Coal, destroyer of civilizations

By Lucien Crowder | April 16, 2018

power lines and steam.jpg

Adam Frank is an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist, is director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. These guys have an idea. They don’t believe in their idea. They’ve written a paper about it anyway.

If you’ll indulge them, they’d like to postulate that human beings aren’t necessarily the first industrial civilization on Earth. Prior civilizations might have thrived so long ago that no trace of their existence survives. What killed them? Or, to extend the question further, what might kill “exo-civilizations” on other planets?

Frank and Schmidt identify climate change as a plausible culprit. Writing at The Atlantic, Frank speculates that “some planets might have fossil-fuel–driven cycles of civilization building and collapse.” When industrial civilizations burn fossil fuels, they cause “a large decrease in ocean oxygen levels.” This in turn leads to the formation of new fossil-fuel deposits, which allow new industrial civilizations to develop, which in due course exterminate themselves.

Is humanity fated to kill itself with coal? Well, if Frank and Schmidt think they’re wrong, the rest of us needn’t behave as if they were right.

Publication Name: The Atlantic
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