In Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, mankind has finally made a name for itself. It’s what paleontologists call the Anthropocene Epoch – the Age of Humans.
It’s a relatively new term, used to describe the era of human impact on the earth and its environment. Human history is not limited to political and military escapades and the inevitable changing borders they create. It includes the human effect on Earth’s inhabitants and the environment in which everything exists, on that which astronomer Carl Sagan called “The Pale Blue Dot.”
One such effect is climate change. The term itself evokes an emotional response in many, either in support or opposition to the idea. Skeptics have long had a bone to pick with climate scientists; not about whether climate change is real, but they question if it’s caused by mankind. Even some climate scientists started out as skeptics, but as evidence accumulated, attitudes changed. Paleo-climatologist, educator and author Curt Stager is one such scientist.
Stager’s research deals with the climatic and ecological histories of Africa, Peru, and North America, and with natural climate change over thousands of years. He said he was at first skeptical of claims modern global warming is due to humans. He cites, for example, one argument environmentalists gave back in the 1990s, claiming science knows it is human-made because it is happening rapidly. Ice core samples, however, showed that climate can also change rapidly without our help. Stager also knew that a natural cold period had ended during the 19th century, “So, we should expect some warming as we recover from that ‘Little Ice Age,’” Stager said.
What changed his mind was a group of studies that amounted to basic book-keeping.
“There are only three things that are likely to change the temperature of the entire planet in this manner: the sun, volcanic eruptions, and heat-trapping fossil fuel emissions,” Stager said. “We have monitored all three carefully, and the only one that has increased along with temperatures during the last half century is fossil fuel emissions. The sun has not released extra energy and volcanic activity is not unusual, but our emissions have continued to rise to the point that we now release 100 times more CO2 than all of the world’s volcanoes combined. The scientific case is now clear – most of the modern warming is due to us. For a true skeptic, as good scientists are, then this evidence should be definitive.”
“Among professional climate scientists, the case for human-driven warming is so strong that most of us have now moved on to other related topics, such as how it compares to the past, what it means for the future, and what can be done about it,” he said. “Among the general public, however, I find a broad range of opinions as well as a widespread shortage of science literacy.”
Much of Stager’s work deals with the extreme events and so-called “natural cycles” that climate deniers often refer to. It is this kind of research, ironically, that shows why their arguments are groundless. “We now know what the processes are, and they are not causing the recent warming,” he said.
Stager is the author of three books: “Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth,” “Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe”, and “Field Notes from the Northern Forest.” He holds an endowed Chair in Climate and Lake Ecology at Paul Smith’s College, and is a research associate with the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. In 2013, the Carnegie-Case Foundations named him Science Professor of the Year for New York State. He has published numerous articles in major journals including “Science” and “Quaternary Research,” spoken on climate change for diverse audiences all over the world, and served as an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. His writings have also appeared in “National Geographic,” “Fast Company,” “Huffington Post,” and “The New York Times,” and he co-hosts “Natural Selections,” a weekly science program on North Country Public Radio. Stager helped compile a report on regional climate change for The Nature Conservancy.
Stager has a message he shares with his students and listeners. “In this Anthropocene Epoch, the Age of Humans, we have become so numerous, our technology so powerful, and our lives so globally interconnected that we have become a force of Nature of geological scope,” Stager said. “The contents of our minds and hearts now have repercussions that can echo around the planet and for thousands of years into the future. Therefore, simply educating ourselves about the real world, learning critical thinking skills, and learning to understand and communicate with others is like tilling the soil in the global garden of humanity. Setting a responsible, positive tone in your life is immensely important because people respond to role models, and you can influence others by living with integrity and caring for the world around you.”