A big picture snapshot

– A friend wrote me the other day about CO2 and said that most of the folks who are out there talking about CO2 and its dangers sound a bit like Chicken Little.  He said there must be places out there on the web where one can get a more balanced presentation of the issues.  And asked if I could direct him to such.

– I’m not sure I answered his questions as effectively as I might have.  I could have, for instance, done some research and tried to find web sites for him with more balanced presentations around CO2 and its issues.

– But, instead, I decided to tell him how and why the debate over CO2 has gotten to be so shrill and why many folks these days are sounding like Chicken Little.

– I think the explanation of why things have gotten so shrill is well worth repeating to a wider audience and so I’ve reproduced my friend’s questions and my responses below.

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Dennis,

I know your position on global warming.   Here are my thoughts:   First any thing that would get us untangled from the Middle East and every one else that we buy oil from would be a godsend.   Most people don’t realize that Canada and Mexico are our biggest suppliers.   Being tied to any other country the way we are is a bad thing.   I don’t think the oil/coal industries will are willing to have any change in the status quo until the last ounce of oil and coal is gone.   I think they control, to one extent or another, our government.   I believe that without their influence, we would have made massive changes by now.

Now, I would like to understand more about CO2.  I am not ignorant of the chemistry or of the geological history.   My problems is when I hear the side describing the downsides of CO2 they are so one sided that they sound like Chicken Little.

Even though the CO2 increase has great potential for mass disruption of the world’s ecological balance, there must be a little of this that is being balanced by natural processes.   Perhaps,  just not at a rate that we can accept.   Could you send me some web sites with a little balance?

Dave C.

=== and my response:

Dave,

You are right.  The oil/gas/coal industries are not going to recognize the global climate change effects their products produce.   If they did, it would cost them personally a pile of money.   And yes, they do have a huge effect on governments all over the world – especially the U.S. government.

Your question about CO2 is an excellent one and I wish I could do a better job of answering it.

When you say that the people describing the coming problems from rising CO2 levels sound like Chicken Little, I have to agree.   But, you need to also reflect on how the situation got to be like that.

First off, think about the fact that scientific discoveries don’t usually come up for public debate.

And consider that science comes up with some wild and almost unbelievable discoveries fairly often.   Take Dark Matter and Dark Energy for two things.   And Quantum Physics and all of its weird ideas like entanglement and action at a distance.   And the fact that really small things like electrons are not really in one place or another but rather exist in a small cloud of probability that hovers near where we think it actually is.  And how about relativity with its ideas that time slows down as your speed get closer and closer to the speed of light?

All that stuff was discovered by science and it beggared the imagination for most of us.  But people (most of them anyway), didn’t stand up and begin to argue passionately against these new findings.

And almost EVERYTHING you and I see around us in the world today is the product of science.   Telephones, electronics, plastics, microwaves, space shuttles, nylon and the list could go on and on for years.  It is hard to find much that we use that isn’t in some way or another the direct product of science and scientific research.   Not many people will stand up and claim that the chemistry that led to developing nylon is wrong.  Or that the laws describing voltage, current and resistance are wrong.

So what’s different about science’s findings about global climate change?

Well, you already said it.   It’s the money.  It’s the vested interests.  It’s what folks will stand to lose if the theories about CO2 and global climate change are true.  And it is big.  If this stuff is true, it means nothing less than that we have to simply reorganized how we do business on this Earth.  Almost everything about how most of us live is going to have to change some if we want to continue to live on this planet without turning it into a hell.

So, that’s a big big change that will result if we listen to what the scientists are saying.  It’s going to cost big oil/gas/coal billions of dollars.  It’s going to change the geopolitical balance between nations, it’s going to mean that ordinary folks like you and I and Joe Six-pack are all going to have to do things differently.

