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Peter Brannen: 2019 National Book Festival

Peter Brannen: 2019 National Book Festival


>>John Haskell: I just saw
the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, before I
came over here, and she wanted to remind you that
this is officially and indisputably the best
free event in Washington, D.C. And furthermore — [ Applause ] You know, they make you
pay to go to the Redskins. And furthermore,
it’s better than most of the ones you have to pay for. So, she wanted me
to mention that. Peter Brannen, sitting
to my left, is an award-winning
science writer based in Boulder, Colorado. His work has appeared in the New
York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Wired. He’s the author of
The Ends of the Earth: Volcanic Apocalypses –>>Peter Brannen: The
Ends of the World.>>John Haskell:
Ends of the World. I mean, it’s right here. Volcanic Apocalypses,
Lethal Oceans and our Quest to Understand Earth’s
Past Mass Extinctions. So, you know, your book’s
about five mass extinctions that have happened on earth. And so, how did you
come up with an idea to write a book like this. You’re not even a
science guy, originally. Right?>>Peter Brannen: Well,
you know, I’ve always — I’ve been a science journalist
for about 10 years, but yeah, I was actually working as a
newspaper writer in New England and writing a lot
about the oceans. And when you report and
write about the oceans, you learn that a lot of things
are going wrong in the oceans. There’s things like overfishing
and nutrient pollution and upcoming threats, like
warming and ocean acidification, which is what happens when too
much CO2 reacts with sea water. It makes it more acidic, and
it makes it harder for things to build their shells out
of calcium carbonate, too. Just stick around. And so, I was learning about
all this stuff, and then, I did a program for science
journalists at Wood’s Hole, and I noticed that
all of them — or some of them were
studying ocean acidification. They were very scared about it. And some of them were studying
events that had happened tens of millions of years ago. And if you know how to read the
rocks, and you’re really clever about geochemistry, and
you know your geology, you can actually go
and see what happens when the planet runs the
exact same sort of experiment that we’re running on it today. And I just thought that
was — this is sort of — at least half of
the climate story — our understanding of climate
change is from studying — the only experimental
record of climate change that we have is experiments
that the planet’s run. And I thought that was
sort of an untold story. And then, when I
started diving into that, I noticed that there was this
interesting conversation going on in the geology
community, where, you know, there’s this paradigm
about, you know, I think in the popular
imagination, I think people think of
mass extinctions of things that happen when big rocks fall out of the sky and
wipe things out. Because there was this
huge discovery in the ’80s that it was really
solidified in the ’90s that the dinosaur’s
disappearance — so, something to do with
a big rock hitting Mexico. But when geologists went back to all the earlier mass
extinctions, there’s actually — what’s incredible is that the
dinosaur extinction is the most recent one. And there’s four older, and some
of them are much more severe. And I think the End-Cretaceous
Mass Extinction, the one with the
dinosaurs, ranks number four or something like that. And when they went back
looking for asteroid impacts, they couldn’t find
them, and instead, they found these huge
injections of CO2 from volcanos, in some cases. In other cases, these tectonic
events that drew down CO2. So, I just thought
it was this — people are both interested
in natural history museums and all that, but there’s
also this news hook, that we’re starting to pull
some of the same levers that are responsible for
some of the worst things that have ever happened
in earth history. So, that was sort
of around about –>>John Haskell: You
know, one of the things — before we get — really
drill down deep on some of those issues, one
thing that strikes you when you read the book is
that there’s a multitude of interesting characters,
scientists that you talked to. And also, you know, the
kind of innovative science that enables people to know
with some accuracy, right, what happened hundreds
of millions of years ago. So, give us a little
bit of a flavor of that.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, well, I
wanted to somewhat correct sort of this idea that paleontology
is just people dusting off bones in the back room of
some museum somewhere. It’s actually a 21st sort
of cutting edge science, where yeah, geochemists
are using — you know, there’s
very sophisticated, expensive lab equipment, where
you can actually just look at the composition of a
rock and tell you a lot about what’s happening on the
entire planet at that time, which is kind of amazing. So, the reason how we know that
the temperature tens of millions of years ago is because we’ve — or hundreds of millions
of years ago even, is you can kind limestone
laid down by plankton that, before it died, it
records in its shell sort of the chemical signature
of the ocean. And this can tell you all sorts
of things about, you know, temperature, how much — what’s going on with the
carbon cycle on the planet. So that can tell you whether
there’s big injections of CO2 into the air and
things like that. But yeah, the people who
are doing this work tend to be a very interesting
lot, and I wanted to tie each of these sort of
remote alien things that no one’s ever heard
of, to ground them in sort of personalities that
are working on it. And there are very colorful
