I've been glad to see the CO2/climate change topic coming up on SANET.
Climate change is an area in which Redefining Progress has been active for
some years. RP facilitated the Economists Statement on Climate Change, in
1997. Signed by 1,500 leading economists, including eight Nobel laureates,
the statement shifted the discussion from whether taking action on
human-induced climate change would bankrupt the US economy (no, it won't)
and toward what action to take, what benefits to expect, and how to
engineer policies to glean those benefits, rather than ignoring mounting
CO2 levels because it hurts people's brains to think that hard. :^)
But I write on my own nickel right now to discuss a few of the technical
issues that I see in the ongoing discussion of this topic.
Bart wrote recently:
>I am not trying to belittle concerns that present human activity may be
>contributing to present apparent warming trends, and the associated
>rise in atmospheric CO2 is incontrovertible, however Earth has
>undergone warmings (and coolings) substantially greater and more rapid
>than anything yet attributable to human activity.
That's not the point, or is rather something of a non sequitur. I any
particular 150-year period four billion years ago, the Earth might have
cooled or heated more than has been measured in the past 150-year period.
Uh, like--shaaa. We weren't around then. We are creatures adapted to a life
fabric on this planet that has evolved within extremely narrow ranges of
variability, and in the very recent past. The infrastructure upon which we
rely for our food and housing and sustenance was created within the blink
of an eye ago, geologically speaking.
The point about human-activity induced global warming--and any potential
climate change from that--is twofold. First, it's happening at a very rapid
pace. We are expecting the earth's systems to absorb a huge amount of
carbon excavated from the ground and thrown into the atmosphere pretty much
overnight, from the perspective of geological time. Yet we want to believe
that this won't have major impacts on the systems in which we have built
our sustenance over the longer haul of humanity (i.e., more than the past
Agriculture, for instance. It would be a grave, and mortal, and arrogant,
error for people to assume that the agriculture of the past 50 years is
sustainable. Agriculture is a millenniums-old phenomenon. We have built
human civilization around certain assumptions about climate and
weather--right down to where we locate cities and what food crops we
consume (think of the intricate dance of the breeding of cereal crops, for
example, and which early genotypes have been preserved...and which have
We see again and again in history that localized civilizations collapse
when they exceed the local resource base. What we're doing with
human-induced climate change (and other assaults on terrestrial
life-support systems) is playing out that overshoot on a global basis. The
CO2 that your car puts into the air today will show up in Antarctica very
soon. Just as the organophosphates you spray to disrupt an insect's nervous
system is going to affect the cholinesterase cycle of any critter that has
Second, with this explosion of fossil fuel consumption, humans are throwing
a huge measure of variability into a system upon which we have depended for
our evolution. This isn't a simple set of linear relationships. Oh look.
It's hot. Turn on the air conditioner. Even the most painstaking and
careful of the climate scientists (most of them) realize they are dealing
with a macro-systems phenomenon that defies precise prediction. Climate
ain't weather. It's easy for "contrarians" and "skeptics" to criticize
global climate scenarios and climate science, and say, smugly, "Well, how
come these scenarios are all so DIFFERENT? Huh? HUH? If those scientists
were so SMART the scenarios would be THE SAME." Which betrays the ignorance
of those who don't understand what scenarios are or how science works...but
Similarly, on this issue of global systems being nonlinear, the Western
Fuels Association/"Greening" Earth Society argument that CO2 seeds/feeds
plant life is microtechnically correct, but bone-headed from a macro
systems viewpoint. Yes, if you put a plant in a bell jar and pump CO2 in,
the likelihood of it stimulating that plant's growth, compared to a plant
not getting CO2, is no doubt higher. However, we're not dealing with bell
jars. We're dealing with a terrestrial ecosystem. The relationships between
life forms and the environment are not linear.
Human civilization--including agriculture--evolved in the past few
millennia within a relatively narrow context of temperature, CO2
concentration, and other ecosystem features that we tinker with at our
peril. Liberating millions of tons of carbon per year is within our
technical capacity. But it sets up a system that is different than the one
we, and other species, have depended upon for our survival. Not just
because there will be "more" carbon and "hotter" temperatures--and even if
we focus on the linear increases in average temperatures, the effects of
THOSE will be nonlinear. (For instance, it's likely that an overall warming
of the earth would cause northern Europe to become glacially cold because
of the way water and wind are cycled in and over the Atlantic Ocean.)
