On the Rocks: Global Warming
and the Rock and Fossil Record
An Interview with Peter Ward
Peter Ward, astro-biologist and author of newly released book Under A Green Sky.
At the age of six, Peter Ward requested an adult paleontology book from his (perhaps a little taken aback) mother. But, she must have already sensed the extent of her son’s interest. For soon thereafter, mother and son stood in a Seattle bookstore and despite the urging of a bemused clerk shooing them into the children’s section, the sophisticated book was duly purchased.
“Like all kids, I was fascinated with dinosaurs. I just never left it behind,” says Peter Ward.
A professor at University of Washington in paleontology, geology, biology, zoology, and astrobiology, author of over 120 scientific papers, guest on ABC’s Nightline and NPR’s Science Friday, whose fourteen science books include Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (featured on Nightline and which Discovery Magazine named one of the most important science books in 2001), Gorgon: The Monsters that Ruled the Earth Before the Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Earth’s Greatest Catastrophe (winner of the Washington State Book Award in 2005) and Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere, it is still easy to see the endlessly curious child in Petr Ward.
On a cold winter night, after Ward delivered a lecture on mass extinctions (for which he appropriately wore all black and entitled his talk, “The Ghost of Christmas Past”), he enthusiastically described to me the world of prehistoric creatures like Gorgons (which predated dinosaurs, a sort of cross between a lion and a crocodile) and giant prehistoric insects, his arms stretched wide to demonstrate the size of these mammoth beings. But, a week later during a formal interview, we talk about more serous matters. It turns out that the rock and fossil record can also alert us to one the most sobering subjects of our time the long term effects of global warming.
“One of the best sources of data offers uncontroversial insight into the deadly serious debate about Global Warming, literally the hardest kind of data imaginable: the Earth’s rock and fossil record. Four major questions can be answered questions about the relationship between greenhouse gas levels and global temperature, rates of sea level rise, mass extinctions and our own species’ future,” says Ward.
In the introduction to Ward’s latest book (Smithsonian Books, April 2007) Under A Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past and What They Can Tell You About Our Future, Ward refers to the “sane madman played by Peter Finch in the classic 1976 film, Network” who ran around yelling, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” and he writes:
“In [the case of global warming], this cry might be: “I am scared as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! ...This book is my scream, for here... we sat on the remains of a greenhouse extinction, and it was not pretty, this graveyard, the evidence clutched in these dirty rocks utterly demolishing any possibility of hyperbole. Is it happening again? Most of us think so, but there are still so few of us who visit the deep past and compare it to the present and future. Thus, this book, words tumbling out powered by rage and sorrow but mostly fear, not for us but for our children and theirs.”
I had two highly educated parents, who were actually from New York City. World War II brought them to Seattle where I was born. Both of them, for my entire life, never stopped complaining about what a provincial hick town Seattle was compared to the big city.
Their biggest complaint of all was the lack of adequate museums, especially any sort of natural history museum. All I got to hear about was, “where’s the opera?” and “where are all the museums?” ... So, to make up for this, my brother and two sisters and I got bombarded with books. The most interesting to me at the time were books by Roy Chapman Andrews, the Great Gobi desert paleontologist. His books were all about dinosaurs and the Gobi adventures and I really just fell in love with it.
WRR: So did you know then that you wanted to be a scientist?
I knew as a kid. It sounds so corny, but I do think science is a calling. And however that happens you usually get called early and you really know it. I mean every single one of my scientist friends knew from an early age.
WRR: And now you are an astrobiologist your background is as a paleontologist and a biologist.
An astrobiologist must be a master of many fields. Of course, a paleontologist by necessity has to be a good geologist. And a good biologist. It takes longer to get through school. You’ve got to be able to master both. That just sets you up for what you need in astrobiology.
WRR: Can you give me a nutshell description of astrobiology?
