top of page

The Last Time The Climate Changed

Today's post is a story about the last time the Earth warmed as it is warming now. Looking back to such a time provides a uniquely evocative perspective on the urgency of climate change and offers a basis for hope. Suggestions for taking positive action on climate change also are offered.

The Last Time the Climate Changed

By Rick Johnson


Before you lived where you live now…

Before anyone lived where they live now, or lived anywhere else….

Before there were any humans anywhere on earth…


Before there was a pet fish named Colette…

or a cat named Oreo…

or a rhinoceros beetle named Yuki…

or a dog named Rio…

before any modern animals, birds, and fish existed at all…


Before the Himalayan Mountains existed…

or the Andes Mountains…

or the Atlas Mountains…

or Mt. Fuji…

or Mt. Kilimanjaro…

was the last time the Earth’s climate changed like it may be changing now.


The last time the climate changed…

the weather was humid and tropical above the Arctic Circle,

with ancient crocodiles, palm trees, and sharks!

Around Antarctica, the ocean was almost like bath water,

and there were tropical forests at the South Pole!


Back then, if we stood where Earth’s tropics are today—

where it is always warmest, no matter the eon—

we might feel very alone,

standing, waiting for an animal to skitter,

or something to rustle in the bushes.

But it was so hot—around 50°C (122°F)—

maybe there were no bushes or animals…

just a hot, lonely wind.


To feel the danger, and the promise, of our own times,

we must go back, and back, and back again,

56 million years ago, or so…

to that distant last time…

when the globe warmed like it is warming now.

Imagine Earth’s atmosphere back then…

carrying a humungous load of around 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2)…

staggering like an over-burdened mule.


Our own atmosphere could be that same over-burdened mule

by the end of this century.


The last time the climate changed,

it took thousands of years to over-burden the mule.

But, this time, human activities are raising CO2 levels about 10 times faster

than when there were crocodiles and palm trees in the Arctic!


CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

Imagine you are lying in a hammock on a warm sunny day.

Then, someone puts a blanket over you, then another, then another, then another…

You’d be very uncomfortable, wouldn’t you?


That’s what greenhouse gases do to Planet Earth…

they hold heat in the atmosphere, rather than letting it escape into space.

As greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere, the temperature on Earth rises.


If Earth’s climate becomes as warm as it was 56 million years ago, does that mean there will be crocodiles and palm trees at the North Pole again?


No one really knows what might happen, because there’s a big difference about the way our climate is changing now.


The last time the climate changed, the average temperature on Earth increased slowly—about 1°C every 4000 years. Although the total rise in temperature over thousands of years was extreme, it happened gradually. Even so, many species became extinct, and new species, including mammals, developed.


What’s different about the way our climate may change now, is that Earth’s average temperature may rise 1-4°C over 100 years! Nothing like that happened the last time the climate changed.


How fast can plants, animals, birds, and fish adapt to such rapid change?

How well do you think humans can adapt?


There’s one more giant difference between the last time the climate changed and how it’s changing now. Volcanoes and other natural processes released the CO2 that started the climate change 56 million years ago.


This time, however, humans are the primary cause of the rapid increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere.


That’s actually a reason for hope about climate change now. We know what is happening. People are able to make changes that can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


So, when you see that polar ice and glaciers are melting…

and it seems that big storms, floods, and wildfires are getting more frequent…

and coral reefs are endangered by warming oceans…

and the rising sea level threatens coastal villages and cities…

and animals everywhere struggle to adapt to the changing climate…


Remember, unlike the last time the climate changed…

We are here and know it is happening.

We can make a difference.

What will we do?


There are many individual actions we can take that have a positive impact on CO2 emissions and are helpful to the environment generally. Some of these are suggested on the following pages.


However, it’s also urgently important to understand that no one can stop climate change alone. Individuals, communities, institutions, and nations must learn to work together.


Our world is one interrelated system, with all its creatures, and weather, and air, and water, inseparably connected.


With respect for one another, consultation, and collaboration, we can together take effective action on climate change. That wasn’t possible the last time the climate changed.


Suggestions for Action-Oriented Kids, Teachers, Librarians, Parents and Others

All of humanity is affected by the changing climate, and can contribute to the solution. Here’s a few ways to have a direct impact on reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. You can make a difference now! All these projects are great for kids!

For all of the suggestions below, a process with these elements is best:

  • The more you can learn about what you want to do, the more success you’ll have. Many knowledgeable people are willing to offer advice, suggestions, and help.

  • Work with others—a group with many different backgrounds and cultures is best.

  • Focus on your neighborhood or local community. A grassroots project is a great way to attract interest, have impact everyone can see, and strengthen ongoing involvement.

  • Make sure that you involve and/or seek approval of land owners as appropriate.

  • Be prepared to work. It’s fun and everyone feels better when everyone does their part.

  • Make decisions through consultation, hoping to reach consensus in most cases.

  • Evaluate your progress regularly, and adjust your plans as you learn what works.

  • Make sure your consultation includes time to explore and reflect on differing cultural values and assumptions. Choose the path that best expresses unity in diversity.

  • Even if you have a big plan, start with small steps. Then expand as you gain experience.

Reconnect with the land and natural world

Identify parcels of trash-filled, eroded, or otherwise abused land. Consult with the owners of the land and, with their involvement and/or approval, develop a plan that would respect the land as a living thing that plays an important role in the natural system. In doing this, consider your neighborhood or community’s needs. What would be of greatest service to people?

Local Reforestation

Trees are natural CO2 sponges. Deforestation across the planet is contributing to the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere. Your own area likely has many fewer trees than it once had. Identify the tree species that were once native to your area and places where it would be possible to plant more trees. Set a goal of X number of trees to be planted, and consistently cared for, until they can survive on their own. Remember that, in addition to buying or transplanting seedlings, trees can also be started from seed. Don’t overlook your own yard!

Local Food Production

Providing food for people, especially in richer nations, produces high amounts of CO2 from highly energy-dependent farming practices, long distance transportation, and wasteful packaging. Explore ways that community gardening can be encouraged or expanded—either as a community effort, or as families and neighbors using their own land, or both! Learn about, and use, sustainable growing practices, including using recycled materials for planter beds and wastepaper and cardboard for mulch. You’ll be surprised how much food you can grow in your own neighborhood!

Background Resources

Join Cuppa Go Readers Around the World

It's Free And We Never Spam

bottom of page