As scientific terms go, “climate change” is failing. Good terms are specific, descriptive and help people to understand complex concepts. Climate change is ambiguous, referring perhaps to the most pressing human-generated environmental problem of the century, or to other kinds of changes that happen through natural forces and have been going on since long before humans arose.
Last week I chatted with Columbia University paleontologist Dennis Kent about some new work he and his colleagues published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the surprisingly big influence of Venus and Jupiter on the climate of Earth. The gravitational tug of the second and fifth planets from the sun act to stretch Earth’s annual orbit like a rubber band, pulling it into a more oblong ellipse and then back to something very close to a perfect circle over a cycle of 405,000 years. And that leads to big changes in our climate – or the climate of whatever creatures lived here.