But Isn’t Climate Change Natural?

1 0
Read Time:6 Minute, 13 Second

“The climate has always been changing; it’s natural.” On the very surface, sure, that may be true. However, there are two crucial ideas that this sentence misses. First, it is the rate of climate change that poses a threat, not the simple fact of it changing, and the current rate of climate change is certainly unnatural. Second, even if the change were to be “natural,” that doesn’t mean it is a good thing.

This change is different

Average temperatures on Earth in the last 300 million years have ranged from around 10° C to 32° C, with today’s being around 15° C. But, it isn’t the absolute temperature that matters in our discussion around climate change. It’s not called “climate hot” or “climate cold.” It’s about change, and in this case, the climate is warming. Change drives evolution, extinction, and adaptation of life on our planet. If the world around a species changes, the previous biological strategies it used to survive will no longer be viable. To adapt and evolve to their new environment, species can’t just consciously decide to develop systems to deal with increased heat, frequency of natural disasters, and periods of drought. Evolution occurs through mutations in genes, which are very rare and take long periods to accumulate and undergo natural selection to become new adaptations to a changing environment. That’s why the speed at which change occurs is so important. If it is slow, organisms are more able to adapt and keep their species going, but if it is too rapid, many species will die. And with humans relying so profoundly on all parts of nature to survive, we will be hurt too.

Check out this excellent XKCD comic for a visualization of just how different the current climate change is than previous ones.

The current speed of climate change is unprecedented in the relatively recent history of our planet. But, even before today, major climate change has caused a mass extinction, where species extinction is much higher than normal. The most impressive example is the End Permian Extinction around 250 million years ago, also termed the “Great Dying” (seems pretty bad, eh?). Around 96% of marine species went extinct during this event, which was caused by climate warming from volcanic eruptions in Siberia. This extinction event had the fastest climate change of the “big 5” mass extinctions, with an increase of 1° C every 10,000 to 100,000 years. The Paris Accord aims to keep warming “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”. If we hit 2 degrees in 2050, there will have been 1 °C of warming every 100 to 150 years. This shows that the current climate change we are experiencing is putting us, and other life, at significant risk of extinction. It is important to note that it is not only the rate of climate change that matters to life on Earth but also the amount of time a high rate of change is sustained and the absolute temperature at which it occurs. But, in terms of life adapting to avoid extinction, the rate of change is most significant.

Species before and after the Permian extinction
Credit: Semantic Scholar

“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean good

Some may argue that distinguishing between human-caused and natural climate change is incorrect, as humans are part of nature. Therefore, the current change the world is experiencing is “natural,” and we shouldn’t be trying to stop it. The fallacy here is that the fact that something is natural does not mean it is good. Events are not good or bad because of the labels we assign them; they are good or bad based on their impacts on the real world. There are many possible ways the Earth’s future can play out, and the best ones are not those we label as “natural” but the ones where humans and other life can survive healthily and sustainably.

Granted, the (un)natural label can help make quick decisions and improve intuition, as is the case with heavy industries emitting “unnatural” chemicals into the environment or creating “unnatural” ocean habitats by spilling oil – these are indeed bad. However, this label is only a guide to decision-making and cannot be used as the sole reason for a decision. For example, an asteroid impact would surely be natural, but it would also be quite bad for humans and all other life. This distinction is the same for human-induced climate change; while it may be natural if you consider humans to be part of nature, it is still a bad thing for our well-being.

Humans are smart enough to realize the impacts of our actions and make changes to stop negative impacts and promote positive ones. Now, it is time to use this knowledge to save ourselves from climate change-induced extinction.

The thought that we should continuously 100% pursue what is natural is also problematic if we separate humans from nature. Since humans exist and are excellent ecosystem engineers, we will impact the planet; there is no getting around this. Trying to pursue human existence in an utterly non-impactful way to seek some deified natural state is simply impossible. The question is not whether or not humans will have an impact, but what this impact will look like. We have the opportunity to make our effects very beneficial or extremely harmful to the planet, and we must strive to make it the former. Since humans cannot avoid having an impact, pursuing the elimination of human impact means the elimination of humans, something which is assuredly unacceptable to 99% of people. So, if we assume that all human impact is bad for the environment, we are led to the rejection of climate action since, following this logic, the only way to save the environment is for humans not to exist. But, this ignores all possible beneficial impacts humans can have on the environment. In sum, we should not hold the “natural” label on such a pedestal, as it deifies a path that avoids all the possible helpful actions humans can take.

Credit: Sciencing

So next time someone says to you, “The climate has always been changing; it’s natural,” explain to them that a) it is not the mere fact of change that endangers life on Earth, including humans, but the speed at which this change is occurring and b) that just because something is natural does not mean it is good for humans or life.

References

Hickey, Hannah. “Biggest Extinction in Earth’s History Caused by Global Warming Leaving Ocean Animals Gasping for Breath.” UW News, 6 Dec. 2018, www.washington.edu/news/2018/12/06/biggest-extinction-in-earths-history-caused-by-global-warming-leaving-ocean-animals-gasping-for-breath/.

Scott, Michon. “What’s the Coldest Earth’s Ever Been? | NOAA Climate.gov.” Www.climate.gov, 18 Feb. 2021, www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/whats-coldest-earths-ever-been.

Scott, Michon, and Rebecca Lindsey. “What’s the Hottest Earth’s Ever Been?” Www.climate.gov, 18 June 2020, www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-qa/whats-hottest-earths-ever-been.

Stone, Madeleine. “Earth Just Set a Heat Record. It Won’t Be Its Last.” Science, 5 July 2023, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/earth-record-heat-climate-change-prehistory. Accessed 7 June 2024.

United Nations. “The Paris Agreement.” United Nations, 2015, www.un.org/en/climatechange/paris-agreement.

About Post Author

Simon Lindsay-Stodart

Simon is currently studying sustainability at McGill University with a minor in Political Science. He is passionate about sustainable urban development, state-level action, and individual sustainable lifestyle changes. He has been a passionate advocate for climate change prevention since he was very young, and likes to present ways to solve the problems we face as a society and as individuals.
Happy
Happy
0 %
Sad
Sad
0 %
Excited
Excited
0 %
Sleepy
Sleepy
0 %
Angry
Angry
0 %
Surprise
Surprise
0 %

Average Rating

5 Star
0%
4 Star
0%
3 Star
0%
2 Star
0%
1 Star
0%

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *