Taking the Long View: Learning from the Earth’s Dramatic History of Climate Change

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Harvey Weiss
Essay Abstract: 
Over the past three decades the field of paleoclimatology has made enormous strides, revealing large stretches of the Earth’s climate history using geochemical data and computer models. These breakthroughs coincided with growing scientific certainty that humans are causing climate change by altering the chemistry of the atmosphere, leading to increased interest in records of past climate change. However, many of the most important insights from the paleoclimate record—that the Earth’s climate has undergone extreme variability in the past, that climate changes can be abrupt, and that the climate system may rest precariously on the fulcrums of stable equilibria—remain trapped in an academic echo chamber that is largely inaccessible to the public. This paper attempts to establish the relevance of paleoclimate findings toward understanding and responding to anthropogenic climate change. I explore how paleoclimatologists frame their research to fit into an established narrative of relevance, but fail to disseminate their results in a meaningful way. I offer recommendations for improving communication between paleoclimatologists and the public, and conclude that public demands on climate science to produce anthropocentrically relevant results risk stifling scientific freedom.