Is more CO2 beneficial for Earth's ecosystems?
We should emit as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as possible and oppose efforts to regulate CO2 emissions, because more CO2 is good for the Earth. That's the take-home message of an audacious TV ad that was run this fall by the advocacy group, CO2isgreen.com. "Higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the Earth's ecosystems, and support more plant and animal life", the ad proclaims.
It's the brainchild of H. Leighton Steward, a retired oil industry executive, and Corbin J. Robertson, Jr., chief executive and leading shareholder in Natural Resource Partners, a Houston-based owner of coal resources that lets other companies mine, in return for royalties. According to an article in the Washington Post, the ad ran this fall in New Mexico and Montana, which have key Congressmen that CO2isgreen.com hopes to sway. The ads form part of a major PR campaign being waged by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in advance of the crucial U.N. Climate Change Conference, which will be held December 7 - 18 in Copenhagen, Denmark. At that meeting, the leaders of the world will gather to negotiate an agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The new agreement will be the world's road map for dealing with climate change, and the stakes are huge.
Figure 1. Screen shot of the new ad by the advocacy group CO2isgreen.com.
Let's consider the scientific accuracy of the ad's three main points:
1) "Congress is considering a law that would classify CO2 as pollution. This will cost us jobs".
Well, this is a reasonable concern. Fossil fuels represent the foundation upon which modern civilization is built. The marvelous inventions of civilized life that have brought increased health, lifespan, and prosperity to billions of people are largely due to the use of fossil fuels. Regulating CO2 and moving to non-fossil fuel based energy sources won't be cheap or easy, and there is a potential for significant economic harm if our politicians bungle the job. The fossil fuel industry employs millions of people, and some of these jobs will no doubt be lost as new "green" energy sources are developed. However, the longer-term economic benefits of moving to a less fossil fuel-intensive economy, plus the jobs created as a result, must be weighed against the shorter term economic disruption that may occur.
2) "There is no scientific evidence that CO2 is a pollutant".
Webster's dictionary defines a pollutant as "man-made waste that contaminates an environment". Webster's defines "contaminate" as "to make inferior or impure". CO2 is man-made waste, and there is scientific evidence that added CO2 can make our atmosphere "inferior" to its present state, or else the EPA would not be considering regulations. As just one example, when CO2 is dissolved in the oceans, the water grows more acidic. Corals and other creatures that build shells out of calcium carbonate cannot form their shells if the acidity passes a critical level--their shells will dissolve. Thus, for these organisms, CO2 is definitely a pollutant. Several shell-building planktonic organisms, such as coccolithophorids, pteropods, and foraminifera, form an important basis of the food chain in cold ocean waters, and the continued increase in CO2 emissions have many scientists very concerned about a collapse of the oceanic food chain in these regions in coming decades. Presumably, CO2isgreen.com is taking the very narrow view that a pollutant is something that harms human health when breathed. The more important question is, how does CO2 emitted by fossil fuel generation, plus all the effects that come with it, impact human health and the health of Earth's ecosystems?
3) "Higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the Earth's ecosystems, and support more plant and animal life".
It is true that many plants grow faster under enhanced CO2--the so-called "CO2 fertilization effect". Just ask your neighborhood commercial indoor marijuana grower, who probably grows his or her plants in an enhanced CO2 environment. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that crop yields under unstressed conditions increased by 0 - 25% for a doubling of CO2, and that growth of young tree stands also increased. However, the IPCC noted that ground level ozone pollution will limit the CO2 fertilization effect. Ozone pollution is caused by emissions from fossil fuel burning, and will increase in a warmer world since the chemical reactions that create ozone act more efficiently at higher temperatures. Furthermore, the higher temperatures, increased drought, and increased insect pests that added CO2 is likely to bring to the atmosphere via greenhouse effect warming will induce major stresses to plants that will counteract the CO2 fertilization effect. A 2009 paper by Battisti and Naylor in Science titled, "Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat", reported that the 2003 heat wave in Europe--featuring temperatures predicted to be the norm by the end of the century--reduced harvests of fruits and grains by 21 - 36%. The 2007 IPCC report noted, "even slight warming decreases yields in seasonally and low latitude regions". Most of the world's population at risk of starvation live in such regions (e.g., sub-Saharan Africa).
To get more CO2 in the air, we have to mine, transport, and burn fossil fuels, and potentially fight wars to protect them. This creates a host of effects highly detrimental to people and ecosystems:
1) Particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides emitted as a result of burning coal and operating motor vehicles cause over $118 billion in health and other damages per year in the U.S., according to a Congressionally-ordered National Academy of Sciences study released last month. The study said this was a "substantial underestimate", as it did not consider climate change-related costs, or pollution emissions from a wide variety of other sources.
