Carbon’s upside

By | August 16, 2007

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell has decided that the debate over global warming calls for a tax increase. Surprise, surprise!

Albert Einstein recalled in his later years a realization he had as a young boy: "Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle."

Einstein had unfortunately not met Al Gore or John Dingell, who now have it all figured out.

This 4.5 billion-year-old planet has been heating or cooling every minute of its existence. The notion that humans have substantially changed the world which we inherited is just vanity. Some among us cannot tolerate the notion that their mere presence has not changed it.

The popular notion is that humans burning fossil fuels increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus drives a dangerous increase in temperature. Pointing to ice core data, politicians have argued that past CO2 changes also caused large temperature changes. They conveniently fail to mention that the scientists who work on those ice cores know that the temperature changes actually preceded the CO2 changes — by about 400 to 800 years.

In the context of Earth’s history, today we are a carbon-starved planet. The 385 parts per million (ppm) CO2 levels today are at the lower range of comfort. The more welcoming levels of CO2, for both plants and animals, have been 2000 to 3000 ppm.

From 130 million years ago to 70 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the planet. They were fed by an outburst in plant life that thrived in an environment where CO2 levels were above 2000 ppm. 542 million years ago the planet experienced the Cambrian Explosion. In a five to ten million year period, all of the multicellular complex human and animal life forms appeared and have been found in the fossil evidence. What caused this to occur? Huge increases in oxygen. What delivered the oxygen? Huge increases in plant life. What caused that to occur? Huge increases in CO2. Where did it come from? The oceans from which CO2 was released due to a normal warming cycle.

We have witnessed, during the past 2 to 3 million years, a planet that has warmed or cooled about 20 times. Glaciations last about 100,000 years interrupted by warming periods that last about 10,000 years. During the glaciations, the ice sheets grow and the oceans drop. Life dies for lack of food. During the warming times the oceans rise, plant life increases and animal life thrives. Our oceans have been rising, by about 2 millimeters per decade, for 8,000 years.

If we are lucky, and the planet continues to warm, oceans will continue to rise. It may cause you to want to rebuild your house at the beach a bit further back from the ocean. But in 1,000 years, you will probably want to rebuild your house anyway.

With less water tied up in ice sheets, we will have more precipitation and, perhaps, two growing seasons. Farmers may even be able to feed all of the world’s hungry.

There are a variety of natural sources of climate change, none of which need mankind’s help. For example, a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters showed how small changes in the atmosphere’s circulation that we know exist, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation, can interact to cause a shift to warmer or cooler states.

We have had more sunspot activity in the last 100 years than normal. No one knows why. Sunspot activity has declined over the last decade and no one knows why. We have seen no increase in temperature since 1998, and we might well be entering a new cooling trend. (I pray that this becomes obvious before we raise taxes.) Sunspot activity is not included in current climate models that predict global warming.

Precipitation is another poorly understood factor in climate change. It is likely to act as a thermostat for the planet, but no one knows how it accomplishes this, and so the mechanism cannot be included in climate models.

Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology at MIT, once theorized, after observing the clouds over the equatorial area, that there might be an "iris effect" where, during higher temperatures, clouds in the upper atmosphere open, and extra heat escapes to outer space. That theory has now been quantified and the results published in the Aug. 9 Geophysical Research Letters by Dr. Roy Spencer, formerly at NASA and now at the University of Alabama. No climate models currently include this natural cooling mechanism.

Finally, let me ask this question: Who decided what the optimum temperature is? Is it during the Medieval Warm Period of 900 to 1300 AD, when Greenland was named for its verdant fields? Is it during the Little Ice Age of 1400 to 1850 AD when the Thames, the upper Nile and the northern Atlantic froze over? We don’t know. Nor will we know. What is certain is this. The activities of man are no more important than the activities of termites. Which, you might be surprised to learn, produce huge amounts of methane, a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.How do we raise taxes on termites?

Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican, is serving his eighth term representing that state’s seventh district.