June 2007: As exciting as it is to yo-yo the CDT, it's boring to read journals about everyday life on the trail. After all, I'm just walking. Yes, walking 9,000 km is a lot, but it's still walking. I think you'd rather heard any interesting thoughts I had during this 7-months in the wilderness.
Whenever I run into a wilderness outhouse, I want to thank the ranger who puts toilet paper in it.
I've already shared some of my contemplations, like compressing Earth's history into a year and what it means to be human. So now let's tackle global warming. I encourage you to set aside 10 minutes to read it because you’ve probably not heard this kind of thinking. Only a screwball who has been hiking in the woods too long can think like this...
A climate change debate between a human and a T-Rex
I’ve contemplated the global climate change debate during my long hikes through the CDT. My views on the issue are unconventional, especially for a backpacking nut.
Nature lovers are supposed to jump on the environmental bandwagon and fight to protect the climate’s status quo. I don’t jump on bandwagons so easily. Unless they’re going into town and I need more food.
I arrived to my unorthodox views after having an imaginary global warming debate with a Tyrannosaurus Rex that used to hunt in Montana, the state I’m now hiking in.
Here’s a transcript of the conversation:
FRANCIS: Hey T-Rex, lately many humans have been debating about the issue of climate change. What’s your take on it?
T-REX: Well, there are plenty of skeptics out there. But let’s assume that global warming is not only happening, but that humans are to blame. The two key questions I would ask you are:
(1) Is global warming good or bad for planet as a whole?
(2) Is global warming good or bad for Homo sapiens as a whole?
FRANCIS: The answer for both of those is obviously “bad.”
T-REX: Really? Why are you so sure? Let me give you the perspective of the beasts that dominated this planet for over 150 million years (your species has only been around for 100,000 years). I’ve got a couple of tough questions for you, but first let’s review some history:
- In the last 1.6 million years we’ve been in an ice age.
- Since all previous ice ages lasted tens of millions of years, our present ice age will continue for a while (unless human activity can overwhelm the forces of nature).
- Ice ages are punctuated with glaciations that last for about 100,000 years and then a warming (interglacial) period that lasts for about 10,000 years.
- After the warm period, we plummet back into a glacial period for 100,000 years. Each glaciation begins slowly and may take 80,000 years or more to reach its maximum extent.
- A rapid melting of these expanded glaciers within just a few thousand years follows.
- Then the next glaciation begins to build only 10,000 to 20,000 years after the maximum of the previous glaciation occurred.
- We are currently living in one of the warming periods of the 100,000-year glacial-interglacial cycles.
- It’s been 10,000 years since the last glacial period and 18,000 years have passed since the last maximum, so we are due for another cooling.
- This corroborates with the fact that prior to the human-induced global warming of the last two centuries, worldwide climate has been cooling naturally for several thousand years.
FRANCIS: Wow, that’s pretty confusing. Seems like 10-20% of an ice age is relatively warm and 80-90% of it is butt cold. For the last 10,000 years we’ve been in that warm period and so we’re due for a cool period.
T-REX: Right. However, my question to you is: are the forces (which nobody fully understands) that cause these glaciation cycles stronger than the human forces that are causing global warming?
FRANCIS: That’s a good question. Maybe Al Gore knows the answer.
T-REX: In other words, will the forces that have caused global cooling in the past overrule whatever effort humans are making to heat up the planet?
FRANCIS: I guess we may be underestimating the forces that would normally push us into a 100,000-year glaciation period. Why does the Earth go through such cycles anyway?
T-REX: Nobody really knows! Currently, the Milankovitch Astronomical Theory and the Sea Level theory are the leading explanations for why we have these ice age cycles. The Milankovitch Theory argues that the cause is a more elliptical orbit and swings in the planet’s tilt that trigger ice ages. What causes that is not clear.
FRANCIS: OK, so how does the Sea Level Theory explain why we have these huge temperature swings without human assistance?
T-REX: The Sea Level Theory observes that global sea level affects the overall temperature of the planet because solar radiation is better absorbed by water than by land. When sea levels are low, more land surface becomes exposed. Since the land is not able to absorb as much solar radiation as the water can, the overall average temperature of the planet decreases, or cools, and may contribute to the onset of an ice age.
FRANCIS: That makes sense. But nobody knows which theory is correct.
