Questionnaire for the authors of: THE GOLDILOCKS PLANET The 4 Billion Year Story of Earth’s Climate-Oxford University Press

by: Posted on: July 14, 2012

Editor’s Note: The new book The Goldilocks Planet, published by Oxford University Press, details Earth’s climate history. Below are the responses to a questionnaire our own Simon Davis-Cohen put together for the authors Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams.

Jan and Mark are academics at the Geology Department of the University of Leicester.  Prior to that both Jan and Mark have worked at the British Geological Survey, while Mark has also worked at the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Portsmouth.  They investigate aspects of Earth’s environment including climate history, through the study of rock strata and the fossils they contain.


How can an understanding of the Earth’s climate history help us adapt to contemporary climate change?

It gives an indispensible deep-time context to what is happening with climate at present and what may happen in the years to come, such an understanding of human history can help us understand today’s political and economic situation and prepare for the future.

What do you feel is most underappreciated about Earth’s climate history?

The very different climate states of the past, when the Earth would have seemed (to us today) to be a different planet – and the speed at which some of the transitions between different climate states took place.

What’s the least-known, most interesting episode of Earth’s climate history?

There are many! – But one that we are particularly interested in is the ‘Early Palaeozoic Icehouse’ state of the Earth some 440 million years ago, which included a short, but very fierce glaciation that produced, in its wake, one of the Earth’s most profound mass extinction events.

If you were to teach an elementary school class about Earth’s climate history, what would be the take home message?

That the Earth’s climate makes our planet fit for life, and currently is just right for us – so we should learn as much as we can about it – and care for it.

The book title is reminiscent of Gaia theory. What do you think about Gaia theory, in general and in the context of climate change?

The Gaia Theory has been a controversial but very fruitful idea, because it has made us think harder about what governs the Earth’s climate.  Many scientists now think the Earth’s primary ‘thermostat’ to be inorganic (with carbon dioxide levels being controlled by rock weathering) – but life clearly exerts an enormous influence also, both directly and indirectly.

How has your understanding of the history of Earth’s climate impacted your perspective on climate change and your vision of the future?

Study of Earth’s history now shows us a number of examples of ancient climate change events associated with disturbances of the planetary carbon cycle.  Warming has usually happened geologically quickly, while recovery has typically taken many tens of thousands of years.  If we do succeed in altering the Earth’s climate as a by-product of our carbon-driven economy, then we will need to develop a very long-term perspective of our future.


P.S. From the editor:

Click here to read the authors’ recent post on Oxford University Press’ blog.

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