Even if climate changes are a part of a natural cycle, if climate can be improved, why not? Most certainly mankind has done a lot to damage the planet in the modern industrial age and it can certainly do a lot to reverse that damage too, provided first of all, it knows what is the right thing to do.
Ashok Malhotra, Ph.D. UBC Canada, B.Tech, M. Tech. IIT Delhi
A widespread belief prevails in the modern world that the planet is becoming warmer and that more climate extremes are taking place. This belief spreads from the scientific community to the ordinary inhabitant of the planet who is regularly informed by media. A climate extreme happens, for example, when a hundred year record of rainfall, drought, heat or cold is broken in some region or other of the world. While some maintain that all this is a natural part of solar system changes, others hold that it is because of human activity. There is no doubt that the planet has seen unprecedented changes over the previous century and a half as human population has sky rocketed to its highest level ever. Technological changes have swept across the world and resources gathered by the planet for millions of years such as fossil fuels are being exhausted over a brief period of a few centuries while their use adds previously buried carbon to the atmosphere. While some parts of the world such as Canada would welcome the warming trend, few would welcome climate extremes because in a large number of cases it plays havoc with human lives and orderly planning.
The most relevant question at hand is: if climate extremes or global warming is taking place what can humans do about it?
When fossil fuels are burnt carbon dioxide is produced and added to the atmosphere. Over the past century its levels have risen from around 200 ppm in the atmosphere to the current 400 ppm. International efforts are on to limit the increase of carbon emissions in the atmosphere by a variety of measures that include use of alternative energy to carbon caps and taxes. Whenever a carbon cap is considered the question also arises if it should be on a per-country basis or a per-capita basis. The obvious answer is that it has to be on a per capita basis because it takes a certain amount of energy to feed a mouth and a certain amount of energy to house and clothe a human. Any other basis of capping carbon would only be interpreted as an unjust domination of the powerful on the poor.
However, before such economy crippling measures are considered it is more important to consider the question, if carbon dioxide is really responsible for climatic woes. To the layperson it seems obvious that it is, because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. However, there is more to the story than seems obvious.
What is the Best level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere?
Do we need more carbon dioxide or less on the planet? In order to answer that question properly, it would be useful to ascertain what is the best level of this gas in the atmosphere as regards the long term well being of all life on the planet – plants, animals, and humans. The present level in the atmosphere is around 400 ppm. Studies have shown that a level of around 1000 ppm is best for plants. Therefore it seems that at least from the point of view of the green side of life, we need around two and a half times our present levels. At a time when most evolution of life took place on the planet, the carbon dioxide levels were much higher. During the Cambrian period that saw an explosion of new life forms, it was around fifteen times as high. Most of that evolution took place in the oceans that prospered hugely by the increased dissolved carbon dioxide even though the oceans may have had fewer coral reefs. The higher ph levels were a breeding ground for life and that is expected as both carbon dioxide breathing life forms and oxygen breathing ones prospers in cooperation. Some 200 million years ago when carbon dioxide levels were 4-5 times present levels earth became a virtual Garden of Eden. The period saw the rise of giant fern forests.
Some scientists have ascertained that mineral and protein percentage of some vegetables and fruits is lower if the carbon dioxide ppm goes up although plants grow healthier and faster. But that is obvious, a skinny chicken has a higher percentage of bone as compared to a healthy chicken but one would still prefer a healthy one.
Therefore should we look for ways to increase carbon dioxide levels to around 1000 ppm from the present 400 ppm? It has been rising in any case on the planet because of burning of fossil fuels but it does not look like the planet has enough fossil fuels to burn to reach that level and burning forests to achieve the same end would be counter productive. Further as we run out of fossil fuels a point would be reached when alternative energy will become cheaper. That is the point when humans would stop using any remaining fossil fuels irrespective of what others say.
However it must be recorded that the full impact of a higher level of carbon dioxide i.e. 1000 ppm on the full global ecology including the oceans needs further study.