T-REX: True, but whatever the root cause of glacial and interglacial periods, is that force more powerful that a bunch of primates tossing billions of tons of CO2 in the air?
FRANCIS: Hey! As far as primates we’re pretty cool. We have cell phones and showerheads with adjustable settings.
T-REX: Do you trust your 5-day or 10-day forecast?
FRANCIS: Only in Los Angeles, where it’s always sunny.
T-REX: Isn’t it funny that humans don’t trust their 5-day forecasts, but somehow believe meteorologists and other scientists who are making 50-year forecasts? Isn’t it odd that you don’t really know why temperatures have fluctuated so violently in the past, and yet you think you know where the temperatures will go in the future? No wonder they’re calling it "climate change" and not "global warming." It gives them far more leeway.
FRANCIS: You’re a cynical old fart. No wonder you went extinct.
T-REX: Easy there, I’m bigger than you.
FRANCIS: Yes, your Worship.
T-REX: Anyway, let’s just assume they’re right. Let’s revisit my initial two questions. Is global warming a net good for the planet? Let’s define what “net good” means. Take a stab...
FRANCIS: If global warming causes life to abound, both in quantity and diversity, then it’s good. If global warming causes a net decrease in the biomass and the amount of diversity, then it’s bad.
T-REX: Sounds like a fair definition to me. So is global warming good for the planet Earth?
FRANCIS: Well, the inconvenient truth is that it’s not good for the globe.
T-REX: I’d say that's the incorrect truth.
FRANCIS: Huh? Why?
T-REX: What causes global warming?
FRANCIS: Increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
T-REX: Why do you call them “greenhouse” gases?
FRANCIS: Because they create a similar affect as a greenhouse.
T-REX: What the hell is a greenhouse? We didn’t have such houses 65 million years ago.
FRANCIS: They’re glass houses that humans have built to help plants grow fast and healthy. They’re warm, humid places.
T-REX: Nice! Sounds like home to me. When my dino buddies and I ruled this planet, that’s exactly the environment we had. There was little difference between winter and summer. It was always hot. There was no permanent ice anywhere! Life flourished in the Jurassic Period. I look at your world now and it looks dead in comparison. Aren’t there any places on your planet that are warm and humid?
FRANCIS: Yeah, the Amazon, some rainforests in Indonesia, and New York City in the summer.
T-REX: I bet those places are teeming with life.
FRANCIS: True. The diversity of plant species in the Amazon is the highest on earth with experts estimating that one square kilometer may contain over 75,000 types of trees and 150,000 species of higher plants. Animal diversity there is also extraordinary.
T-REX: What about the coldest places on the earth?
FRANCIS: There’s life, but not much. The biomass and diversity of the Arctic doesn’t compare to what exists in the warm, humid places, like the jungles of Costa Rica.
T-REX: What about the oceans? Is there more aquatic life in the Arctic or by the volcanic vents and coral reefs?
FRANCIS: In the warm places. Biologists note that corral reefs make up 1% of the oceans, but account for 25% of the life. Also, I heard one marine biologist say there is more biomass along the ocean vents than all of the rest of the ecosystems on Earth! Unbelievable.
T-REX: So do you see why global warming isn’t necessarily bad for Earth as a whole? Perhaps it will result in a net good? Didn’t you hear the news that a couple of years ago they found evidence of an ancient tropical bird in the Arctic? It was far warmer back in our day and life was booming everywhere. If life wasn’t prolific, dinosaurs, with our tremendous appetite, could never have survived for 150 million years. We ate more than you thru-hikers...
FRANCIS: Hard to imagine. But what happens to the polar bear and the penguins if the planet warms?
T-REX: Screw them. A warm environment will help evolve dozens of new exotic species to take their place. Also, the habitat for bears, squirrels, deer, elk, and evergreens will expand dramatically as life invades Canada, Siberia, Alaska, and Scandinavia. Those regions, which today harbor a relatively modest amount of life, will see a flourishing of biomass, both in diversity and quantity.
FRANCIS: I can’t believe you don’t have pity for the polar bear.
T-REX: He’d be a snack in my day.
FRANCIS: OK, but won’t some life on the earth go extinct with all this climate change?
T-REX: Of course! Species come and go all the time! Did you know that over 99% of all the species that ever existed on this planet are now extinct?
FRANCIS: Whoa. That’s a statistic worth remembering.
