The First Climate Crisis

This current climate crisis isn’t the first time in the history of life that we’ve almost bricked the earth. We’ve almost ruined the earth with our emissions a few times before. I’m using ‘we’ loosely. Our ancestors were cyanobacteria at that point.

Life has always depended on some energy source. The first life used chemical energy, generated at deep sea vents or hot springs or the like. The next major evolution of life used solar power. Photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria took in carbon dioxide and water and produced tasty glucose for themselves. As a waste product, they emitted oxygen.

To this day, if you breathe in, you are inhaling cynobacterial and plant farts. It’s their waste product. These, our humble ancestors, almost destroyed the whole earth with their farts once, just as humans are doing now.

Future life like us depends on oxygen, but 3.5 billion years ago it was basically toxic to the first generation of anaerobic life. It also almost broke the earth for everybody.

Our slimy ancestors released so much oxygen into the land, oceans and eventually air that it formed an ozone layer around the earth. This blocked sunlight from reaching the earth (the opposite problem we have now) and started a process that cooled the earth dramatically, causing ice to form on the poles. The process went back and forth for millions of years, heating and cooling, mixing with other factors like volcanos, until at one point (850 mya) the entire earth was a frozen snowball, with life barely surviving beneath the ice.

So as you can see, life has been causing climate change basically since the very beginning. This errant child of the earth has been playing with the thermostat since 3.5 billion years ago, and we continue to this day.

Today the energy source is fossil fuels, AKA burning older lifeforms. It’s debatable as to whether history will view this as a byproduct of humans or of a new lifeform that emerges out of electrical and communication networks — what we call machines or AI. Either way, this energy source produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

This messes with the earth’s thermostat by making it hotter and is leading to another climate crisis, with mass extinction already underway.

Of course, a crisis is always relative. The Great Oxygenation Event (3.4 bya) was great for aerobic life and eventually us, but it’s also called the Oxygen Holocaust because it killed off a lot of older lifeforms.

Today’s climate crisis is pretty bad for humans and the life we’re used to, but maybe it’s going to be great for AI, and maybe that next generation of life needs us to kill ourselves so they can inherit the earth. The earth of course will keep going, it’s seen worse, and life is a tenacious thing that survives deep in the oceans and underground.

The real question is, as a species that’s relatively self-aware, do we want to cause this climate change? Because we really do have a choice. We’ve seen this change coming for decades and the science is actually relatively simple. We also have alternate energy sources.

So, for the first time in the history of life we must ask, what sort of climate do we want? One that supports us, or one that supports some other forms of life better?

For this I relied heavily on the mind-expanding book INDICA — A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It change the way I look at everything.

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A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. Videos: and podcast:

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