people who work on this. So, for instance, one
person, who I highlight, much to the chagrin of a
lot of paleontologists, is the Princeton geologist
Gerta Keller, because she’s sort of an iconoclast when it comes to the End-Cretaceous
Mass Extinction. She rails against the asteroid. She thinks it’s totally
overrated. And she goes out of
her way to sort of prod and provoke people too, I think. But she’s a fascinating lady,
and she’s the youngest of seven in a Swiss farming family
and ran away from home when she was in her teens. She took a train across
Africa and got really sick. She was on death’s door. And then, she went to
Australia, and she got shot in a bank robbery and was
telling me about how she was — saw herself flying over Sydney. And then, she ended
up in San Francisco, completely on her own, and
I think she was noticed by teachers as being
very gifted. And then, she went on to college and became a tenured
Princeton geologist. So, that’s just sort of –>>John Haskell: One of them.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, that’s
one of the people I talked to.>>John Haskell: And a lot of them aren’t professional
academics, in the sense of teaching at universities,
I noticed.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, yeah. Well, so there’s the
professional paleontologists, but also I was really sort of — my eyes were opened to
this really inspiring — just population of
amateur paleontologists, people who take time
— take their weekends, and they’ll drive to random
road cuts on the highway, which you would never notice, but because they know the
local geology — so, the one — I go to Cincinnati,
which it turns out, is one of the most fossil-rich
regions in the entire world, which came as a surprise
to me, because my dad’s from Cincinnati,
and he had no idea. I hope he doesn’t
watch this video. But they’re called
the Dry Dredgers, and they’re these people who
meet up at the University of Cincinnati, and they drive
out, and they go look for — and when you join them, and you
go over to the side of the road, you can see, it’s just the — rocks on the side of
the road are just — it looks like someone
just dredged a coral reef up unto the side of the road. There’s seashells and
trilobites and things that look like horseshoe crabs and big, coned nautiloid shells
and things like that.>>John Haskell: Is it —
time for a little perspective. Earth’s been here for a little over four-and-a-half
billion years. Right?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>John Haskell: How long
has there been any sort of life on earth?>>Peter Brannen:
Well, the first — so, like the single-celled
life, 3.8 billion, probably. But animal life — I mean,
the Cambrian Explosion, which you might be familiar, and all these alien-looking
things show up on the fossil record. The Cambrian begins
543 million years ago. So, these numbers are all big,
and it’s hard to really grasp. And so, geologists have
mnemonics for thinking about deep time because you
just can’t — you can’t — our brains weren’t
evolved in Africa, to think about quantum
mechanics or deep time or distances in space. So, you need to think in sort
of similar terms, where — so there are all of these
tricks, and my favorite one that I use in the book
is that if you imagine that every footstep
you take is a century, and you go for a walk, you know, after 20 steps, you’re
at 0 ADBC. And, you know, by the
time you get to the exit, wooly mammoths exist, and all
of human civilization’s sort of blanked out, and we’re
going back to a major ice age when the sea level is 400
feet lower than it is today, and there’s giant camels and
ground sloths and mastodons and mammoths where
we are, probably. And that’s only from
here to the door. And to cover the rest of earth
history, you’d have to walk — you know, you might think,
you go another mile maybe and then, you see dinosaurs. You’d have to walk 20 miles
a day for almost four years to cover the rest
of earth history. So, those are the scales
that we’re talking about. And what’s amazing —
well, so what’s so jarring about the extinctions is that that’s how rare these
events are that, you know, once every — in this walk,
once every few hundred miles, you might get to one of
these big scary catastrophes. So, we might sort of be
at the beginning of one of the more interesting periods.>>John Haskell: So, how long
ago was the first extinction?>>Peter Brannen: The first
extinction was 445 million years ago. That is why I went to
Cincinnati, because –>>John Haskell:
So, animals are, you know, close to 600, then –>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, yeah.>>John Haskell: Then this
event about 440 happened.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, yeah. So, you don’t have the —
there’s nothing on land yet. There might be some little
sprigs of like liverwort or something around fresh water. But for the most part, if
you saw the continents, it would look like the
Mars Curiosity Rover feed. There would be nothing
on land, really. But there’s tons of life in the
ocean, and there are these sort of bug-like things that I
was talking about before, trilobites, things that look like horseshoe crabs,
and all that. And in Cincinnati’s
where you go to sort of introduce yourself to it. And then, at the end
of this extinction, there was a massive ice age
that dropped sea level hundreds of feet, and it wiped
out all this habitat, and it changed the
circulation of the oceans, so animals’ foods disappeared. And this is actually
the second-most — the second worst mass
extinction of all time. And it’s thought that
you go in this ice age because of this weird
tectonic mechanism that can draw down CO2. So today, we’re worried
about CO2 going up too fast, but if you draw it
