There is a line of reasoning that I keep on hearing whenever climate change is discussed. I hear it in conversations, see it posted on social media, and read it in comment threads. It goes along these lines. Yes, climate change is bad, but it is bad only for humans. The planet will be fine.
This line of reasoning is wrong. Yes, climate change is negatively affecting humans, but only because we are part of the complex web of life on this planet. That entire web is being disrupted by climate change, and we, along with all the living things with whom we share this planet, are suffering from the impact. Hence, saving ourselves by acting on climate change is no different from saving the web of life to which we belong. We cannot save people without saving the planet.
Now, to be charitable, the people making the argument have a point. When they say that the planet will be fine, they are thinking of the fact that the Earth has gone through countless changes over its 4.5 billion-year history.
Indeed, many of the changes in the past were drastic. For instance, the Earth has been through deep ice ages when a lot of its water was locked up in continent-sized glaciers, draining entire seas. During such times, what is now the Mediterranean Sea was a desert, and what are now the seas separating Indonesia and the Philippines from mainland Asia were land bridges.
The Earth has also gone through some very hot times. During the Carboniferous period some 359 million to 299 million years ago, the average global temperature was 20 degrees hotter than today’s. The Earth was a very swampy, damp planet filled with lush forests and giant dragonflies with 2-foot wingspans.
Even further back in time, the Earth was a hellscape where no life was possible. During the Earth’s early days, in the aptly named Hadean time, the Earth was so hot its surface was an ocean of molten lava.
In other words, climate change over the hundreds of thousands of years is part of the Earth’s natural cycles. These cycles are caused by a lot of factors, from changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the amount of energy released by the sun.
Some of the Earth’s changes were even catastrophic. The most famous example is the event that caused the demise of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago, when an asteroid slammed into Earth. That event caused tons of dust to spray into the atmosphere, plummeting the planet into a global winter that lasted for years.
We get mini versions of this whenever a major volcanic explosion happens. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the ashes from the volcano cooled the Earth’s temperature by up to 0.6 degrees. Meanwhile, the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora probably resulted in 1816 to be “The Year Without a Summer.”
So in some sense, the Earth will indeed be fine. After all, it has survived far worse.
However, it is only correct so far as we are talking about the mere lump of rocks that is Earth. Most of the time when people talk about “the planet,” they are not merely referring to the inanimate parts of Earth. When people say “the planet”, that usually includes the Earth’s living components. It is, after all, what makes Earth such a unique planet.
When one includes this living component, then the planet is indeed under threat because of climate change. Climate change will result in a great dying throughout the planet, the likes of which humans have never seen before. Even a warming of 1.5 degrees will wipe out hundreds of species of animals and plants.
A warming of 2 degrees will make the problem much worse. According to the special report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a warming of 2 degrees will put 98 percent of the world’s coral reefs at risk. Millions of people, and even more marine animals, depend on healthy coral reefs. When the corals go, they will take countless other living things with them.
The stable climate of the past few thousand years is what made complex human civilization possible. Climate change is disrupting that once stable foundation. The things we depend on, from predictable seasonal changes to healthy forests, are going away. If that foundation collapses altogether because of climate change, it is not just humans who will suffer. Instead, we will be dragging hundreds of thousands of species along with us, from some obscure forest frog to the coffee plants we farm for their seeds.
This is why saving the planet and saving human civilization amount to the same task. There is no doing one without doing the other.