Perhaps we need to explain climate change to politicians as we would to very small children

(The Guardian, 17 Sep 2019) Here, let me try. The sun is very, very hot.

When I was an undergrad learning geology, the maxim that was thumped into me wasn’t how to build a mine or drill for oil and gas, it was simply: “The present is the key to the past.” The thing that took a while to accept was that the past was really, really, long.

It’s hard to comprehend the scale of geologic time: the timespan for continents to crash together and rip apart, for tiny sea creatures to live, die and condense into kilometres of limestone, or streams to carve epic canyons carrying mountains to the sea. We use comparisons our minds can grasp, such as if all cosmological time was the length of string or compressed into a single year (humans beings appear in the final six hours).

But kids deal with billions of years without a problem – 64 billion is my son’s favourite number. So, when I explained geologic time to my children as we travelled to the last students’ climate rally in Melbourne, they got it: geologically, things happen slowly. And yes, there are exceptions, volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes, to name but a few, but I am talking about the fundamental processes: mountain building, sediment creating, climate changing kind of processes.

Although geologists can handle deep time, they really can’t handle unprecedented rates. It took life millions of years to change the composition of the atmosphere first time round. Granted, that was 2 billion years ago and times, clearly, have changed. However, through all the corridors of conceivable time, evidence indicates the climate has never, ever, changed as rapidly as we see today.

Claude Albritton once wrote:

"It has not been easy for man to face time. Some, in recoiling from the fearsome prospect of time’s abyss, have toppled backwards into the abyss of ignorance.”

And ignorance, particularly wilful and entrenched ignorance, is a much harder rock to smash. A fundamental tenet of the scientific method is that there is never certainty in science, only observation, experimentation, hypothesis refinement and the empirical accumulation of evidence. Our past and present leaders exploit that fact, warning of the dangers of scientific consensus as if it reeks of climate conspiracists.

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The Guardian, 17 Sep 2019: Perhaps we need to explain climate change to politicians as we would to very small children