Paleoclimatology: What’s Past May Not Be Prologue

Sep 17, 2018


Most people have heard the most famous line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “What’s past is prologue”. It’s often used to imply that history determines the future. But the real meaning is made clearer by the line that follows: “What to come, in yours and my discharge”.

What it means in context is that all of the past leads to this moment. And all that will happen depends on what we choose to do right now.

In the play it’s a deliberation on a plot to kill the king. To me, this quote effectively defines the state of the current global climate crisis.

I study climates of the past, prior to human intervention, using ocean sediments and ice cores. These geologic records document the magnitude and rates of natural climate variability over time. To forecast we must understand what controlled past changes.

But our actions have radically changed the equation. Adding massive volumes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is resetting the earth’s natural rhythms, and the changes are happening frighteningly fast.

“What’s past is prologue. What to come in yours and my discharge.” It’s the actions we take right now that will determine the state of our children’s world. In Shakespeare’s Tempest, no murder takes place, and all ends happily. Will we be so wise as to lay down our carbon energy swords, choosing, instead, the sustainable path? It’s in yours and my discharge.

I’m Reed Scherer and that’s my perspective