19 Nov 2019

On Plate Tectonics

The theory of plate tectonics is much more recent than our understanding of climate change. It was first postulated by Alfred Wegener in 1912, and what he talked about came to be known as continental drift. I can still remember learning about this phenomenon at school in the 1960s. Around that time other researchers took Wegener's hypothesis and ran with it so that soon theories started appearing about just how vast Continents could actually move around on top of the Earth’s crust.

Plate Tectonics postulates that there are nine major plates and many little ones and that they are essentially floating around, bumping into each other, and over many millions of years, they are shifting quite long distances around the planet's surface. For instance, the largest plate, made up pretty much of the Pacific Ocean, is currently moving northwards at a rate of 7cm/annum. It seems incredible, but it has quickly become accepted as a scientific fact. In comparison, the basics of climate change theory was established in the 19th century and is in many ways far more readily understandable as it's all down to demonstrable physics.

Why are there no plate tectonic deniers? Good question, but the answer is very easy to spot. We have no part in its processes — other than suffering the consequences when the colliding plates periodically erupt. 

And what consequences do we suffer. This century has already witnessed two terrifying tsunamis: the 2004 Indonesia event killed 230,000 and the 2011 Japan tsunami killed 20,000, not to mention devastating Fukishima nuclear reactor. Besides these, we have also suffered 13 earthquakes with death tolls above 1,000– the worst ones being Haiti 2010 (300,000), China 2008 (87,000) and Pakistan 2005 (87,000). All since the year 2000: about a million deaths, all through people happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In contrast, the most severe storms rarely result in huge death tolls. Typically a really awful hurricane or typhoon may cause deaths in the low thousands, but nothing compared to the devastation caused by earthquakes. Unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, people know about storms before they arrive and take defensive action. Similarly with wildfires. They may look horrific, but most people are able to evade the flames. When there are death tolls, they are measured in the tens, not the tens of thousands.

Even if the number of typhoons and hurricanes and wildfires were to double in frequency and intensity over the coming decades, which most climate scientists predict, the resulting death tolls are unlikely to come close to the damage caused by our tectonic plates shifting. Other effects of climate change are more subtle and long lasting, mostly to do with weather patterns changing and people being forced to move to different regions because of droughts and desertification, but events like this rarely get into the headlines.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the death tolls from extreme events, whether climate-related or not, are as much a feature of the ability and wealth of the local population. The reason 300,000 people died in Haiti in 2010 was not because their earthquake was so much worse than others (it was a 7.0 event on the Richter scale, high but by no means exceptional), but because Haiti is so poor that the population weren't able to protect themselves either from the quake or the devastation left behind afterwards. 

That poor countries get knocked sideways by events which wealthy countries take in their stride is a truism that keeps cropping up. It is frequently used as an argument for re-distribution of wealth from rich countries to poor ones. This may be equitable and even desirable, but the way the political winds are blowing, it seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

This is the main reason that the climate change "debate" is so terribly charged. Whereas what plate tectonics throws at us is not in our control, climate change has our fingerprints all over it and so we have to take responsibility for the consequences. Let's rephrase that. We ought to take responsibility for it. To date, all we've really done it talk about it a lot and make a few tentative steps towards reducing our CO2 footprint.

Arguably, the two phenomena are not really quite so different. Whereas we cannot be held responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, these events can be mitigated against through pre-planning and good building codes. And these are things you get right when there is wealth and good politics.

As an endnote, it is worth considering that globally over 1million people die each year in road accidents, and most of them are young and physically fit. If things carry on this way, that will be over 100 million deaths this century, a figure which far outweighs the likely death toll from plate tectonics. In all probability is also likely to be far higher than deaths arising from the effects of climate change. Road accident deaths are very much in our control. We could restrict car speeds to 20mph which would reduce road deaths by 90%, but we choose not to because we value speed so highly. Is there a parallel here with CO2 emissions? 

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