Current levels of atmospheric CO2 are documented to be higher than at any
time in the past 400,000 years, with a specific, globally documentable
upturn at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (when humans started
burning fossil fuels on a mass basis).
There is a simple, a priori point of context/perspective here. Mounting CO2
in the earth's atmosphere comes from humans pulling that carbon out of the
ground--where it was stored until the Industrial Revolution--and combusting
it, thus releasing it. Fossil fuels. That is a simple Second Law Of
Thermodynamics fact. (See The Natural Step for an alternative view on how
to transact a healthy, sustainable economy while respecting the SLT.) It
may be convenient for certain people to ignore it, but, like gravity, it is
always going to bring us back to reality eventually.
Say that the linear increase in atmospheric CO2 levels *DID* cause a linear
enhancement in plant growth--as Western Fuels spokesentity Fred Palmer (the
Dennis Avery of global climate change) insists. At some point, the plants
that take up this carbon will die. They rot. And the CO2 bound up in their
tissues is going to be liberated again. The carbon removed from the ground
(in the form of fossil fuels) remains above ground. Binding it up in plants
is a temporary solution at best.
The tragedy of this is that there are fair, just alternatives that can move
everyone in the fossil fuel industry to a non-carbon-based energy economy.
For instance, Redefining Progress advocates a revenue-based approach to
carbon emissions that would create a dedicated source of funding for
transition to a clean energy economy.
To hear Western Fuels' PR talk, that re-engineering isn't even a
possibility...and they don't even want to hear or think about the
possibilities. In fact "progress" itself is predicated on the burning of
fossil fuels. Greatness is equated with the consumption of non-renewable
resources, and the consumption of renewable resources beyond their capacity
to renew. Palmer goes so far as to say that success of the U.S.
specifically equals the burning of fossil fuels. That's not horribly
surprising, considering that he represents the fossil fuel industry. But it
is indeed outmoded perspective, belonging to the 18th century, not the 21st.
One more point on the sequestration-via-plants method. While I believe
there are advantages for farmers in using sequestration as a tool, I feel
it should be seen as a temporary approach, not a "solution." Here's why.
Is it reasonable to expect today's photosynthetic ecosystem--the
increasingly stressed and isolated islands of green on earth--to uptake the
carbon which has been dug and pumped out of the ground, and that will
continue to be dug and pumped out of the ground at an accelerated rate? I
don't see how--it strikes me as the Red Queen's Race.
Fossil fuel carbon reserves are the result of ancient photosynthesis--tens
of millions of years ago, when it's questionable whether the earth's
ecosystem would have supported what we consider a liveable climate. What we
recognize as the ecosystem, that which supports and sustains us, has
developed within certain tolerances and balances between sky and sea and
sun and earth.
And for sure, the earth is a lot less green now than it was in 1500. Even
if we "re-green" the entire earth to its pre-industrial plant coverage, the
fact remains that in pre-industrial times that level of greenery didn't
have to additionally take up millions of tons of carbon, dug out of the
ground. So there are layers and levels of conundrums here that PR
assertions (like "regreening") can't address.
Finally, CO2 is a persistent gas. It will take thousands of years before
the current, highly elevated levels of CO2 will be driven back down. In the
meantime, humans are spending carbon like there's no tomorrow (perhaps part
of the death wish at the heart of this idiotic consumption addiction?). It
is altogether reasonable to expect that atmospheric CO2 levels will double,
triple, even quadruple, by the time your grandchildren grow up. Listen up!
I want you to look at a baby, or a toddler--one in your own birth or
marriage family, or one on the street or in the park. In that person's
lifetime, he or she will have to deal with atmospheric CO2 levels
unprecedented in the past half million years or more.
People can argue endlessly about the esoterica of whether or not the earth
ever had heating or cooling periods, ice ages, desertification, etc. To me,
the point is pretty damn simple.
Humans have been digging something out of the ground that had been stored
there for vast millions of years, and ejecting it into the ecosystem upon
which they depend for their survival. Even though they came into being at a
time when that stuff wasn't in the ecosystem. If you think that isn't a
problem, then I'd hate to be around when you start your car in a garage, or
your furnace in the basement. And it isn't, at one level, appreciably
different than saturating one's environment with substances that disrupt
neurological functioning, now, is it?
Writing on my own nickel. Thanks for listening. It's been awhile since I've
had the chance for a Friday afternoon rumination. :^>
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