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Are We Changing Planet Earth? Review

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by Simon Crust Jun 18, 2008

    In my 'real' life I'm a qualified geologist working at a university. I found I had an affinity with the subject when I was at school, oh ... many, many moons ago but was denied the career path by my school since I was the only one that had. After a period of other work the time came for me to return to my once cherished subject, I took the degree and have fallen quite happily on my feet. During the time I was away there were many advances in both technology and hypotheses on how the Earth worked. The study of the past can teach us about the processes happening now and by natural extension lead us to predictions about the future. Indeed the advances in deep crustal processes and their effects upon the atmosphere, was one subject that truly fascinated me. How fluctuations at the Earth's core could create instability that can affect the stratosphere, demonstrate that land, sea and air and inexorably linked as one system - one ecosystem. Oh there are micro-systems on the surface, but these are insignificant when one considers the whole. If one talks about the Earth as a living, breathing organism, then as it grows it changes, just like any organism that grows from an infant to adulthood, only over a far longer time scale.

    Planet Earth has been around for over four and a half billion years. Originally a super hot ball of molten material as it cooled it formed a crust; this crust serves as the insulation keeping the interior of the planet hot - this hot centre is essential to the planets well being as without it, the organism, the planet will die. Throughout geological time the planet has been trying to cool down and everything that has happened (oceans, atmosphere, life etc) on its surface is a consequence of that simple action. It necessarily follows that if the Earth is cooling down, in geological past it was much hotter, not only the planet but, since everything is linked, the atmosphere as well. Indeed there have been periods of time when the surface was nearly all water and vast areas of coral reefs grew and swampy deltas were teaming with life. However, such temperatures are not infinitely sustainable, the planet is trying too cool, so upheavals in crustal plates create dynamic movements and the entire atmosphere changes; the climate changes. The planet is very self sufficient when it comes to clearing itself up, the biggest volcanic explosion may devastate the surface for a few years, but the planet cleans itself up very quickly. There may be local, even world wide fluctuations in the atmosphere, but the system copes and after a time a steady state returns. Time in this sense can be hundreds of years, maybe even thousands, but Earth will survive, the planet will recover.

    During recent years it has become apparent that the current climate, our climate, is changing, heating up in fact. As our understanding of climatic system increases and the technology advances, scientist are able to predict this change within our lifetime, but one of the fundamental questions being asked is “Are humans responsible for this increase?” Films like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and tonight's feature The Truth About Climate Change (2006) attempt to answer this question by putting forward facts gathered over the last few decades.

    The BBC and the Open University produced the two programs that make up The Truth About Climate Change, entitled Are We Changing Planet Earth and Can We Save Plant Earth?. As you can tell they are quite provocative titles and the documentaries are filled with provocative images of destruction set to dramatic music, the better to instil a sense of dread at the incoming changes being wrought upon out planet. David Attenborough narrates this journey and having his name lends the whole production a weight. It also gave the makers access to his considerable body of work, particularly his seminal Life on Earth (1979) series, during the making of which the climate change issues, although happening, where not understood nor recognised, but still Attenborough shrewdly hinted at in his summation of Man. He interviews several scientists from around the world; from the Antarctic to the Amazonian rain forests, each making their own conclusions about how the planets atmosphere is heating up; the climate is changing, the most dramatically increase being in the last hundred or so years, since the industrial revolution and the current dependence on the burning of fossil fuels. So what is causing this rapid increase in temperature - predictions indicate a 1.6 to 5.8 oC in the next fifty years -? The answer is green house gases; the documentary focuses on carbon dioxide being the main culprit (it is debatable if it is the main one). This rapid increase is attributed to the major disasters that have ravaged certain parts of the world recently (Hurricane Katrina, worsening bush fires in Australia, forest fires in the Amazon rain forests) and that should the increasing temperatures not slow such devastation will only get worse.

    The first program and indeed the first forty minutes of the second concentrate on putting together the arguments that human intervention may have contributed to the global climate warming. Models put forward that take into account the natural changes and human influence mirror quite amazingly close to observable results; the inescapable conclusion being that we, humans, top of the food chain, and in control of our own destiny, are influencing the planets climate; and that we, humans, top of the food chain have the capability to halt the influence we have. The latter half of the second program looks at ways in which we can reduce our CO2 emissions by simple things such as turning down the central heating by a degree or two or only boiling enough water in the kettle that we want to use etc. and also bigger effects such as wind or solar farming.

    I found the program rather skewed towards the conclusions that we are all doomed unless we change our ways; but that is the point of the program - a wake up call. However, as intimated in the opening paragraphs, the Earth will survive. We, as a species, are arrogant enough to see that we are responsible for what is happening, even though such events have happened throughout geological time, and arrogant enough to think that we can stop it; perhaps we can, but even if we can't, the Earth will survive even if we as a species are no longer a part of that ecosystem.

    Defeatist or pragmatist?

    However, the program does work very hard to put its message across; the use of salacious images accompanied by foreboding music all the while leading towards an inevitable conclusion is countered well by Attenborough's silky voice; so that when he voices his own concerns, you really sit up and listen, particularly when he compares and contrasts his older bodies of work and how they have even influence our climate. There is no denying he is passionate about his views and his passions inspire the viewer towards the whole idea. Even if the programs do end on a warning, a warning that if we do wish to continue to be a part of the worlds ecosystem we all have to make an effort; it takes only a small amount of change to affect the whole system. Let's try to embrace that change.