Drilling Right On Down Into Hell

This morning I thought for the first time in many years of a paperback novel I read back in the 1970s wherein some coal miners in Tennessee drilled so deeply they broke into Hell and unleashed the Rapture.

Here’s what triggered those dark thoughts, per the Wall Street Journal‘s Gautam Naik:

New research suggests average global temperatures were higher in the past decade than over most of the previous 11,300 years, a finding that offers a long-term context for assessing modern-day climate change.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, aims to give a global overview of Earth’s temperatures over the past 11,300 years—a relatively balmy period known as the Holocene that began after the last major ice age ended and encompasses all of recorded human civilization.

The research shows that a one-degree temperature variation that took 11 millennia to occur since the end of the last major ice age has been replicated in the 150 years since the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Within that framework, the decade 2000-2009 was one of the warmest since modern record-keeping began, but global mean temperatures didn’t breach the levels of the early Holocene. Now they are on track to do so, according to the Science paper. If the scientists’ forecasts are correct, the planet will be warmer in 2100 than it has been for 11,300 years….

The study points to human activity as the cause, because the suddenness of the shift in temperature appears to be out of whack with long-term trends.

“What’s different is the rate of change,” said Shaun Marcott, a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State and lead author of the paper. “What we’ve seen over the past 150 years is much greater than anything we saw in the past 11,000 years….”

Projections indicate that Earth’s air temperature could increase anywhere from two degrees to five degrees Celsius by 2100.

I’ll defer to the better-informed in assessing what that kind of climate change could do to the planet. But suffice it to say it’s a reminder that we’re seriously trifling with the cosmos these days in ways that have vast implications, even as we set policies affecting these developments based on such factors as next week’s gasoline prices or which politician wins the electoral votes of Ohio and Virginia.

It’s richly irony that the American political tradition that is so closely associated with puritanical lecturing about moral laxity, personal irresponsibility, and carpe diem short-sightedness is also the one that greets evidence of potentially catastrophic climate change with self-gratifying denial and hedonistic cries of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” They won’t live long enough to see all hell break loose, but it’s not so clear that is true of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren we are so often told by the same people we should care most about in establishing our public policies.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.