe a universe that is well-tuned to our existence because that's the only way we could be here to observe it. For example, if the physical forces in an atom's nucleus were only slightly stronger, hydrogen would have quickly fused into helium in the early universe, and H2O wouldn't exist--a bit of a slap in the face for the emergence of life as we know it...and for the emergence of a consciousness that can question why the physical forces in an atom's nucleus happen to be such that water can exist.
Similarly, perhaps it's completely unremarkable that we happen to have developed a science that allows us to understand one of the great humanitarian challenges of our time, because if that weren't the case we wouldn't be wondering if it's remarkable.
Maybe (probably) this has all just been a completely arcane mental exercise, but it's at least a reminder not to take for granted that we live in a world in which climate science has been more or less able to keep pace with the questions we need it to answer.
We could be living on Planet B instead, and I don't like corsets.