Certainly when a fossil fuel is burnt much more than carbon dioxide is released and air pollution occurs. However, that air pollution is localized in time and space. The present discussion is as regards long term global issues. The local issues have to be dealt with primarily at the local level. The gap between renewable energy and conventional energy costs is closing rapidly and it is costs that ultimately dictate what form of energy humans use. One cannot prevent humans from using the cheapest available source of energy especially in the developing world where because of lack of development malnutrition still prevails. Therefore it does not look like the planet can reach ideal levels of 1000 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere anytime soon. Mankind would just have to learn to manage with less.
But critics argue that carbon dioxide is a green house gas and this would lead to global warming. Let us consider that next.
Would more Carbon Dioxide lead to Global Warming?
Critics argue that carbon dioxide is a green house gas and this would lead to global warming. However, before we decide if this amount would lead to global warming. Let us become more precise. It is no use saying that Atlantic Ocean will become more salty if we add a pinch of salt to it. No doubt the Atlantic Ocean will become saltier but if the additional saltiness has any practical significance or not can only be determined through further calculations. 400 ppm is around .04 percent in the atmosphere. A rough calculation carried out by this author several years ago showed that if we increase carbon dioxide by 1% in the atmosphere it could lead to a one degree centigrade rise in the worst case scenario that includes other chain effects due to increased absorption of heat. Therefore, if the present 0.04 percent level became two and a half times to 0.1 percent or a 1000 ppm the rise in temperature because of this effect would be less than 0.1 degree centigrade, an insignificant amount compared to other natural temperature changes. This author would like a recheck of these calculations by atmospheric heat transfer scientists and would like to hear of it as a comment to this post.
It may also be mentioned for a lay person that when carbon dioxide is talked of as a greenhouse gas one should not conjure a vision of a greenhouse made of glass, a dramatic vision inspired by popular fiction on the topic, that traps in much more heat radiation from low temperature sources while letting the suns heat pass in while also limiting convective current losses, but even if one insisted on thinking of it as something similar, than think of it as a green house that has only 0.04 percent (the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) of its roof installed.
But what about the heuristic correlations that have been made by scientists and some politicians like Al Gore on a statistical basis without having to calculate? These are estimates that are obtained by statistical analysis and by drawing a graph between increases of CO2 over the last 100 year against temperature rise. It shows a much greater correlation than the calculated one degree rise for one percent rise in carbon dioxide. However statistical correlations can mislead. For example, if one correlated how many times the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty was sung in kindergarten schools and correlated that with temperature rise one might end up with a correlation too. While nursery rhymes are not a relevant parameter here, the numbers of trees on the planet are. Let us consider that fact now.
Aside from an increase of carbon dioxide over the last 150 years an unprecedented amount of deforestation has also taken place on the planet during the same period as forests have been cleared for agriculture and urbanization to feed and house a growing population.
If we correlated the amount of green tree cover on the planet with temperature rise it appears that one gets a much better inverse correlation with global warming, i.e. the lesser the trees the warmer the planet. On the whole, global temperatures appear to have gone up as the green tree cover on the planet has reduced for urbanization and agriculture over the last 165 years.
Global warming does seem to be taking place (even if it is only one degree in a century), it does appear to be because of human activity and the most likely human activity causing it appears to be a depletion of tree cover on the planet rather than increased carbon dioxide levels. But if that is the case then why are the scientists silent? Why do many stop at saying that there does appear to be global warming due to human activity but stopping short of elaborating what that activity is, leaving the public to jump to a conclusion of the greenhouse effect of popular fiction? Well the emperor has new clothes that everyone is going ga-ga over, as the emperor moves proudly through the streets strutting his stuff and the dress makers sit in a corner smiling silently not willing to let out the secret so as not to spoil the fun.
A growing population does need more food and land for agriculture but if an emphasis on growing food producing trees is now made, the pressure on increasing agricultural lands would decrease. Besides, there is a still a lot of barren and saline land on the planet that is being used neither for forests nor agriculture. It is a myth that trees cannot be grown on saline lands provided the right trees are selected (check out an online reference at the end of this note). Within our cities too we can do with less concrete and more trees. Every additional tree helps.