But nobody likes to lose money, nobody likes to lose political power and nobody likes to change their familiar and comfortable life-style.   Joe Six-pack doesn’t want to hear that his big two smoke-stack turbo diesel truck is bad for the planet and we can’t afford to have it running around any more.  The folks making money cutting down the Amazon rain forest don’t want to hear it.  The fishermen fishing the fish in the sea into extinction don’t want to hear it.   The folks buying cheap shit at Wal-Mart, don’t want to hear it.

And that brings these findings of the scientists right smack up against human nature.

And that human nature doesn’t want to change and it will begin to squirm and look for every reason and excuse it can to dodge the bullet and to avoid having to change, or lose money or whatever it is.

When the scientists decided that 70% of the entire universe was made of dark matter a few years ago, no one demonstrated in the streets or began to talk against it on the Rush Limbaugh show.   It didn’t get into anyone’s back pocket – so they didn’t care.

But CO2 and Global Climate Change is going to get into all our back pockets – big time.

Let me take you back and give you some history.   I learned what I’m going to tell you from a book entitled, Red Sky at Morning by Gustave Speth.

In the 1970’s, environmentalists in the U.S. were just beginning to push their efforts to get laws passed like the Clean Air Act and the Food and Drug Laws.  The public was mildly interested and industry was ignoring all of it.   Then Three Mile Island and a few other things all happened at about the same time and suddenly the public was very hot to support environmental protection laws.  The result was that a lot of laws about protecting the air and the water and such were all passed at once before the industry folks were really awake to what was happening.

Industry lost a lot of money because of all of these new laws and they vowed to never be asleep at the wheel again.

About 10 years later, in the 1980’s, the environmentalists began to realize that they could not protect the entire world by just passing good laws in the U.S.   They needed to expand their efforts and begin to fight for environmental protection laws that would be international in scope.  By the early 90’s the alarms were being sounded that we needed to do some things internationally or we, as a species, and as a planet, were going to have big problems.

But this time industry was not asleep.   They’d been burned once by not paying attention.   Now, every time an effort was mounted to increase environmental protection globally, industry looked at the proposed laws and if they could see that such a law was going to cost them big money, they mobilized to confuse people and to prevent the political will from developing to pass such a law.

This cat and mouse game has been going on for two decades now.   At first the scientists simply published the results of the scientific research in papers.  They trusted that people would be smart enough to see the writing on the wall.   But, industry confused people and confused the issues.  They published counter studies that seemed to show the opposite conclusions.

So scientists and environmental activists began to talk louder trying to get their messages and warnings out.  And industry fought back harder.  And the entire thing escalated up and up.

Most scientists now think that the entire “Global Climate Change is because of CO2” issue has been definitively proven over and over beyond the shadow of any doubt.   But the public doesn’t think that.   They are still deeply confused by the mis-information industry has been putting out for just that purpose – to confuse them and to therefore prevent political will from developing that could result in some real laws getting passed.

What’s going on in Copenhagen now is a great example.   Many people think that awareness of our environmental problems has finally gotten to the point where the world’s leaders might actually come together and try to do something real to prevent a major environmental and climate disaster.   And then, two weeks before the conference, the other side unleashes a major campaign to throw doubt on the scientific conclusions and to mess the entire conference up.

And, I fear, they are doing a pretty good job.   Frankly, I think we’re toast and I’ve thought so for a long time.   Human nature is just too predictable and to easily manipulated.   Those who want to convince the public that the climate science is wrong actually have a pretty easy time of it because Joe Six-pack and folks like him would prefer to believe that nothing’s going on because it is way easier than thinking about the fact that they might have to change their consumerist lifestyles.

So yeah, some folks are sounding like shrill Chicken Littles.  Why?  Because it is a damn desperate situation and the world is likely to go into the toilet in spite of the very best efforts of the environmentalists.  And they are worried about it.

After reading over what I’ve written here, I realize that I’ve only partially answered what you actually asked.  You asked for some balance on the question of how CO2 is processed by the environment.

There are a lot of answers to that because, as you can imagine, the world’s climate and biosphere is a wickedly complex system.   But, here are a few of the high points:

– The level of CO2 in the atmosphere hasn’t been this high in 6 million years.

