Earth, Venus, and Mass Delusion

Earth and VenusIn the Fall of 1980, PBS broadcast the series Cosmos. After being largely disappointed with the recent remake of the series, I decided to revisit the original. Or at least part of it: the fourth episode, “Heaven and Hell.” It is about Earth and Venus and it was probably the first time I had ever been introduced to the idea of the greenhouse effect. I was interested to see if Sagan discussed global warming at that time. It was, after all, three and a half decades ago. Yet I knew people were actively studying it, and only ten years later, I would be in graduate school studying greenhouse gases in permafrost and their effect as a climate feedback.

I was not disappointed. Not only did Sagan deal with the issue, he dealt with it well. And the episode itself is excellent. But looking at it now, it seems so naive. He said, “The study of the global climate, the suns’ influence, the comparison of earth to other worlds — these are subjects in their earliest stages of development. They are funded poorly and grudgingly. And meanwhile we continue to load the earth’s atmosphere with materials about the long-term influence we are almost entirely ignorant.” I guess a scientist can be forgiven for assuming that more information would change our behavior. I wonder what Sagan would have thought if he had known that almost twenty years after his own death we would still be doing nothing about global warming, even though the science is as clear on this subject as it ever is on any subject.

Last night, a phrase came into my mind, “Too early to tell; too late to do anything.” I was just playing with words: I liked the apparent paradox of it. But this is exactly the argument that we get from the global warming deniers. They tell us that we need more research because there is still disagreement based upon the fact that Fred Singer is still alive and some hermit with a BS in chemistry who lives outside Barrow hasn’t yet been convinced. At the same time, there is nothing we can do about global warming. And thanks to the deniers themselves, they may well be right on this second point.

In the episode, Sagan focuses on Venus. And it does serve as a warning that things do not have to stay the way they are. In fact, atmospheres composed mostly of carbon-dioxide seem to be much more the norm. But we humans are biased to think that the way our world is is somehow normal. In fact, Sagan started the subject with an amusing look at early speculation about what the Venusian environment must be like:

The absence of anything you could see on Venus led some scientists and others to deduce that the surface was a swamp. The argument, if we can dignify it with such a phrase, went something like this, “I can’t see a thing on the surface of Venus. Why not? Because it’s covered with a dense layer of clouds. Well, what are clouds made of? Water, of course. Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it. Therefore, the surface must be wet. Well, if the surface is wet, it’s probably a swamp. If there’s a swamp, there’s ferns; if there’s ferns, maybe there’s even dinosaurs.” Observation: you couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: dinosaurs.

Instead, we now know that Venus has a surface temperature that is hotter than those commercial pizza ovens and that its clouds are made up of sulfuric acid. It’s interesting that no one goes around saying this is just a hoax designed by greedy scientists who are trying to hold onto their high paying NASA jobs. But we now know that if conditions on Venus implied some kind of policy back here on earth that would cost billionaires a few cents or made Christians question the literal truth of the Bible, there would be a whole infrastructure of think tanks with people arguing for dinosaurs on Venus.

I really am beginning to despair for humanity. The same brilliance that has allowed us to measure the temperature of the surface of Venus from tens of millions of miles away, also allows us to manipulate the emotions of other humans in mass. And so now humans are smart enough to see catastrophe before it comes, but also “smart” enough to stop themselves from doing anything about it.

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