down too fast, you can sort of freeze things. So, that’s how that one –>>John Haskell:
Yeah, so there were — even before the dinosaurs,
there were — what? Four extinctions, right?>>Peter Brannen: Yes.>>John Haskell: And then,
this one’s the dinosaurs.>>Peter Brannen:
This was hundreds of millions of years ago.>>John Haskell: Hundreds? Yeah, and humans have
only been here — what? Two hundred thousand
years or so? Something like that?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, yeah.>>John Haskell: More or less?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>John Haskell: And so, what
lessons are you drawing from — you know, particular
lessons from some of those extinctions,
the early ones. We’ll say the pre-dinosaur
extinctions.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. So, dinosaurs show up
235 million years ago. And they actually go through one
of the major mass extinctions. They need the End-Triassic Mass
Extinction for them to take over the planet, sort of. Because they had these weird
crocodile relatives that had to get wiped out first. But, yeah, I mean the
worrying thing about a lot of these earlier extinctions
— so the worst mass extinction of all time is this thing called
the End-Permian Mass Extinction, 252 million years ago. And by this point, you do have
things walking around on land, but they’re sort of unfamiliar,
because people just like to go to see the dinosaurs at
the Natural History Museum, but there is — there’s
cool stuff before that. And there’s trees, and
there’s the ecosystem, and there’s coral reefs
all over the planet. And at the end of the Permian,
252 million years ago — people went looking for
evidence of an asteroid impact, and they couldn’t find it. But instead what they
found is that in Russia, enough lava erupted in Siberia that it could cover the lower 48
United States a kilometer deep. So, it’s not even worth
talking about Yellowstone in the same book as this thing. But even in an event as chaotic
as that, the lava only — I mean, it covers
like all of Siberia. If you go to Google Maps today,
and you see sort of dull, brownish-grey rock, that’s
from the Siberian Traps, which is the name of
this volcanic rock. But it only covered
part of Russia, and everything on
the planet dies. Everything in the ocean
— or not everything — 96 percent of life in the
ocean, a little less on land. So, it can’t be just the lava
in this one part of the world. It’s the volcanic gases that
are really doing the trick. And it seems like CO2 is
the most important one, because not only would the
volcanos have put tons of CO2 into the air all on their own,
but they came up through one of the world’s largest coal
basins and injected something like 80,000 gigatons
of carbon into the air. So, if we burned all our fossil
fuels, it would be something like 5,000 gigatons,
and this is 80,000. So, this is completely
off the scales. But what makes worrying for
today is that it actually turns out that the rate of
emissions is more important, in terms of life’s ability to
adapt, than the total volume. So, this is over tens
of thousands of years, these eruptions, whereas what
we’re doing in a century, it might be 10 times
faster than those eruptions. And just throw it out — ocean
chemistry and climate really — and animal life needs
longer time scales to adapt to a shift that’s that profound.>>John Haskell: We’ll get
back to that in a second. I just wanted to be clear
on — because, you know, you have the Swiss-born
scientist, and she’s sure that the rock that landed in Mexico didn’t cause
the dinosaur extinction.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>John Haskell: So, what
did happen to the dinosaurs, and what lessons are drawn
— do you draw from that?>>Peter Brannen: The
safe money’s still on the asteroids,
on the asteroid. But what is wild about
that extinction is — so, for the previous three
mass extinctions before that, are associated with similarly
outlandish volcanic eruptions. And it just so happens
that right at — when the dinosaurs are going
extinct, there’s another one of these going on in India, which would cover the lower
48 states in 600 feet of lava. So, not quite a kilometer, but
still nothing to sneeze at. And so, she — yeah,
so she implicates this, the Deccan Traps, they’re
called, this volcanic event in India 66 million years ago,
as the kill mechanism and sort of waves away the asteroid. But when I was writing
the book, there was sort of this interesting
reconciliation. So, people lost professional
and personal relationships over like asteroid camp
versus volcano camp. I mean, I even interviewed
one guy, and he said, “I’m happy to talk
to you about any of the mass extinctions
except for the End-Cretaceous. It’s too political.” So, but there’s been
this interesting — when I was writing the book, an
interesting reconciliation sort of an idea where, you know, you
had this volcano sort of going on in India and then, the
asteroid hit, and it messed up the earth’s mantle so much that it kicked it
into overdrive. And as people go back and date
the most voluminous period of lava, it’s really
close to the extinction. A couple new studies have sort of muddied the waters
a little bit. Some people have it
before the impact. Some people have
it a little after. So, it’s still — it’s either
the biggest anti-miracle of all time that these
two things were happening, or there’s some sort of
relationship between the two. But it is definitely true,
that the asteroid was — made for a very bad
afternoon, 66 million years ago.>>John Haskell: So — I mean,
you know, everybody’s like, oh, my gosh, these dinosaurs, and there’s movies
about them and stuff. But they had a good run.>>Peter Brannen: They did. There’s nothing — there’s
no moral to be drawn from the dinosaurs