– The current swift rise in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is faster than anything we can see in the climate records back for 6 million years.

– This rise corresponds with the rise of industrial civilization.   It begins in the climate record just about the time industrialization began when the English started building factories in the 1840’s or so and it increases in the climate record in pace with the increasing rise in industrial production.

– The denialists say that the rise in CO2 is a natural thing and has nothing to do with the CO2 humans are putting into the air.   I find that an amazing idea.   It’s like saying, “I just tromped down on the gas pedal and now the car is going really fast.”   And then having someone tell you that it’s just a coincidence and that the gas pedal has nothing to do with the acceleration.  Yeah, right.

– Nature does have some ability to absorb excess CO2.  The ocean absorbs a lot of it.  But, it cannot keep up with the rate we’re adding it to the air.   And, as the ocean absorbs it, the water becomes more acidic.  As it becomes more acidic, it makes it harder for ocean animals that have shells to make their shells because the acidification interferes with their chemistry.  At some point, this rise in dissolved CO2 is really going to mess with some huge food chains in the ocean.

– Plants and trees like CO2 and use and absorb it.  To a point.  Add a little more CO2 and a little more heat and they thrive.    But, add a bit more and they begin to weaken and wilt and their ability to absorb CO2 lessens.   This is true for the majority of plants and trees.   There are some exceptions but they are a minority and what really matters is what the majority of the world’s plants and trees are likely to do.  And what they are likely to do it not good.

– Big coal has been yammering on for years about CO2 sequestration.  But, in spite of many big public relations splashes, no one yet has made a full scale carbon sequestration plant that works.   In the mean time, China is building one or more coal fired dirty power production plants a week!   Much of the public thinks “clean coal” is either a done deal or very close.   It truth, it is miles and mile off and maybe we’ll never have it.

– The problem is bigger that just how much CO2 we’re putting into the air.  That’s bad and we can see it ramping up.  But, it is causing other problems much as one fire creates others as the embers fly.

– The arctic ice is melting and as it does, the white snow and ice disappear and the darker sea and land underneath become visible.  The white reflected heat back into space.   The darker stuff being exposed absorbs it.  So there’s more heating going on because of this and it, in turn, causes more ice and snow to melt.  It is a positive feed back cycle and it is beginning to get up onto legs of its own.

– Glaciers all over the world, with very few exceptions, are melting.  The winter snow falls that used to stay in the mountains and then melt in the summer are going away and that’s going to have a huge impact on human beings.  The summer water that millions need to grow crops and survive is going away, soon.  We’re talking most of the west coast of South America, the Southwestern U.S., Northern India and a huge swath across Central China from east to west.  We’ve never seen anything like the disruption and starvation that will result.

Dave, I’ve been reading this stuff for years and this is just a part of what I’ve read.  Scientists have no reason to make this stuff up.  But, folks who make big big bucks by keeping the world running as it is now have a huge motivation to not see and react to the coming global climate changes.  These folks have a lot of money and they think that even if there are big problems, they will have to money to hang out in nice villas up in the Alps and where ever while the rest of use starve and fight it out in the streets.

All they have to do is keep us confused so we won’t shut their party down.

Dennis

2 Responses to “A big picture snapshot”

  1. M says:

    Good summary. Here is something not directly related, but very interesting reading.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_extinction

    M

  2. Dennis says:

    M, I read the link. Interesting summary of all the ways we can go extinct. It doesn’t exactly stipulate my favorite, however. We will probably go extinct because we will not be able, as a species, to transcend our biological imperatives.

    Indeed, I suspect that it is rare in the universe for a species to attain higher intelligence AND to also make this transition. Hence, we hear nothing from the stars when we listen with SETI.

    Of course, the other reason we probably hear nothing from SETI is because, of those very few intelligent species who do make it past their technological adolescences, most must quickly proceed to also pass through inevitable cultural and technological singularities that take them far beyond our ken.