The Importance of Context

If you had to write a paper about the history of the United States, how would you go about writing it? I imagine research would be your first step. You could visit a library, perform an online search, or look up articles in an academic database. All of these avenues of research would allow you to build a context on which to write your paper. Now, imagine you were limited to only using articles and sources that were written about events that have happened in the last two and a half hours. What would your paper look like? I imagine you would arrive at some very interesting conclusions, and the paper would most likely be very amusing to read.

As absurd as the situation above sounds, it is one of the challenges facing the current climate change discussion. According to many scientists the Earth is 4.54 billion years old; however, human records only stretch back 5,600 years. That 5,600 year span of time represents roughly 1/803,571th of the total age of the Earth. For context, 1/803,571th of the age of the United States is roughly equal to two and a half hours.  As a species, our understanding of the history of the Earth’s climate, and the changes it has endured, is incredibly limited. We lack a meaningful context to measure climate change against, our experience as a species is too limited.

This lack of context does not make it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about climate change; however, we must take great care not to jump to conclusions based on data derived from an incomplete context.