T-REX: Significant climate change (which has occurred hundreds of times on this planet) always helps some species and kills others. Polar bears might perish, but bees might flourish. Alpine shrubs may disappear on some mountaintops, but mangos may love Oregon. It will be an ecological mess, but nothing compared to the devastation that the last major asteroid caused 65 million years ago. The fundamental question is if all this change would be a net good thing. Sure, some species will win, others will lose, but what’s the net result?
FRANCIS: I’m still not convinced it would be a good thing overall for the earth.
T-REX: OK, think of it this way: let’s imagine you’re God...
FRANCIS: I like such an assumption...
T-REX: Should I crush you now or later?
T-REX: Now you sound like a mouse. If you were God and you could set the Global Thermometer to any temperature you desired and you wanted to set the optimum temperature for the Earth, what temperature would you set? Would you set it at the current temperature, higher, or lower? Assume your goal is to have life flourishing both in quantity and diversity.
FRANCIS: I guess I would want more of the earth like the Amazon than like Antarctica.
T-REX: Right! See, that three-pound brain of yours isn’t so stupid. You’d want the temperature to be closer to the temperature it was during the time of the dinosaurs. That would be the optimum temperature for the planet. Right now, the planet is too cold.
FRANCIS: But some people speculate that Venus was a nice place before greenhouse gases spiraled out of control. Now it’s such a nasty planet that no spacecraft has been able to land and survive there for more than a few minutes before getting crushed to death by the pressures. That’s where we could be heading!
T-REX: Earth’s mean temperature is 15 degrees Celsius. The scariest predictions claim that the average global temperature could rise up to 20 degrees. It was 22 degrees during my day and life was grand.
FRANCIS: Yeah? But what about Venus and the runaway greenhouse effect?
T-REX: The average temperature on Venus is 800 degrees. Obviously too much warming is a bad thing for life. However, no credible scientist is predicting global temperatures above 22 Celsius. Worry about other things than becoming the next Venus.
FRANCIS: OK, I will. I worry that global warming could increase deserts too. Just because it’s hotter, doesn’t mean it will be hot and humid. It could be hot and dry. And life doesn’t flourish in hot, dry places like the Sahara. I walked through the hot and dry land of New Mexico and the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming. Neither of them was teeming with life.
T-REX: True, but is a greenhouse hot and dry or hot and humid?
FRANCIS: Just because scientists call it the “greenhouse effect” doesn’t mean that it will be hot and humid everywhere.
T-REX: Yes, but there will be a net increase in hot and humid places and a net decrease in frozen wastelands. Therefore, the greenhouse effect will result in a net increase in the quality and diversity of life on earth.
FRANCIS: Fine, I’ll agree with you.
T-REX: It’s always a good idea to agree with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
FRANCIS: Nevertheless, you gotta admit that global warming will create new hot deserts and expand existing ones.
T-REX: I’ll agree. However not all deserts are devoid of life. The Kalahari Desert and the Serengeti Plains in Africa have some of the most fascinating life forms, yet they’re both deserts. Wildebeests, lions, impalas, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, and hyenas all live in these deserts. You don’t have that kind of diversity or biomass in Antarctica’s frozen desert.
FRANCIS: Fair enough.
T-REX: Moreover, will you agree that in the next 50 years smart Muslims will come up with a technological breakthrough that will lead to dramatically lower desalinization costs?
FRANCIS: I’ll agree, since they're the leading users in the desalinization industry.
T-REX: Exactly. And they’ll probably invent solar desalinization that will let you cheaply water a desert environment, transforming it into rich oasis full of life. That would be good for the planet.
FRANCIS: OK, forget the damn planet. All that matters is we humans!
T-REX: Now you’re talking like a true representative of a species! Go on...
FRANCIS: Even if global warming is good for the overall planet, it’s still bad for Homo sapiens. It’s going to disrupt our cozy life everywhere. Fortunately satellite TV should still work...
T-REX: Hold on. Let’s start by defining what is “good” for the human species.
FRANCIS: All right. I suppose I should think broadly. Let’s say that global warming would be a net good if it allowed our species to reproduce more and if our quality of life wasn’t compromised. Global warming would be bad if our species population declined dramatically and/or our quality of life plummeted.
T-REX: Great. So what’s the best temperature for you puny humans? Is it better to live in Siberia or the Seychelles? Would you rather try to raise plants and livestock in northern Greenland or Hawaii?
