America’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, tackled climate change on the most recent episode of the hit show, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The episode, the ninth in the series, looked back on the climatic and physical upheavals undergone by Earth, before highlighting the mild interglacial climate that allowed the human species to kickstart the neolithic revolution and the first civilizations.
“About 10,000 years ago, the manic swings of the climate and sea levels came to a stop. A new and gentler climate age began. It’s the one we’re living in now. When the great ice sheets melted, the seas rose to its present height and the rivers carried silt from the highlands to build great delta plains where they met the sea,” deGrasse Tyson narrates. “On those fertile plains, we learned a new way of life: how to grow things, to feed ourselves, and more. For most of us, this meant an end to a million years of wandering. The way the planets tug at each other, the way the skin of the Earth moves, the way those motions affect climate and the evolution of life and intelligence, they all combined to give us the means to turn the mud of those river deltas into the first civilizations. There is nothing like an interglacial period, one of those balmy intermissions in an ice age.”
While, deGrasse Tyson notes that this interglacial period is supposed to last another 50,000 years, current global warming—due to burning fossil fuels—is causing the climate to shift again.
Neil deGrasse Tyson hosting the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration in 2009. Photo by: NASA.
“We’re dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the Earth hasn’t seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past, the ones that led to mass extinctions. We just can’t seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves,” Tyson says.
Indeed the second Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published this year found that climate change was already impacting global society in a number of different ways, including decreasing agricultural output, acidifying the oceans, worsening extreme weather, and even exacerbating the risk of civil conflicts. The new 2,300 page report included over 700 authors and nearly 2,000 expert and government reviewers, making it one of the most rigorously reviewed pieces of science around the world.
“All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need,” says Tyson. “Why can’t we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What’s our excuse?”
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