Sure, well, the biggest question of all, is, “Am I alone?” ...So, obviously that’s a great intellectual question facing humanity but now there’s a science to examine that question. To understand life in space we really need to first understand life, then to understand space, but we only know one kind of life Earth life and we only know one planet Earth. So, really the study of astrobiology, so far, has in large part been the study of Earth and Earth life. And looking for places in outer space where there might also be Earths or Earth life. So, it really is Earth centric, but in a way it has to be.
WRR: In your introduction of Under A Green Sky you call this book your scream because you’ve helped discover the long-term effects of greenhouse gases rather than asteroid impacts in relation to past extinctions. You write in your book, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it.
Yes, frustration and rage. Hunter S. Thomson meets Peter Finch. I just channeled Hunter’s writing, you know...The last couple of days, I had a filmmaker here Tom Radford who is going to option Under A Green Sky to tell the story of the real cause of mass extinction that we know of... and they’re going to sell it for a four part Discovery Channel series. We start out with Alvarez the one case of an extinction caused by an impact and after five minutes we finish that. There’s your dinosaurs, now get over it. Let’s move on...
Well, this great Canadian film director, Tom Radford, said to me in 2007, “Hey look, the whole world has changed since 2002. And where it’s changing most is in Europe.” He had just come back from a 2006 documentary film festival in Europe and he mentioned that the people who were really the leading environmental documentary filmmakers on the planet now were the Swedes...They put huge money into this. They are what BBC and Channel 4 in Britain used to be, where PBS used to be. The Dutch are not very far behind. You have this very passionate group of people. They are ahead of us. They are of course much more green than we are.
Well, Europeans are the people who are now driving these environmental issues. There’s been a radical change in thinking in Europe and I think it’s filtering into the United States.
WRR: In a chapter entitled, “The Mother of All Extinctions” you write, “By 2005, it was pretty clear that the geological and biological detectives knew what did not cause the Paleocene, Triassic, and most importantly, the immense Permian extinctions: asteroids from space.”
Yet, people still think the cause of mass extinctions came from the impact of asteroids?
Yes. There is a huge disconnect between the popular view now and the scientific view of these matters. Which is often the case in research and science, but it is especially true of this subject. Think of the movies, Deep Impact and Armageddon. If you ask people about mass extinction, everybody seems to think that not only the dinosaurs went out with an asteroid, but that all of the other mass extinctions as well were caused by asteroids.
Let’s take the Permian extinction, the 250 million year old event that Smithsonian paleontologists called “The Mother of All Mass Extinctions,” a term that has fascinated the press but one that makes scientists’ eyes roll. I was doing a TV deal for MSNBC with Ron Reagan about life and space and we coincidentally met in the make up room after the show. He’s a really smart guy and a keen follower of science. He said, “I hear you’re working on the Permian extinction... that’s fascinating ... another impact extinction.” And I said, “Well, actually there is only one scientist in the world that thinks that.” And he said, “Really? That’s so odd, because everyone of the science press that I know views it as an impact extinction, like all the others.”
I think it’s because the impact is a better story. What I’m talking about is not as exciting, but in its own way far, far scarier. There’s nothing sexy about hydrogen sulfide bubbles coming out and strangling things. Whereas, rocks in space, now that’s so cool. So, the disconnect really is that the scientists have one view and the public has another. And the press.
WRR: The public and the press?
The other thing that is really dangerous is the way in which the press typically handles science stories, the way journalists are trained to write a news article. I was a journalist for a while, and have always been drawn to writing. The way journalism is taught is that a story must be framed so that it always includes an opposing view even if there is no opposing view.
Let me give you an example. If a newspaper reporter were to write an article about why apples fall off of trees, they would be sure to point out the opposing view, which is that there is no gravity. Nowadays, a lot of times the opposing scientific theory mentioned is terribly outdated. You know the Alvarez theory is done it is totally accepted that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs which is but one of the many mass extinctions. It’s been over for a long time... Yet, when the press gets hold of it even today, such as when one notable professor from Princeton, every two to three years, announces that there is new evidence that the dinosaur extinction was not caused by an asteroid they simply have to present a lone opposing point of view as valid and newsworthy.
