Worried about climate change? Meh.
Climate alarmism pushes a blinding variety of scares at the general public; Polar bears going extinct, droughts of biblical proportions, massive Noah’s ark type flooding, glaciers melting, sea levels rising, sea levels dropping, the polar ice caps melting, your Granny’s knicker elastic breaking, seas getting acidic, another looming mass extinction event, the rainforest disappearing, islands being covered by rising seas, ozone holes, shrinking biodiversity and things like acid rain, to name but a few.
The list is endless and they’re all truly terrifying but the really big scare, apart from the sudden and unanticipated appearance of your Granny’s knickers around her ankles, was global warming. They spent a lot of time and energy plugging that one. Unfortunately, Mother Gaia hasn’t been in an obliging mood with respect to that prediction, and indeed, there hasn’t been any “statistically significant” warming in nearly a decade and a half, to quote a certain Prof. Phil Jones of Climategate fame.
The response was to rebrand it as climate change, which as it turned out, actually didn’t work too well. They’d simply done too good a job on the global warming propaganda meme. It was a supposedly slick infowar move, but the timing was simply too late, way too late. They are good at propaganda, but what they are extremely bad at, is changing propaganda memes, when the circumstances have changed. That is a weakness, which springs from that same basic weakness of all fanatics. When it comes to the fundamentals of their belief system, they simply cannot change their minds. Paradoxically, they’re quite happy to bend the truth in the service of their belief, but the belief itself must never be denied.
The mistake they made from the outset, was labelling the threat global warming, rather than something more vague like climate change. The former was just too specific and because of that, it’s come back to bite them on the bum. As every fortune-teller knows, always predict vague generalities and you can’t be proved wrong. The classic is telling the client they will have a romantic interlude with a tall dark stranger at some unspecified date in the future. With human nature being what it is and that atavistic desire we all have to believe in fanciful things like fortune-telling, the next time the client meets a stranger they quite like the look of, then as long as the stranger isn’t an albino midget, the prophecy will have been magically fulfilled.
The irony is that climate change is real. The climate has always changed, is changing now and will continue to change in the future. It might take hundreds or thousands of years but it’ll always change. The question is, how on Earth can we ever cope with it?
I suppose an easy answer to that one is evolution. At its most basic, evolution says to any species – if you can’t adapt to changing circumstances, you’ll die out. It’s as brutally simple as that. When you look at the environment through the eyes of what geologists call “deep time”, it’s a fact that the environment has always, and will always, change.
In a previous article, on what I termed the steady-state environment delusion, I said “We look at our world and the universe with human eyes and more importantly, with a human lifespan. In terms of the latter, we see an apparently ageless and unchanging view but it’s a false impression. When looked at through the eyes of “deep” time, it is dynamic, violent and forever changing. There is no ideal static harmonious state which must be maintained. There never was and there never will be either.”
A species adapts to change by the accumulation of small, seemingly random, changes in the DNA of individuals, the effect of each one, if it happens to be beneficial, being to give it a small edge in that struggle for existence, as Darwin so aptly termed it. If that little change enables them to survive long enough, then they will have offspring, a percentage of whom will carry forward that little beneficial mutation. Those offspring or their own offspring in turn, may develop further small mutations, which will help them survive.
There are several factors, which decide whether a species will go extinct, but the main ones are how fast the change in their environment is occurring and how well adapted they already are to their current disappearing habitat. The more perfectly they are adapted to their current specialist niche, the bigger the task of evolving out of it and into a different one.
When you get an environmental change, which is rapid in geological terms, such as the onset of an ice age, not only does it destroy the environmental niche a species has adapted to, but it’s so fast, that there simply isn’t time enough for the species to evolve to handle the change. The option of simply leaving a niche you’re hard-wired into, for a completely new niche, requiring a different specific adaptation, is simply not open to most species. It’s just too big an ask in the time available. A high degree of specialisation, makes a species more vulnerable to extinction.
By and large, evolution is a slow business, though there have been periods in the Earth’s history, to my mind yet to be satisfactorily explained, in which rapid explosions of biodiversity have occurred. Of all the species that have ever existed on the Earth, 99.9% of them went extinct, without spinning off a new species. Inescapably, that would seem to imply, that evolution can only rarely keep up with changes in the environment of our planet. The pattern does seem to be one of mass extinction events, of varying severity, followed by a recovery of biodiversity, as new species evolve from the survivors into empty niches.
The obvious knock on thought is that evolution, being the blind, persistent, brute force beast that it is, is perhaps moving towards producing something that can break through that biological barrier of periodic mass extinctions. I think we might just be the first-cut approximation of that thing it’s fumbling towards. Given enough time, it was bound to come up with something like us in the end. If you do happen to believe there is a God, then his indirect hand in the universe must surely be evolution.