going extinct. They did nothing wrong. And it’s a testament to
their dominance that it took such a just ridiculous
catastrophe to wipe them out. They — so, they dominated for
135 million years, but they show up a few times millions
of years before that. So, you compare that to
humans, where we’re on the order of a fifth of a million years. So, if you’re just an alien
randomly visiting the earth at any point in the last
few hundred million years, you’d be like, this is a
dinosaur planet, not — you know, it’s all
led up to this –>>John Haskell: To us.>>Peter Brannen: — the
culmination of evolution — no, the dinosaurs were
— had every niche. Some of them were
incredibly smart. They were incredibly adaptive. They kept their foot on our
throats for 135 million years. We were scared to death of them. We were just coming out at night out of our little
burrows and stuff. So, the dinosaurs were
incredibly successful, and they didn’t do
anything wrong. And so — and they’re
still around. And as Paul Wilson, a
paleontologist at Columbia, put it to me, “Birds
are dinosaurs,” and that’s not something that paleontologists
just say to be cute. It’s actually literally true. Birds are dinosaurs. If you look at a skeleton of a
chicken and a T-Rex and a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus, the first
two have a lot more in common than the second two, and that’s because they’re both
theropod dinosaurs. And there’s — I
forget the numbers — but there’s like 20,000
species of birds alive today and way fewer mammals. So, you could still
argue that we’re living in the age of dinosaurs. So, they haven’t
really gone away. They’re still with us.>>John Haskell: So,
let’s focus on humans and the impact we’ve had. I like the quote in the book. Quote, “Like the first
trees, we’re extraordinary in the history of
life for our ability to radically alter the
geochemical cycles of the planet with dramatic consequences
for the climate.” I mean, for one thing,
you know, trees, I thought trees were good,
but you can get into that. But also, you know, we’ve
had an impact pretty much from the beginning. Right? In terms of extinctions
and that sort of thing and then, building up to what
we’re doing now. So, if you could speak to that?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. Well, the tree thing is from —
so the second mass extinction, the Late Devonian Mass
Extinction is a real oddball, and it might actually
have something to do with the evolution of trees and
plant life on land, which, yeah, trees today are these
beneficent, natural, wonderful things, which is
true, but when they first showed up on the planet, it
was very disruptive. There’s nothing on
the continents before and then suddenly, you essentially had this
giant geo-engineering project of forests just taking
over the continents. And one things trees do is they
are carbon’s sink, and it seems like there’s a big — I say drought at the end of the
Devonian that might have to do with the fact that
trees are sucking tons of carbon out of the air. And the other is that — as
they’re digging the roots into the earth, they’re
digging up — they’re releasing all the —
they’re creating soils that wash into rivers, and they’re
releasing all these nutrients, like phosphorous, to the ocean, which is causing these
anoxic dead zones. So, we’re doing the
same thing today. We go to — we dig up
phosphorus, and we put it on our crops, and it washes into
the ocean, causes dead zones. So, yeah — so, the analogy
is that, that we are sort of accidentally, just like
the trees, have been messing with earth’s geochemistry
since our beginning. But now, we actually know what
we’re doing, and we can stop it. But yeah, the humans do — we
tend to think of, you know, environmental issues as things
— you know, the last century, we really mucked things up. But it turns out that humans,
ever since their inception, sort of as they migrate
to Europe and to Australia and to Pacific Islands
and then, to the Americas, there’s this eerie wave of
extinctions that follow them. So, in Australia, around 50,000,
60,000 years ago or around when the first humans show
up, you lose everything over 100 kilograms
on the continent. And then, around
12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, when humans really
started spreading out through the Americas, you lose all the mammoths
and all those things. And then, you bring that
up to the present day, where people have been
doing these incredible, inspiring journeys across
the Pacific Ocean, you know, starting new societies
in the Pacific Islands, you also lose all the big birds and all these big snails
and things like that. So, humans have always
been an apex predator that has fundamentally changed
every ecosystem its ever showed up in. And now today, we’re not only
doing things like hunting and habitat fragmentation,
but now we’re really starting to pull the same levers as
these really bad episodes.>>John Haskell: You talked about how there were
certain species that humans had eradicated
in places where humans lived and the proof was,
but there’s an island that humans hadn’t lived
in, and you can see that they’re still there –>>Peter Brannen: Yeah, yeah.>>John Haskell: — or
have been there longer.>>Peter Brannen: Right. So, I mean, one example of
this is Steller’s sea cow, which in the, I think, 17
— middle of the 1700’s, was just living off this island
called the Commander Islands in the like Northwest Pacific. And then, Russians showed up,
and they’re all gone within, you know, a decade or two. But the Steller’s sea cow
actually inhabited, you know, a lot of the Pacific coast, and it had just been exacerbated
except for this one island, when it was finally
discovered there. So, yeah, and then, you
know, in Antarctica, there I quote some explorers