There is no more hideous example of this than the coverage of global warming and climate change up until 2007. Now, I think the press is becoming far more sophisticated about the science behind global warming concerns, but this is pretty new. Because in every article about it the press used to present the opposing view as though both theories were equivalent. That still holds in some outlets, but thankfully not all. Well, many of the opposers of global warming, not scientists, are paid for by various persuasions that are not scientific, and yet these prostituted positions are given the same legitimacy as those of climate and other kinds of scientists who devote their entire careers to studying the causes of global warming.
WRR: So, you’re saying that the way journalism is taught is somewhat inappropriate for science?
Totally. It does a disservice to science, but this is a very tricky thing bad as the press can be, how much worse science would be with no press at all. We saw that in the 30s in Stalinist Russia, when Lysenko and the other crackpot “scientists” made their own dubious press, showcasing their bogus science. There are legitimate times when there is no opposing view. This is one: sufficient increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause the Earth to warm. There is not a single front rank climate scientist who opposes this relationship of “global warming.” Not one. And yet, you can find the paid off guys; there are plenty of those out there eager to comment that this is not the case, or that human emissions are not affecting climate. Absolute nonsense, and I hope a very globally warmed hell is big enough for all of them.
WRR: Is the public at large in denial?
Yes. Definitely. You know I’ve written every one of my books out of awe and respect of nature and evolution. But, I wrote this one out of anger. Anger really pushes words out too.
WRR: How do you see your role as a scientist in terms of conveying what you learn through research?
Well, it is my belief that it’s a scientist’s responsibility to yell, to stand up, and debate and to talk to the public. But there was the term in the old days, Saganized. Carl Sagan, wrote for the public as well as for the scientific elite and he paid a huge professional and I think personal price for all of the great work that he did. I am often approached by young scientists asking how to break into writing for the public, and I tell them to do it but with their eyes open. There is no credit for a popular science book when a young scientist is up for tenure.
WRR: Although you’ve been on television and film, and perhaps more people are watching than reading... for good or bad.
The real issue now is: what scientist can lead us in talking to the public, and more importantly, to the power base of this country? That leader has to be good on TV as well as in print. Ed Wilson will not last forever, and we need a powerful younger scientist to step forward and more importantly, to be recognized as having stepped forward. Neil deGrasse Tyson is perhaps our best hope. You know I talked to Neil Tyson about this issue of scientific leadership, not so much leading the scientists, but in leading the public from a base of science. I asked him who in America has the best chance of being the new face of science a rhetorical question because we both knew at the time I was talking about him. He’s really great on camera. He’s really a great guy, just so magnetic in his personality... And so I said, Neil, okay, let’s just pretend that you are the most famous scientist in America right now in terms of just your popular output which he is, by the way. You’re the heir to Sagan, and I think that’s a correct comparison. Neil’s work constitutes all three spheres science, public policy, and public communication and they are all first-rate. But I asked him the following questions, “If we lined up a hundred Americans on the street, how many would know your face?” And he turned to me, and said, “Okay maybe one.” The fact is there is no scientific spokesperson. Ed Wilson is the best but it is not enough and will not be for much longer. We have to have someone step up, but more importantly, be accepted as a celebrity by a celebrity-obsessed public.
WRR: So it would be good to have another Sagan?
Yes, exactly. You know someone who could say, “Good God, Bush! Global warming is a fact. Do something!”
The administration, as we are now seeing, is immune to pressure. The only way I think the letter from 1000 or 1500 scientists could be effective would be if the route to the White House would have been from the scientists to the people to the government. The scientists themselves exert no pressure. They just don’t have the power. And this is where you need some moral force to stand up. Partly because people aren’t going to respond to a thousand scientists, whereas I think they would respond to one large figure, one person who gets to go on David Letterman and its ilk every five weeks. We don’t have that. We don’t have that personality figure able to reach the major outlets, like David Letterman and Jay Leno. When they do get on shows such as The Daily Show or its clown spin-off, the seriousness is played for laughs. When I was growing up scientists were regulars on the late shows. We’re not doing that. And that’s to the detriment of American society, I think.
