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We've Entered the Age of Mass Extinction: Goodbye Fish and a Whole Lot More

Paleontologist Peter Ward talks about the threats from global warming, rising population and our own plain stupidity.

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You know, maybe all the methane locked down at the bottom of the Baltic Sea — and there's a lot — comes up in a massive bubble, is struck by lightning and burns away all of China. That's a cool story, and vaguely scientifically plausible, but the much more important story is that the methane is just popping out and isn't burning like that. But it is burning in a different way by increasing the atmospheric temperature. I mean, look at what is going on with the East Coast this year. I don't see Oklahoma Republican James Infhofe wondering where global warming is now, like he did when there was that massive snowfall. Oklahoma is burning up.

ST: Although extreme weather variation is a climate change no-brainer, the party line for the Republican base is that snow of any kind is evidence that global warming is a hoax.

PW: It just drives me crazy. Why do they think we're getting more snow? Because there is more water in the atmosphere! And why is that? Oh yeah, it's warmer. If we could teach science in school, these guys would get a clue. These are enormous wet-air masses that are anomalously produced in winter, and work their way across North America and push up against the Arctic cold. Of course it turns to snow! It's more water than has been in that area than ever before.

ST: One thing that seems obvious above everything else is that climate change predictions are continually too conservative. Scientists always seem baffled by its rate of acceleration, which remains a mystery. Is that because we suck at exponential math or don't understand the climate, or both? Are scientists being too conservative, or are they afraid of honing in on worst-case scenarios?

PW: Probably a combination of all of the above. An exponential equation is way too simplistic to explain the changes that are taking place. Things are getting worse faster, but climate, and its feedback, is such a complex system. There are so many factors hitting it back and forth. Again, the single driver going on here is the increase in human population. Everything goes back to that. It explains every one of these phenomena: Global warming, marine extinction, changes in living patterns and even in the economies of the world. Way too many people, way too fast. And it's running away.

ST: How does your Medea hypothesis fit in here? Back when life on Earth was a bunch of microbes, the planet didn't have to worry too much about habitat destruction and maintaining an ecological balance. But it seems ready to fight back hard now that we're at war with it.

PW: I think it's simpler than that. My view of life on Earth is that it's a huge board game, and every species has but one goal: to take over the planet. And every species that could, would, if it got the chance. So we're just doing what evolution has pounded into us: Produce as many of yourselves as you can. Make sure that, as you produce, you aren't threatened in your production and co-opt all the planet's resources. Kill any competitors, and spread to every place that you possibly can. We're doing all of that. We get the prize, ironically, because of the brains that we have.  

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.