who noticed when they went there that the animals just
had no fear of them, because they hadn’t evolved with
humans, and they had no reason to think that this weird little
bipedal thing was actually that dangerous. So, they would just be — they’d be thrilled that
they could just walk up to these penguins
and just slaughter them. So — and I would imagine, when
you show up, and you are hungry in a new continent, and there’s
a two-story tall giant ground sloth that isn’t
scared of you at all, that it would look pretty
appetizing, to want to eat it.>>John Haskell: So, getting
back to the big issue, you said we’re emitting
a record breaking amount of carbon dioxide, 10 times
faster than the worst events in the earth’s history that
you’ve just been talking about. You said that’s the quote
“take home,” end quote, and that we have
created in effect, quote, “the perfect storm.” So, speak to that.>>Peter Brannen:
Yeah, like I said, some of these events
are driven — I mean, a lot of these events
are driven by huge disruptions to the carbon cycle and big
injections of CO2 into the air. And right now, as far as we can
tell, we’re doing it faster. The good news is that
we’re not there yet. As I said, in the worst
mass extinction of all time, 96 percent of ocean
life goes extinct. And so far, in historical
times, not much has gone extinct in the oceans, at least. We kill 270,000 sharks a
day, and there’s isn’t an — no shark species
have gone extinct. The planet is incredibly
resilient. If we actually just let it try
and recover, it will recover. The problem is that we’re
doing all these things, all at the same time. We’re changing the temperature. We’re changing the chemistry. We’re actively hunting things. And it seems like in a
lot of the extinctions, they’re not just
— they tend not to be just single cause things. It tends to be a perfect
storm where, you know, it comes up snake eyes 10
times in a row and, you know — because these are once every
few hundred million years. They’re incredibly rare. And so, when the dinosaurs,
maybe the volcano had something to do with it, making
the asteroid worse. And so yeah today, we are
pulling a lot of different –>>John Haskell: So, is the perfect storm
temperature, chemistry, hunting? What else is in that? What are the things
that come together then?>>Peter Brannen: What
else are we doing?>>John Haskell: Those
are the biggies though.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. Habitat fragmentation’s bad. I mean, especially with climate
change, where animals are going to want to migrate to track
their preferred climate. If you build a big highway
and housing sprawl and — or walls along borders, it
will make it very difficult for animals to move around. And actually, there’s an analogy
in the first mass extinction of this, in that — so
we’ve been going in and out of these crazy ice ages for
the last few hundred thousand years recently. And people have wondered
when the climate was changing that much, why weren’t
these big mass extinctions. And it’s because — it
might have something to do with the fact that the —
we’re in this weird situation where the continents have these
long, north-south alignments. So, things can move up and down. And in the first
mass extinction, you might have had sort
of island continents. And so, when the
climate changed, these things were
just sort of stranded. They couldn’t move anywhere. And that is sort of similar
to habitat fragmentation, where we’re preventing things
from moving, if they need to, if climate changes
pretty radically.>>John Haskell: So, you
know, on the dreary side, what has history show it
takes to rebuild an ecosystem that has suffered an
extinction of event?>>Peter Brannen: Well so,
on the non-dreary side, I could have just as
easily written this book about the mass radiations that
happen after the extinctions. So yes, you have
the catastrophe, but in the aftermath, life
is unbelievably creative and resilient in
bouncing back from them. So, you know, you have the worst
mass extinction of all time and then, you know, 10 —
it did take 10 million years to recover, so that can be the
time scale we’re talking about. But the planet did recover
in an incredible way. Right? It sort of gives
birth to the modern world after this big mass extinction
because within, you know, 20, 30 million years, you have the
first real mammals, dinosaurs. Modern coral reefs
show up first then. So, life is very
creative and bounces back from even the biggest
catastrophes ever. So –>>John Haskell: So, you cited
one author, one scientist who says that the planet
is potentially hundreds or thousands of years from a
mass extinction level event. I mean, that’s a big difference, to say hundreds versus
thousands. I mean, it’s hard to tell. Right?>>Peter Brannen: Well so, he
— this is Anthony Barnosky, who’s a paleontologist, wrote
a paper called Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Arrived? And he — this is
considered sort of the best paleontological
appraisal of what we’re doing today. And he says — sort of the take
home message in the paper is that while we haven’t
reached the level of a major mass extinction
yet — which is good, because these
things are completely off the charts. These are just complete
outliers — that we could actually
get there if — depending on the current rate that we’re driving
species extinct, we could actually get there
in the next few centuries, if we’re really bad,
to thousands of years. But the scary thing is
that we don’t know where — whether there might be —
and there probably are — tipping points where, you know, you have these network
collapses, where things seem like — life seems like it’s
taking a beating but, you know, it’s sort of attrition and
then, you might just — you might be in this
