Global warming not as clear-cut as politics makes it out to be

The common perceptions of global warming amount to monstrous fantasies propagated by the mainstream media. The notion that global warming, if it occurs at all, will be a pleasant thing that merely brings warmth to previously inhospitable places is Panglossian. The accusation that global warming is President George W. Bush’s fault is ridiculous. The idea that fossil-fuel consumption is the sole source of greenhouse gases is wrong. The idea that human activities have negligible impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide content is patently false. The characterization of global warming as a hoax is a deceitful mixture of malice and negligence, just as the characterization of environmentalists as a band of left-wing activists is a numbing concoction of prejudice and willful ignorance.

In short, the public perception of human-induced climate change is largely fueled by environmentalist hyperbole and anti-environmentalist denial. The scientific antidote is not a compromise between the two positions, but a firm warning to the industrial and developing world: Manmade greenhouse gases are augmenting natural atmospheric cycles to increase global temperatures, which will change global climates.

In an effort to cover all bases, conservative commentators have recently been advancing positions that paint global warming (in case it’s actually happening) as a mere continuation of previous trends that have made the planet more temperate for human civilization. Cato Institute researcher adjunct and Institute for Energy Research President Robert Bradley opined in 1998 and again in 2003 that the quality of our air has improved, despite the increasing use of fossil fuels, and that carbon dioxide merely greens the planet. “A moderately warmer, wetter world, whether natural or anthropogenic, such as experienced during the 20th century, is a better world,” he suggested. John Tierney recently related his experiences with an Inuit tribe in his New York Times column, citing its hope that a longer and warmer wet season would improve the tourist industry.

He is correct that modern environmental policies of developed countries are far superior to those of primitive societies. Bradley is also correct in that carbon dioxide cannot reasonably be called a pollutant. But a moderately warmer, wetter San Diego is Houston; a moderately warmer Houston is a tropical marshland. The vast majority of the world lives in areas that would become less hospitable were they to be warmer and wetter — a few Inuits notwithstanding.

As for the carbon greening effect, carbon dioxide is sequestered by plants and algae as carbohydrates, like cellulose. But any chemist can calculate that the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the air by plants is reintroduced to the atmosphere when the plant dies and decomposes. The carbon being brought up from oil and coal fields is being introduced to the biosphere from much deeper sequestration, adding extra carbon to the biosphere at a current rate of six billion tons per year. A “greening” of the planet can also include the proliferation of algae, and consequently, the sepsis of valuable lakes and waterways. Apologists for anthropogenic global warming do cite correct facts, but they fail to think their position through.

For at least 20 years, America has been the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide, consistently producing about 25 percent of the world’s total, according to a Department of Energy assessment. As noted above, this does not imply that America’s skies are the dirtiest: Carbon dioxide is not soot. Chinese oil consumption is another major unearther of fossil carbon; today, up to a quarter of Los Angeles’ air pollution can be traced to China, a result of directional winds. Soon China will surpass America as the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide.

Just as carbon dioxide itself is not a noxious pollutant, it is not the strongest greenhouse gas, albeit vastly more plentiful than others such as methane. Furthermore, in any economy, carbon fuels are not the only source of carbon dioxide. Concrete curing, not included in the above statistics, liberates more than 40 percent of the mass of the original cement in the form of carbon dioxide. In short, while the United States is one major source of greenhouse gases among several others, its current levels of output are in no way bucking a decades-old trend. Likewise, the staple product of “big oil” is not the sole source of carbon emissions. It’s not Bush’s fault, but it is his problem.

Just as misinformation is spread about global warming itself, similar falsehoods are spread about the fossil-fuel consumption and other processes that create carbon dioxide. “Concrete” cures naturally in volcanoes, as limestone produces carbon dioxide at high temperatures. This fact does not support anti-global-warming statements claiming that volcanism or other natural processes emit much more carbon dioxide than industrial societies. Mount Etna, in Sicily, is a rare case among volcanoes in that it emits 25 million tons of carbon dioxide per year; the entire Pacific Rim volcanic range emits on the order of 100 million tons.

But all of this pales in comparison to the six billion tons of carbon that human industry produces annually. Even more appalling is a recent claim advanced by Jerome Corsi in a new book, “Black Gold Stranglehold,” suggesting that oil is not a fossil fuel but instead produced continuously by processes happening deep within the Earth. The co-author of the anti-John Kerry book “Unfit for Command,” Corsi seems to be a jack of all tirades: As his comrades bellow that global warming is a hoax, Corsi argues that America’s dependence on foreign oil is all a giant ruse played by international culprits.

Curiously, Corsi credits the original theory to scientists in Stalinist Russia, a brutal regime also known for its distortion of science. His characterization of the scientific consensus for the origin of oil and coal borders on a caricature, suggesting that geologists and petrochemical engineers believe these fuels are the decayed carcasses of large dinosaurs like those in Montana. Every freshman biology student learns that megafauna are really a minute portion of all biomass; what is oil in sandstone today was mostly dead algae in underwater mud hundreds of millions of years ago.

Over the course of geologic time, the consequences of human action will be dampened by much more powerful equilibria like the ones that formed fossil fuels and limestone in the first place.

But, over the course of the next century, those consequences may be very difficult for human civilization to bear. Numerous sources, including a 2004 economic paper published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” have pointed out that the proposed Kyoto treaty is doomed by its own lack of punitive enforcement. Indeed, as the article also notes, the present state of carbon emissions is a form of “tragedy of the commons,” as difficult to escape in economic and political terms as the changes in climate brought about by carbon emissions will be in the coming decades.

One day, it may be economically advantageous (read: necessary, though costly) to resequester carbon in the form of carbon dioxide in aging oil fields or deep oceanic trenches. Until then, a good pair of sneakers is one way to postpone the day of reckoning.