FRANCIS: I hate your questions, Dino.
T-REX: Where is highest density of humans?
FRANCIS: China, India, Europe, and parts of Africa. Yes, I've seen the world map that shows human population density (on right). I know, you’re going to point out that humans prefer to live in warm places, and not Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Antarctica.
T-REX: Right, so by raising the global temperature a couple of degrees, your habitat will expand. This would be a net good thing for your species.
FRANCIS: But what about the global flooding? Hurricanes? Vanishing glaciers?
T-REX: Unlike other species, you guys can prepare for such changes. For global flooding: sell your condo in Miami and move out of Bangladesh. For hurricanes, you guys have an advantage that we dinos didn’t have. We had hurricanes all the time during the Mesozoic Era and we never saw them coming. With your weather satellites, you have 3-7 days of warning.
FRANCIS: We learned with Hurricane Katrina that four days might not be enough warning.
T-REX: That’s your fault. You’re idiots. You’ll learn.
FRANCIS: But as a backpacker I appreciate glaciers.
T-REX: What’s a glacier?
FRANCIS: I guess you didn’t have any back in your time. It was too warm. A glacier is a large, slow moving river of ice, formed from compacted layers of snow that slowly deforms and flows in response to gravity.
T-REX: Doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to be. Listen, your biggest doom and gloom scientists are predicting only a 5-degree rise in temperatures. That means glaciers will still exist in northern Alaska and Antarctica.
FRANCIS: But I like that they’re in Glacier National Park.
T-REX: Oh no. You might have to rename your stupid park. Listen, you fool, you’re living in an interglacial period right now, which is a warm period during an ice age. That means that glaciers were everywhere 20,000 years ago. Do the folks living in New Mexico, Maine, and Europe miss them now?
FRANCIS: Not really.
T-REX: Right. You adjust and get used to whatever you grow up in. Do the Guatemalans lament that their volcanoes aren’t snow capped like the volcanoes in Oregon?
FRANCIS: I doubt the average Guatemalan is even aware that their mountains were snow capped 15,000 years ago.
T-REX: And they probably appreciate that they can climb those mountains anytime of year without dying of hypothermia.
FRANCIS: But I like snow capped mountains.
T-REX: Shut up, you hypocrite. I read your journals. You were whining like a baby about all the snow in Colorado.
FRANCIS: Sure, but I can’t imagine Colorado without snow year round.
T-REX: Your backpacking season in Colorado is very short: June to September. Warm up the Earth a couple of degrees and you’ll get a couple of extra months of backpacking. So quit complaining.
FRANCIS: Yeah, but the desert hiking may be drier than ever.
T-REX: You’ll get used to that too. Look at where you find all my dino buddies in Wyoming. They’re in massive deserts, like the Badlands of Montana. Those places that are deserts today were lush forests back then. Deserts come and go. Deal. Put out more water caches or find a different trail.
FRANCIS: Fine, but what about the global flooding that global warming will cause?
T-REX: Sure coastal cities will flood, just like Venice. Your species has dealt with much bigger floods and climate change 11,000 years ago when the planet came out of a glacial period. Your species was much more fragile back then, but you dealt with it.
FRANCIS: But won’t we see collapses, pandemics, and pandemonium? Maybe a billion humans will perish?
T-REX: I doubt it, but perhaps. Yeah, the change will suck for the transition generation. In the Triassic Period went from a cool 10-15C to a hot dry period. In the Jurassic Period it got hot and humid. Then in the Cretaceous Period temperatures and climate changed again.
FRANCIS: How did you dinos deal with all that?
T-REX: Species died and made room for the new species. That transition period is tough because life is dying out as ecosystems perish, and it takes a while for new life to invade and take its place. That's what you'll go through now. Life in the alpine and arctic regions will die off and it will take a while for other species to fill the gap. Corral reefs will die in places that get too warm, but will eventually grow in new places that are farther from the Equator.
FRANCIS: That also means that farmers growing certain crops will see terrible yields. Meanwhile, Canadian farmers will be slow to plant pineapples until they're confident that the warms temps are here to stay. That means global famine could ensue...
T-REX: However, just like our far less capable ancestors pulled through 10,000 years ago, so will you. Did you know that 15,000 years ago you could walk from San Francisco to Oakland on dry land? Did you know that the San Francisco coastline was 23 miles further away that it is today?