Over the course of geological history, the planet has had several ices ages. In geological terms, we’re currently in the fifth ice age, called the Quaternary glaciation. When all the ice on top of Greenland melts yet again, that’ll finally mark the end of it, which is why you’ll understand most geologists snigger when they hear the words global warming or climate science. Within an ice age, you have periods when the ice advances, called glacials, and periods when it retreats, called interglacials. We’re fortunate to live in an interglacial period, but it was preceded by a glacial, which ended only about 10,000 years ago. That glacial was mainly confined to the Northern hemisphere, with what is now Canada, half of the USA, the British Isles, half of Western and Northern Europe, covered under ice sheets, two miles thick in places.
Homo Sapiens, us by the way, are a young and successful species, who have come to dominate the Earth in our brief 200,000 years of existence. In geological terms, that isn’t even the beginning of a blink of an eye, but in that time alone, we’ve survived two long glacial periods, totalling 170,000 years, and are now basking in the relative warmth of our second interglacial. Put your feet up, enjoy the rays. We’ve really earnt that right as well, since we’ve survived 85% of our time on this planet in those chilly glacials, when a lot of other species didn’t. The species we evolved from, survived their own share of glacial periods as well.
The question is, how did a physically unremarkable species like us manage to do it. It’s not as if we’ve all got a magnificent pelt of fur or something, though you’d be quite justified in thinking we should have one by this stage.
From a survival viewpoint, despite what you may have been told, the most useful asset we have as a species is not our intelligence, which is always a help of course, but our flexibility. That flexibility has allowed us to spread all over the world and live quite comfortably in habitats as diverse as icy polar regions, deserts, mountains, tundra, plains, jungles, islands and sprawling cities. No other species can do this. No other species can even come anywhere near it, except for the occasional hitchhiker we take along with us, like dogs, cats or fleas.
We are omnivores, who can pretty much eat anything, as long as it isn’t poisonous, but even then, we’ve learnt how to take the poison out of certain foodstuffs, so we can eat them. We are living proof of why you should buy stock in fast food companies.
We’re also that unusual species, which always walks on two feet, in a world where most things get along on four. It means we’re not fast enough to outrun a lot of other species, who might fancy us as a snack, but at the same time, it means we can handle any variety of terrain, which is something none of them can do. If you’ve ever tried dragging a horse up a steep incline, you’ll know what I mean. Should you succeed in that effort, then as for getting them down afterwards, you might as well just give up and push them off.
We know how to fight nature and wrestle it into submission, to get from it what we need to survive. We also know there are times when it’s too strong, and all you can do is flee before it or be destroyed. When the glaciers start advancing again, we’ll run away to new habitats in warmer regions, as we’ve done so many times before.
What accounts for this terrific flexibility? The answer is that as a species, we’re not specifically adapted to any particular ecological niche, in a physical sense, so it isn’t a species survival crisis if a niche changes or disappears completely. Every society on Earth, protects its helpless children and teaches them how to survive in the particular habitat they happen to have been born into. We’re equally at ease in those diverse habitats I listed above, because by the time we reach adulthood in them, they’re all home to us. That is the big payoff for the huge investment we make in protecting and teaching our children, who have by far the longest and most vulnerable childhood of any other species on the planet.
The other thing we do, and yet again it’s unique, is that we cooperate and pool our newly learned skills, to produce the goods and artifacts we need to survive. If we need a new skill to survive in a particular habitat, we develop it and share that expertise with the rest of society. In return, we get access to other people’s skills. No other species does anything so flexible.
In short, because we haven’t been hard-wired into any particular ecological niche by evolution, we’re to a large extent resistant to that great killer of species; habitat change.
In our time, we have survived ice ages, famines, earthquakes, droughts, tidal waves, floods, predation, hurricanes, crop failures, desertification, tsunamis and a whole lot of other assorted extreme weather events. The nearest thing that’s ever come anywhere close to finishing us off, is the occasional pandemic, like the Bubonic plague of the Middle Ages or the Spanish flu of the early twentieth century. Climate change? Meh. Already dunnit, bought the book, seen the movie, the sequels were shite, disappointed by the spinoff TV mini series, got the T-shirt though and already bought the director’s cut etc etc. No sale, just stroll on John.
I think evolution is a universal pressure, which will inevitably produce a species like us, who to some extent, have removed ourselves from that repetitive cycle of mass extinction and recovery, forced on all species by that universal constant of a forever changing and violent universe. If that conjecture is true, it has some interesting implications.
Make no mistake, a planet smashing event will inevitably arrive here one day, but by then, I’ve a feeling we’ll have already spread out to pastures anew.
Watch out universe, here we come …
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