In the past, seemingly intractable debates over environmental issues have sometimes been resolved with the aid of long-term historical perspectives. When acid rain dominated the environmental media during the 1980s, for example, sediment core records of recent, progressive acidification in lakes from the northeastern United States helped to break rhetorical logjams between activists who correctly insisted that industrial pollution was the cause and polluters who claimed that the lakes had always been naturally acidic. When global warming later gained wide public attention, ice cores and other such geo-historical records showed that greenhouse gases and climates are indeed closely linked, and that we're fast approaching conditions that are well beyond the normal range of variability.
Although it's a rather eclectic discipline that straddles the fields of geology and biology, my chosen profession of paleoecology is well known among scientists for its ability to harness truly long-term thinking in order to place current environmental issues into their most meaningful contexts, showing us where we've been, how we got here, and where we're likely to be headed next.
Today, scientists with such long-term perspectives are once again nudging us beyond currently entrenched arguments over human-driven climate change, but their gaze is aimed forward in time, as well as backward. A new generation of climate models and the visionaries who wield them are showing that our carbon legacy will last far longer than most of us yet realize, long enough to interfere with future ice ages. David Archer, an oceanographer and climate modeler at the University of Chicago, sometimes puts it thus; "global warming is essentially forever."
Read the rest of Part 1 on Utne.com. Part 2 should be published some time later today, so I will post in the comment field below either today or tomorrow.