FRANCIS: Wow, that means the Farallon Islands were part of the mainland. It must have been cold in San Francisco.
T-REX: The Earth warmed up so that the ice caps melted significantly and the sea level rose in a big way. Can you imagine the disruption it caused when the shoreline moved 23 miles inland? Now that’s global warming! Your species survived that back then, so you can survive a few centimeters of rising today with all your modern technology.
FRANCIS: I don’t know, T-Rex. You make some good points, but I’m not convinced.
T-REX: That’s normal. Humans are weary of change, even if it’s good for them. At least some folks in Greenland are celebrating global warming. One farmer pointed out last month that he can leave his sheep out two weeks longer, grow more hay, and watch his flock get fatter. He's happy and he mentioned that during the Medieval Warm Period when they could grow tomatoes in Greenland.
FRANCIS: I was listening to some Alaskans observe that they're feeling the warming affects the greatest. For example, one Alaskan noted that they no longer have -60 degrees days and that the permafrost is disappearing causing buildings that are built on it to weaken.
T-REX: Poor babies. Why doesn't the idiot realize that there are some benefits along with the downsides? Did he point out that without permafrost they might be able to grow beets and potatoes there?
FRANCIS: No. So how would you sum up your views on climate change?
T-REX: Today most people associate climate change with bad news. They think that only bad changes will happen so we better do all we can to stop it. My point is that there will be winners and losers. Some species will fare better with global warming and others will lose. Overall, however, life will win because warmer temperatures usually result in more diverse and abundant life. Similarly, some humans will win and others will lose. Those who have property in Canada and Norway will win and those who have property in Miami and New Orleans will lose. Climate change isn’t all bad, even though it will cause disruption and change. Often change is good.
FRANCIS: Some people hate change.
T-REX: Last thought: all this climate change debate is nothing compared to the impact that genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics will have on your species (and the planet). Those three forces are converging at a much faster rate than climate change and will dwarf the impact that global warming (or cooling) has.
FRANCIS: How so?
T-REX: That’s a topic for another day. Let’s just say that in the history books of 2207, the climate change of the 21st century will be a footnote compared to the technological advances your species will make and their associated negative and positive impacts on the earth and human race.
FRANCIS: Give me an example.
T-REX: You’re worried about loss of species diversity. In 2047, Congress will pass the Limit Species Diversity Act.
FRANCIS: Huh? Why?
T-REX: By then humans will be able to buy kits on eBay that let you genetically modify the DNA of plants and animals. Inner cities, developing countries, and schoolchildren will all have the power to create new species by playing with the DNA. That new DNA will seek to reproduce itself and within a few years you’ll have so many new and exotic species running around that Congress will seek to slow down the diversity. The problem of the next century won’t be too little diversity; it will be too much diversity. Global warming’s impact on the planet’s diversity will be irrelevant in a few years because your genetic fiddling will eclipse the impact of climate change.
FRANCIS: Yikes. But weren't you implying that we would have more diversity anyway as the globe warms up?
T-REX: Yes, if you stupid humans weren't around. However, as humans keep reproducing and encroaching on virgin habitats, you'll cause more and more species to go extinct. So don't come to me in 20 years and say, "Hey, you were wrong that global warming would increase diversity, we're losing species at record rates!" Yes, you'll lose them, but not because of global warming, but because you guys will be everywhere and many species won't have enough elbowroom.
FRANCIS: But then we'll offset this decline in diversity through genetic engineering?
T-REX: Yup, you bet your Y chromosome! Diversity will continue to plummet over the next 20 years. However, once genetic engineering starts happening in kitchens across the world, then we'll see diversity soar out of control.
FRANCIS: Maybe we'll resurrect your genes.
T-REX: [Breaks a wide, toothy grin, with saliva dripping]
FRANCIS: I still want to discuss what we can do to stop global climate change.
T-REX: Stubborn man. I’ll let you do that in your next article.
FRANCIS: OK. I better get back to the trail because all this hot air we’re blowing is making my brain hurt.
T-REX: Yeah, you better do that, because I’m getting hungry and you look pretty tasty.
Debate climate change
To discuss this topic, join the debate on the WanderLearn Forum.
This article was written in 2007. Read a 2012 Gallup survey results and trend lines about what Americans think about global warming. The results are interesting.