I was watching the BBC’s marvellous ‘Wonders of the Solar System‘ documentary series the other day. Somewhere within it (I can’t recall exactly where), Brian Cox, the charismatic presenter of the series, refers to our Earth as ‘the Goldilocks planet‘. This little infonugget has been trundling about in my noggin ever since, and I finally realised why: it reminds me of a rather poorly phrased comment I made on Lack of Environment some time ago (I can’t find the comment).
In my comment, I referred to what I think of as the ‘Grand Experiment’ of homo fatuus brutus — our tinkering, in recent times, with the very air we breathe. Our combined inability to admit that this is unwise (such admission, naturally, being a prerequisite to actually doing something about it) may be the biggest mistake we’ll ever make. The ‘poorly phrased’ part was the suggestion that this mistake might be our last, if our actions were to succeed in, as I recall putting it, “moving the Eaarth outside the Goldilocks zone“.
In retrospect, my reference to the Goldilocks ‘zone‘ was a poor choice; that zone is the region around a star within which planets are capable of supporting life-as-we-know-it. Recent research does suggest that our own planet is much closer to the inner boundary of our solar system’s ‘Goldilocks zone’ than previously thought (see eg here, although I admit I’ve “done a James Delingpole” — I haven’t actually looked at the research). And the additional heat being absorbed by our biosphere as a side-effect of our polluting activity is truly colossal (around four Hiroshima atomic bombs worth of heat every second).
Even so, suggesting that our actions could physically alter our planet’s orbit was a poor metaphor. My comment, on the face of it, should quite rightly have been dismissed out of hand as being made by a total and utter phlyarologist (by the current dictionary definition, ie ‘one who speaks nonsense’). I should have referred to our Goldilocks planet, not the Goldilocks zone in which it sits. Rest assured that I have slapped myself on the wrist for making such a dumb mistake.
What I was actually trying to say, as opposed to what I said, makes sense when one considers the Goldilocks concept, which is based on the “not too hot, not too cold, just right” principle from the tale from which the label arose. If our planet is indeed close to the inner edge of our sun’s habitable zone, then this means our biosphere is almost (but not quite) ‘too hot’ by dint of its position relative to the source of most of our energy — the sun. What this suggests, though, is that it wouldn’t take much to tip our biosphere over the edge, into the runaway greenhouse effect (the one that James Hansen believes is inevitable if we continue on our present course of inaction against the causes of climate change).
Which, of course, would mean that the ‘Grand Experiment’ could well be the biggest mistake we’ll ever make — since it would also be the very last one.
I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.
Dr James Hansen (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren p236
This is one of those rare and wonderful blogglings in which the comments add much to the original offering. Having admitted one mistake already, I am indebted to ccgwebmaster for having pointed out that Dr Hansen has recently clarified the position regarding the possibility of the Venus syndrome on Earth. (Read on for more…)