WRR: One of the questions you posed in your lecture, was what can we do in the face of global warming to maintain human survival ... You talked about scientists who were thinking of engineering on a large scale, ways of mitigating all of the damage ...
Well, yes in many ways the only way out is engineering. Whereas the conservation movement the many brave souls who are trying to preserve and save as much of nature as possible would like us to live on this planet, in a wild state, except for us being here, which, I have to say is actually totally impossible. Somehow, we want to bring places back to their original state, yet we still want to have all the food and the creature comforts. I’m afraid you can’t do both. If you choose not only survival but also advanced human civilization, then you have to say goodbye to the natural state. Is it worth trading low child mortality for going back to the cave but having lots of nature around, some of it carnivorous? No parent will do that, and the number of parents on this planet increases daily.
And the other point is that, by the way, the natural state will kill you. One thing that is a waste of time is the collective guilt about being humans. You see it everywhere all the apocryphal movies and my take is, quit feeling guilty, and just get on with the engineering we’re going to have to do that is as environmentally friendly as it can be. I know it’s not a happy message to a lot of people.
WRR: Well, in the lecture you countered the Gaia hypothesis with the notion that life is inherently suicidal in what you termed the Medea hypothesis?
Well, it seems to be. The information built into life is that it has to keep expanding. That is the basis tenet of life reproduce and make as many of you as you can. Every bit of earth life has that command in it. Believe me, rare snails in Hawaii on only one tree ... given their druthers they’d own the earth: Snail World. Our species did what all have tried to do and actually did it. So we save what we can but at least in this century we will neither radically reduce in numbers nor stop engineering this planet so that there can be more of us.
WRR: In your view, why are Americans so apathetic about science now?
This is such an odd thing to me about American society. I grew up in the 1950s when the greatest celebrities in America were the novelists. The novel was king. And painting was still way up on top of things too. I grew up around the Northwest School: Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey. I knew some of them personally through my parents, as my mother was a wonderful ceramics artist with Pottery Northwest, and I got to watch some of these guys paint. The heroes to me, and to intellectual America which drove culture were the novelists, the artists, and the scientists.
They were as well known to any person on the street as Brittany Spears or any of these yahoos are today. Think of the scientists Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi these names live as much as the Sinatra, Cooper, and Dietrich. And yet, we’ve dropped the novelist; we’ve dropped the artist; we’ve dropped the scientists from the front ranks in terms of important celebrities of America. Carl Sagan was on television fifty-nine times on the Johnny Carson Show alone. Fifty-nine times!
How did this happen? How can we be so dependent upon these things and yet not revere them? That is the most important question science is more important then ever, but scientists are less important.
WRR: It reminds me of what you said earlier, “Our country needs thoughtfulness now more than ever.”
WRR: You’re very well read. Who are your favorite authors?
Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. I’m still a big fan of Steve Gould and I really love John Le Carre because he’s a humanist. His people are such great people. I just finished a book by Cormac McCarthy and it was incredible, but boy it depressed me. Yet what treasures to be found in those pages! Just before he’s killed off the protagonist, McCarthy has this old sheriff say, .“You know, life is just a stack of days”; Out of context it sounds so trite, but McCarthy is such a master that it was a small, fresh flower growing sweetly in the context of overwhelming death and fragile mortality. He reminds me of the painter Mark Toby. And even though I like to think of my life as a series of hopes with a long future, the reality is that it is a stack of days. And you know your life really boils down to what you did on those days. So, really I’m trying to enjoy as much as I can, do as much as I can, and live while I can. When you spend your life with the fossil record, living life is still sweet.