2) Oil and natural gas drilling and oil spills have had catastrophic effects on many ecosystems over the past century, and will continue to do so. Coal mining via mountaintop removal has laid waste to vast regions of the Appalachians, obliterating over 700 miles of rivers and streams. Failures of slurry ponds dams such as the one that failed in December 2008 in Tennessee have contaminated numerous ecosystems, and killed hundreds (the Buffalo Creek, WV dam failure of 1972 killed 125, and a 1966 slurry pond dam failure in Aberfan, Wales killed 144, including 126 schoolchildren). The Physicians for Social Responsibility put out a report this week called Coal's Assault on Human Health that details many more examples of how coal is bad for ecosystems and human health.
3) Coal mining accidents killed 65 miners in the U.S. in 2006, and kill tens of thousands of miners worldwide each year (China has averaged 6,000 deaths per year this decade). Tens of thousands of miners contract black lung disease each year, as well.
The Greening of Planet Earth
Fossil fuel industry-funded Public Relations campaigns focusing on the benefits of CO2 for life on Earth are nothing new. In 2006, I blogged about a TV ad run by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) that proclaimed, "as for carbon dioxide, it isn't smog or smoke, it's what we breathe out and plants breathe in. Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.". In 1991, coal giant Western Fuels founded an organization called "The Greening Earth Society" which spent $250,000 to produce the video, "The Greening of Planet Earth" (available on Youtube). The 30-minute movie features scientists who describe in glowing terms the tremendous increases in plant growth that will occur due to increased CO2. Set to appropriately stirring music, the movie concludes: "The future also holds great promise. And contributing to this promise is the positive effect that carbon dioxide has upon our world. Crop plants will continue to grow more productively, contributing to ever-greater supplies of food. Forests will extend their ranges. Grasses will grow where none grow now. And great tracts of barren land we be reclaimed. In fact, it is not inconceivable that the vitality of our biosphere could rise by a full order of magnitude over the next few centuries, to a new, greening Planet Earth". According to Boston Globe investigative reporter Ross Gelbspan in his book The Heat is On, the movie was shown extensively in Washington D.C. and in the capitals of OPEC nations, and was the favorite movie of President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu. It's interesting to note that The Greening Earth Society shares the same mailing address and fax number as the Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), a fossil fuel industry front group that was given $35 million to fight climate change regulation in 2008. According to the creators of desmogblog.com, a website dedicated to "Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Science", that money, plus an extra $5 million, was shuffled to a new industry front group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), and used to help fund the "Clean Coal" TV ads that dominated the airwaves during the November 2008 election. The details are in the excellent new book, Climate Cover-up, written by desmogblog.com co-founder James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore.
The CO2isgreen.com ad is beautifully produced, with multiple windows depicting flowing pictures of flowers blooming, animals grazing, crops growing, and the sun shining over these grand scenes of nature's bounty, all set to the soothing sound track of some slick New Age music. Who wouldn't want to live in such a world? Unfortunately, this is a fantasy world created by fossil fuel industry Public Relations people, and we live in the real world where physics and science rule. Oil is not clean, coal is worse, and the extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels that accompany the enhanced-CO2 world we live in are already causing massive environmental destruction. Add in the immense environmental damage likely to occur as a result of the coming climate change storm, and the fantasy that more CO2 will be good for the world dissolves into a nightmare for a huge proportion of Earth's ecosystems--and the people who depend upon them for life.
Hacked emails purport to show climate scientists' cover-up
A hacker broke into an email server at the Climate Research Unit of the UK's University of East Anglia this week and posted ten years worth of private email exchanges between leading scientists who've published research linking humans to climate change. Realclimate.org has an interesting response to the debacle, saying the emails are a "presumably careful selection of (possibly edited?) correspondence dating back to 1996 and as recently as Nov 12)". They show one example of a "cherry-picked" distortion of one of the emails that global warming contrarians are using to try to discredit the science of climate change, and successfully refute the distortion, in my mind. The realclimate groups adds:
"More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to "get rid of the Medieval Warm Period", no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no "marching orders" from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. But if cherry-picked out-of-context phrases from stolen personal emails is the only response to the weight of the scientific evidence for the human influence on climate change, then there probably isn't much to it".
There's not a person alive who would not look bad if their private emails made public, taken out of context, and subjected to attack. The reputations of all the scientists involved will suffer, as will understanding of the science of climate change. Global warming contrarians have not been able to effectively dispute the reality of human-caused climate change by publishing peer-reviewed scientific articles, so they've done what any effective (and unethical) politician would do--resort to personal attacks of dubious merit on their opponents, in an attempt to muddy the waters and distract people from the facts. That's politics, and it's not too surprising to see this sort of ugly episode in a game where the stakes are so high.
None of the so-called "smoking gun" emails the contrarians are excited about change what I pointed out in in my previous post: Arctic sea ice was at a new record low this month, human-emitted greenhouse gases are largely to blame, and the polar ice cap is expected to melt by 2030, throwing the climate into a dangerous new unstable mode.
I'll have a new post on Monday.