house of cards situation, where the whole thing goes
down like a power grid failure, essentially, is his analogy. So in some ways,
that’s encouraging, because we’re not there yet, and we still have time
to save the world. And I think a lot of times,
people can read headlines about, you know, are we in a
mass extinction and then, get fatalistic and think
the world’s already over. But it’s not true. There’s still time
to save the world. So, that’s encouraging, but
it’s discouraging that doing so is going to have — we’re going to have to
totally rethink our sort of — our energy system and our
relationship to nature, and we have to do
that pretty quick, before we go over the edge.>>John Haskell: If
you have questions, you might start thinking
about — there’s a couple of mics here. I have one last question
to ask Peter. You got into a little bit
— I’m just curious — in the book, about technologies,
experimental technologies that, you know, might change the
course of what’s happening.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>John Haskell: Can
you speak to those?>>Peter Brannen: Well
so, a lot of the — so the most ambitious — like
the 1.5 degrees Celsius ambition of the Paris Climate
Agreement basically relies on us inventing, at a mass
scale, CO2 sucking machines that will take out — not only
do we have to drop emissions to zero by mid-century,
but we also have to then start actively taking
it out of the atmosphere. And at this point, this
technology’s kind of notional. There are people that
are working on it. And there’s a recent
Nature paper saying that by mid-century, the carbon
capture industry has to be two to four times bigger than the
current global oil industry to meet the Paris Climate goals. So, someone could get
really rich, if that’s true. So, that’s good, I guess.>>John Haskell: It
seems to be a motivation.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. But one of the ways that
this technology could work is that people are investigating
the exact same ways that the planet has — recovers
in these mass extinctions when it — tons of CO2 gets in
the air, it gets really hot, and there’s this mechanism
called rock weathering, which is the planet’s way
of sort of cooling off over long time scales, where
CO2 reacts with rainwater, and it reacts with rocks. And eventually, it gets
dumped into the ocean and turns into limestone. So, all the CO2 we’re
putting in the air now, a lot of it in 200,000 years,
is going to be limestone at the bottom of the ocean
or sediments at the bottom of the ocean that
eventually become limestone. But one of the ways to accelerate this is actually
going to rocks, like basalt — so, the Palisades across
from Manhattan is part of one of the volcanos that
killed everything at the end of the Triassic, and they’re
actually doing experiments, injecting CO2 into the Palisades
and trying to transform the rock into limestone, right there. And so, that’s a permanent
way of getting rid of it. You’re just turning
CO2 into limestone. And so, the planet has already
figured out how to do this, and we’re trying to sort of
take clues from the planet and make it a technology –>>John Haskell:
I would point out, I think you make a point
very cogently in the book, towards the last 40 pages
or so, that even short of going the full distance
to mass extinction — even if it is many hundreds or
thousands of years, you know, there’s social costs that
can be borne before — long before that would happen, that a lot of us would
think of as catastrophic. Right?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. I think people can conflate
the collapse of civilization with a proper biological mass
extinction, and the threshold for the collapsed civilization
might come well before that. Who knows? We’re running this crazy
experiment on the planet, where all of recorded history
has been within, you know, a degree Celsius, and we’re
going to make it, you know, maybe four to six degrees hotter
in the next 150 years or so. We have — in a world
partitioned by borders and with global trade and
things and mass migration, you suddenly plunge the planet
tens of millions of years ago into a totally alien
climate, and you superimpose that on our world, who
knows what that does to sort of the, you know, society. Everything on the planet
might not go extinct, but we do have —
we have to worry about ourselves a long
time before even that.>>John Haskell:
Let’s go to questions. This gentleman here
was up first.>>Peter Brannen: Yep.>>Audience Member 1: Oh, yes. In your Atlantic article, you said that if there were
intelligent beings during the Triassic, and they had nuclear
war, we’d see no sign of it now, because all of the isotopes
would have decayed away. However, as I assume you know, remains of a natural
nuclear reactor were found that were almost 10
times older than that.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>John Haskell: Thank you.>>Peter Brannen: So, yeah. So, you’re talking about something called
the Oklo Reactor in Gabon, which is two-and-a-half, 2.3
billion years old or something like that, and it’s actually a
natural runaway nuclear fission reaction, where reduced uranium
was suddenly exposed to oxygen and water, and it sort of had
this runaway nuclear reaction, that the French were
actually concerned about. They thought people were mining
uranium when they found it and then, they realized that
it actually happened 2 billion years ago. But that’s — I mean, so that’s
— those are uranium deposits. I was talking about
the radioisotopes from nuclear fall out. And I was also being
provocative and trying to make a rhetorical
point, as well. But yes, it’s true that you
might — there’s a very — if the dinosaurs were doing
global mining operations, that might be the easiest
