The World Revs It's Heat Engine
Its gettin hot in here (so hot)
So take off all your clothes
I am gettin so hot, I wanna take my clothes off
- Lyrics from Rapper Nelly’s hit song “Hot In Herre”
Summer 2023 was the hottest one AROUND THE WORLD according to data from the European Union Climate Change Service. As a college history major, I know that history can repeat itself, so I wanted to investigate whether there were precedents in Earth’s billions of years that could shed light on what may be ahead, barring drastic intervention, in the ensuing decades and centuries.
Today, humanity is responsible for emitting approximately 37 billion metric tons of CO2 annually to the atmosphere, which represents a 5% addition to the 750 billion metric tons of CO2 that move naturally through the carbon cycle each year. Was there a period in history that experienced similar warming due to an increase in CO2 over the natural respiration of the planet?
As Professor Elizabeth Kolbert describes in her book, The Sixth Extinction, there were five distinct mass extinction periods in our planet’s four billion years of history during which the Earth experienced a major geologic event that dramatically altered the existing “chemistry” of the planet causing biodiversity loss between 76%-90% of ALL species.
Most people have heard about the last extinction event 66 million years ago when an asteroid collided with Earth and eliminated the dinosaurs. However, the most significant mass extinction event took place 250 million years ago called the “end-Permian” event. Scientists believe it was caused by increased volcanic activity over tens of thousands of years in the area currently known as the Siberia region of Russia. Prolonged volcanic activity released large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and dramatically changed the chemistry of the planet exterminating 90% of all animal species.
As Kolbert writes, “Temperatures soared-the seas warmed by as much as 18 degrees-and the chemistry of the oceans went haywire... The water became acidified…reefs collapsed… purple seas released poisonous bubbles that rose to a pale green sky.”
Humanity is injecting 37 billion tons of CO2 annually into the atmosphere from burning 115 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 35 billion barrels of oil, and 9 billion tons of coal. To put these emissions in a geologic context, Mount Kilauea has been an active volcano for the past 35 years on the main island of Hawaii. It releases approximately 7 million tons of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. On that basis, humans are burning fossil fuels and discharging CO2 at the equivalent rate of roughly 5300 Mount Kilaueas, far greater than what occurred in Siberia 250 years ago.
While no two events are exactly the same what humanity has done in 200 years is truly remarkable. By extracting buried carbon and using it to do our “work,” we have enabled ourselves to expand from 1 billion to 8 billion people and, in the process, drastically altered the atmosphere, waterways, and land with increasing CO2 levels.
Climate restoration technologies may be able to mitigate some of the damage from our greenhouse gas emissions, but many scientists believe we are too late, and that current tactics are either too expensive and/or unproven.
One positive outlook for the future of the climate: There is a finite amount of fossil fuels and studies predict a diminishing supply over the next century. So, either by intention or default our CO2 emissions will eventually contract.
What a hotter, more acidic world will mean for us, is that we will need to adapt and embrace change with new values and ethics. We must start now to put the systems, structures, and expectations in place that will help us cope with the totality of the difficulties that lie ahead. Together, we can build resiliency and find happiness where it exists as we confront the consequences of our enormous growth.