We astronomers are trained to think long.
A hundred million years, a hundred thousand years — after a while these impossible-seeming time scales become so familiar you can kind of feel them in your bones.
That training also yields an unusual perspective on the daily events of politics. Sometimes, when I worry about this vote or that court decision, I think about how people in Imperial Rome (2,000 years ago), Song Dynasty China (1,000 years ago) or the Iroquois Confederacy (400 years ago) must have had similar worries over the events and personalities of their day. The wheel of cosmic and planetary history is always turning — and we only get our turn on it for a moment. That is why almost everything we do will be forgotten in just a few thousand years.
The Trump administration's decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord will have consequences that will not be measured in election cycles or decades or even generations. The Earth, it turns out, thinks long, too. Some of the CO2 dumped into the atmosphere today (via fossil fuels) will be washed out of the climate system on time scales of hundreds of thousand years. But even more important is that once the ball gets rolling, in terms of shifting Earth out of a stable climate state — like the one we've been in since the last ice age 10,000 years ago — the ride goes on for a long, long time.
Planets are big, powerful, complex systems — and they operate with their own logic and their own clocks. So while most of what this administration does will not be remembered in a few thousand years, its shortsighted decision to step out of the Paris accord is different. It may be a tragedy that echoes down our history for as long as we have one.
Achieving the Paris accord was a delicate and difficult endeavor. Across the long story of our civilization, we've never faced something like climate change. It's global. It's long term. It affects everyone, and everyone is responsible in some way. These are all radical new ideas for our relatively young civilization. Getting virtually every nation in the world (only Syria and Nicaragua did not sign) to face up to the science and do something, no matter how small, was an achievement. It was a significant step forward in our maturing as a planetary species.
It was a major win for our cherished project of civilization.
Pulling away from those accord is the opposite. It only happens because our leaders willfully ignore the overwhelming evidence provided to them by their own science agencies. Saying climate change is a hoax, or that no one thinks it's worth worrying about, requires a special kind of magical thinking, a special kind of determined self-delusion and self-destructiveness.
But more than anything, it is just plain folly. Folly, as historian Barbara Tuchman showed, means pursuing policies against your own interest. Projects of civilization, like the governments Tuchman explored in her The March of Folly, don't fare well under folly. Instead they require maturity — adults in the room — who see things for what they are and who will make difficult choices.
On Thursday, folly won — and now we face the consequences.
Under even the most charitable assessments, climate change is going to stress the deeply interconnected world we've built. There is a great deal of fragility in the multiple overlapping networks on which our project of civilization depends (food, energy, economic, communication). If things fall on the "really hard" side of the spectrum, then consequences like a collapse of those systems is not unimaginable.
That's why Thursday, the day a U.S. administration choose to pull out of the Paris climate accord, may end up being unlike any other in our long collective history. While it might be possible to repair the damage with a new administration, the ball will already be rolling downhill toward dissolution and away from structured, organized response. Everything will be harder.
In that way, we may have reached a split in the road of our fate — and we have taken ourselves down the wrong path. While those alive today might want to forget the consequences of Thursday's decision, the future will not have that option. The future will not be able to forget.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4