way for us to tell. Because a lot of the surface
record isn’t preserved. But sort of the rocks we’re
putting in holes to find coal and minerals and things
like that will endure for a very long time period. So, I hope that helps.>>Audience Member 1: Thank you.>>Audience Member 2: To follow
on that just a little bit. I was hoping you could speak to, say let’s fast forward
100 million years, and humans have gone extinct. What sort of evidence of
this kind of climate change and shift that’s happening so rapidly now might be
apparent in the fossil record? What would this moment look like to an alien geologist
looking at rock cuts, say.>>John Haskell: That’s
an interesting question.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. It would look a lot
like the evidence for previous climate disasters. So, it would probably be —
it’s very rare to, you know — we have a much better,
high resolution picture of what life is like in
the ocean than on land, because things erode away
on land, and they tend to get deposited in the ocean. So, we have a better picture of
ocean life and things like that. So, I would imagine
that it would be a — you know, if it’s old enough,
it would be like a limestone, where you’d have this
weird, sort of clay layer, which would — from
ocean acidification, because you might — things might not be
able to calcify as well. And then within there, you’d be
able to do geochemistry and find that oxygen isotopes to tell
you that it got really hot and carbon isotopes
to tell you that it — there’s a big injection
of CO2 into the air. And then, if you’re looking
for organic biomarkers, you might find the
remains of plastics. Just really heavy hydrocarbons
might show up in the oceans. More speculatively, there
are cities, like New Orleans and Dhaka and Beijing
that are sort of subsiding and getting sediment dumped on
them that if sea level went up, you can image they
could be preserved. But you’d have to be
really lucky to find — to find one of those
in the future. But if you did, it would be
a really interesting layer, for sure.>>John Haskell: Thank you. Yes?>>Audience Member 3: I believe
you said the Permian extinction, the third one out of — or the
fourth one out of five, was –>>Peter Brannen:
It’s the third.>>Audience Member 3: Third?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>Audience Member
3: Out of five?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>Audience Member
3: Is the worst. So, was it the worst because the
geological event was the worst, or because there was
more life to kill off?>>Peter Brannen: There
wasn’t more life to kill off. It might have been worse
for a bunch of reasons. So, it is — I think it is the
biggest large igneous province, which is what these volcanos
are called, in the last, I don’t know, 600 million years. So, that was really bad. You’re also in a super
continent, Pangea, which for interesting reasons,
might actually make it difficult for the planet to
recover from and — [ Silence ] Yeah, I mean, it’s
so off the scale — so, from 30 degrees north to
30 degrees south latitude, the entire topics, it would
have been the temperature of a jacuzzi, and the oceans
lost almost all of their oxygen, and bacteria started making
hydrogen sulfide in the ocean, which is a poison gas. And one guy I talked to said
there might be these hypercanes, which are 500 mile
an hour hurricanes that were pulling this poison
gas and dumping it on land. That’s just kind
of a speculation. But it really is — it’s the
most extreme thing that’s happened in the last 600
million years to animal life. Another weird reason it
might have been weird — or might have been so bad is that modern plankton
hadn’t evolved yet. And so, what’s interesting is
that today, we have plankton that has these sort of shells
that allows them to fall deeper into the ocean, before they’re
eaten, and that uses up oxygen. And so, this thing called the
oxygen minimum zone is way deeper now, maybe than it was in
the Permian, because it was — the plankton didn’t
sink as far and so, you had an oxygen minimum
zone way higher in the ocean. So if you heat things
up, you can quickly bring that onto the shelves
and smoother everything. And so, there’s all sorts
of interesting reasons for why it might
have been the worst. But I think people are
still trying to tease out — there was also mercury
poisoning from volcanos, and the ozone layer
was destroyed. So, yeah, it just wasn’t
a good time to be around.>>Audience Member
3: Thank you –>>Peter Brannen: Sure.>>Audience Member 3:
— absolute disaster.>>Audience Member 4: So, it seems like with
every extinction, an underdog character from
the previous era turns out in the next cycle to
be the dominant species. So, is there characteristics
of what happens in the first realm — like
before the big extinction that causes them to become
the dominant species, and is there a species
we should be aware of that’s going to
take our place?>>Peter Brannen: Well,
I think if you’re simple and a generalist and
sort of a — like you — like a rat or a raccoon. Like, we sort of
scoff at them today. But who knows? They might just be waiting,
waiting the clock out.>>John Haskell:
That’s a great question.>>Peter Brannen: So, yeah, in the first mass
extinction — that’s good. It’s called the sea
without fish, because you had all these
weird sort of creepy, crawly bug-like things. And then, fish — that’s
recently been shown — radiate after that extinction. And we’re, you know,
we’re descendants of fish. And then, all these
super strange fish that were highly
specialized got wiped out in the next mass extinction. And then, things that are more
familiar to us come around. But yeah, dinosaurs were — had sort of a similar Horatio
Alger story, as mammals, where in the Triassic, they
