Today another inquiry has cleared the scientists of the U.K.’s Climatic Research Unit of scientific malpractice in the episode that came to be called “Climategate.” It will no doubt consume bloggers climate activists of all stripes for days to come.
On the same day, a much more important report was published about humankind’s overall impact on the planet. But it will receive almost no coverage.
Here’s how the Guardian reported on the Climategate findings:
“The inquiry, the second of three set up in the wake of the controversy, found ‘absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever’, according to Lord Oxburgh, who led the investigation. Instead, Oxburgh said, many of the criticisms and assertions of scientific misconduct were likely made by people ‘who do not like the implications of some the conclusions’ reached by the climate experts.
The hacked emails raised questions about the integrity of scientific research on a matter of great public importance — questions that had to be answered. But in the last few months I’ve come to realize just how much of an unfortunate distraction this episode has been from the much bigger issue: humankind’s undeniable domination of the life support systems of spaceship Earth, and the fact that we’re basically driving the spaceship with blinders on. (Not to mention that we, as the crew, seem wholly oblivious to the fact that our numbers are doubling at a rather rapid clip, and our consumption of limited resources is growing even more rapidly.)
Our impact on the planet is now so profound that it is already leaving unambiguous traces in the geological record.
If there are any paleontologists and geologists around 10 or 20 or 40 million years from now, they will be writing scientific papers about the great mass extinction event that characterized our geologic era, The Anthropocene. And they will no doubt make a temporal connection between the evidence for this mass extinction and the concurrent acidification of the oceans caused by the huge quantities of carbon dioxide that we have been pumping into the atmosphere. A significant portion of that CO2 dissolves in the oceans, lowering the pH of the water and thereby making it more acidic and corrosive to the materials that form coral reefs.
The impact is profound. Carl Zimmer’s reporting for Yale Environment 360 earlier this year, sums it up nicely (and grimly), including this perspective from Andy Ridgwell, an earth scientist at the University of Bristol:
The acidification of the ocean today is bigger and faster than anything geologists can find in the fossil record over the past 65 million years. Indeed, its speed and strength — Ridgwell estimates that current ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago — may spell doom for many marine species, particularly ones that live in the deep ocean.
“This is an almost unprecedented geological event,” says Ridgwell.
So, was the Medieval Warm Period warmer than it is today? Are there problems with attempts to combine disparate kinds of proxy climate records such as tree ring and ice core data to construct “hockey stick” graphs? These are certainly important scientific questions.
But the political fixation on them keeps us from confronting the bigger truth: We have left a profound geological mark on this planet that should at the very least give us pause. Instead, we’re rushing full speed ahead — with the blinders still clamped tightly over our eyes.