were really being dominated — but the terrestrial
biosphere was dominated by these bizarre relatives of
crocodiles that did everything, and dinosaurs really
needed them to get wiped out first before they
could take up the planet. And then, we were — then, we
were next on deck and waited for 135 million years. So, yeah, these — it’s
these things that are — yeah, sort of generalists who
get really adaptive and clever at eking out a living,
kind of, I guess. Because you need
to eke out a living when the stuff hits the fan.>>Audience Member 4: Thank you.>>Audience Member 5: Hi. I was just wondering what your
perspective is on the burning of the Amazon rainforest
right now.>>Peter Brannen: I
think it’s horrifying. I read a story that was written
by another science journalist, James Temple, at MIT
Technology Review, where he said that there’s this —
could be this feedback, this runaway feedback
where the — because the Amazon
supplies its own weather, because trees are
evapotransporating and creating clouds and things
like that, that if you wipe out a certain percentage
of the Amazon, you then get into this drying out feedback,
where the whole thing could go. And that might be at 20 to
24 percent of deforestation, and we’ve deforested 17 percent. So, we might be getting
close to this threshold. I wrote a story that
came out this week about how this is all horrible, and we need to stop
it immediately, but that oxygen actually
isn’t a concern. And I think some people thought
— took that the wrong way and thought I was saying, it’s
all — don’t worry about it. But no, it’s an incredibly
biodiverse place. It’s the largest
tract of rainforest, and humanity should
do everything in its power to save it.>>Audience Member 5: Thank you.>>Audience 6: So a couple of — I read an article by a
guy named Mark P. Mills, energy researcher
with a think tank. I can’t remember the think tank,
but I was a little skeptical of it from the get-go, but the
article was about the comparison of solar and wind to fossil
fuels, and he was arguing that the materials it
takes to make solar panels and wind turbines
kind of end up — the mining of those materials
are offsetting the carbon savings that it brings
over fossil fuels. Can you speak to that
comparison at all?>>Peter Brannen: I think
he probably was not arguing in good faith. It is true, that it
takes awhile to — so I think for a wind turbine, at least this was
true a few years ago. Maybe it’s less than that now. But it takes six years
to offset the carbon from the production
for wind turbines. So, it’s true, but then you’re
never using fossil fuels ever again. So, there are some upfront
costs, but there’s also — you know, there’s no
doubt that solar and wind and nuclear use less carbon
dioxide than burning carbon. So, I don’t know. I’ve never read anything
persuasive to the contrary, but I’d be interested — it
is true that the materials, these rare metals, are going
to be very difficult to get, and if we don’t plan it well
from the start, it could be, you know, sort of this,
Colonial-Imperial sort of thing, where we’re just
going to countries and taking their stuff. And so — and destroying the
environment in the meantime. So, we do have to — from
the outset, if we’re going to be using new energy sources, make sure that we’re
doing it the right way. But we need to stop
burning fossil fuels, unless a completely magic CO2
sucking technology is invented in the next two decades. But I don’t think
that’s going to happen.>>John Haskell: We have
time for one or maybe two, if you’re — if we’re quick. Go for it.>>Audience Member 7: The
question is whether we’re in a sixth mass extinction?>>Peter Brannen: Yeah.>>Audience Member 7: Does that
paper represent the consensus of the paleontological
community or — because I thought there
was a debate about whether or not we’re in one currently, based on current
background extinction rates and historical –>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. No, no. So, it’s a subtle
paper, because he argues that the rate might
actually be similar to these mass extinctions. But to achieve a 90
percent species loss, he just projects
that forward in time. And he makes the proviso that there might be
unforeseen tipping points. So, I don’t think anyone
would tell you that we’re — it’s already as bad
as the End-Cretaceous or anything like that. But it could be. And that’s terrifying,
because these are crazy events. Yeah. I hope that helps.>>John Haskell: So, quick
question and quick answer and then, we have to wrap it up.>>Audience Member 8: So, just to maybe go more
of a positive note –>>John Haskell:
Last question, yeah. The gentleman is asking now.>>Audience Member 8: What
can we do, as simple people, to kind of prevent
a lot of this?>>Peter Brannen: Well, you
said on a positive note, and I think I’ve
given the impression that my book’s incredibly
depressing, and it’s not.>>John Haskell: You’re right. It’s not.>>Peter Brannen: Okay. But I think a lot of
these decision do have to be made at the top. And so, I think voting
is probably as — is the most important thing. [ Applause ] It’s great if you’re using,
you know, nice light bulbs and have solar panels on your
house, but this has to be — everyone has to be pulling in the same direction
as, you know, a society. And so, when we’re
planning out how we’re going to start getting energy in the
coming decades, it really has to be — you know,
those decisions — as virtuous as you are, as
a consumer, you’re not going to build, you know, a giant
wind farm in the ocean. That is sort of a
decision that has to be made by the higher-ups.>>John Haskell: Well,
Peter, thanks for coming.>>Peter Brannen: Yeah. Thank you.>>John Haskell: It was
a pleasure talking — [ Applause ]

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