An even more serious concern than global warming is climate extremes. It plays havoc with human, animal and plant lives in many cases though not all a previously desert region in the north-west India (Barmer) suddenly developed lakes and reservoirs of fresh water when a five hundred year record of rainfall was broken. Here it seems that while miniscule amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have no significant role to play, forests and tree covers appear to be an agent of stability. Forests appear to play the same role for climate on earth as vibration dampeners play in mechanical machinery. A barren planet or another consisting of largely rock and sand land masses (with concrete and paving materials falling in the same category) is more likely to see climate extremes rather than one covered by trees and forests. It would also tend to create more dust storms. The depletion of forests could be the cause of climate extremes.
A statement has been made that small amounts of carbon dioxide cannot play the same role in climate extremes as trees on land can. To explain how that might happen require a deep knowledge of fluid mechanics, heat transfer and thermodynamics. For example it is a known fact in fluid mechanics that rough surfaces (such as those created by trees on the surface of the earth) offer little resistance to smooth laminar flows while resisting swift turbulent flows such as those that would lead to dust storms vigorously. This has something to do with the eddy structures that exist in turbulent flows and not in laminar ones. Also the roots of tress draw moisture from within the earth while releasing it through their leaves. In that process, when leaves dry out, some surrounding heat is absorbed. The resulting water vapor eventually accumulates high above the earth where it condenses at lower temperatures returning that heat high above the earth. Simultaneously trees shade the ground or constructed spaces in urban settings and prevent the direct rays of the sun from being absorbed in it. A portion of the heat that would have reached the earth is converted in combination with carbon dioxide into plant matter, some absorbed by evaporation and some reflected back into space from whence it came. In the colder part of the planets where the ground would benefit from such heat, trees shed their leaves in winter or leaves become needle like as in conifers. The entire process results in moderating temperature gradients from land to sky.
There is much more on this that is not fully understood even by this author despite the fact that he is doctorate in thermal sciences from one of the finest universities in the world and has made scientific contributions that can be found cited by a search as a Google scholar. Therefore it is too much to expect that the general public would benefit here from scientific evidence. On the other hand the public is easily swayed by lay reports in the media including popular fiction. While doing so, the public must keep in mind that media campaigns are generated not merely out of scientific knowledge but also out of economic and political agendas that may serve the short or medium term interests of some. Long term interests of all can be served by nothing but the truth.
The present conclusions do not imply in the least that efforts at development of renewable energy must be slowed down in any manner. Fossil fuels are a limited resource and they are becoming increasingly expensive. Further, their use does cause local pollution if not a global one. Instead what the present conclusions imply is that ignoring the real cause of climate changes and global warming i.e. deforestation and not doing anything substantial about it could be devastating for the planet.
A large section of even the educated thinkers of the world have been influenced by prevailing thinking that leads them to conclude that use of fossil fuels is causing damage to the planet.It does cause localized pollution over brief periods of time but this note presents an opposite view that in fact it is a good thing over the long term. The burning of fossil fuels is not doing any global harm. it is merely returning carbon that once belonged to life and got buried due to geological phenomenon back to life while improving the overall health of the planet over the long term. That happens because when fossil fuels are burnt carbon dioxide, the very life breath of the green side of life is produced and absorbed during the generation of green matter and food. In this the fossil fuel industry is inadvertently helping the planet. The harm to the planet is from another source – deforestation. In case there is an error in the present arguments the author would like to hear of it and will gladly revise his stand if countered with evidence based in science and not assumptions. It can be posted as a comment in this blog to begin with. So far for over seven years, when this author posted his ideas briefly elsewhere, scientists have not been able to offer any.
It may be mentioned that this author too was once influenced by mainstream thinking on the subject and was one of the first to propose carbon taxes on the fossil fuel industry several years ago in a different somewhat informal blog (http://steamcenter.blogspot.com) However, fundamental scientific arguments and data have compelled him to revise his stance, that presently still appears to be in the minority. He is extremely apologetic about the earlier erroneous view.
Trying to cap carbon dioxide emissions looks like a lose-lose situation for all. It could lead the world into increased nuclear dangers and the poor malnourished of the world into greater malnutrition or starvation. It appears to be waste of time and effort because time and costs will do that on their own as we exhaust our limited fossil fuel resources while improving the planet for the green side. On the other hand putting all efforts into restoring forests and trees is a win-win situation. It even appeases those who are worried about carbon dioxide increase because trees are a carbon dioxide sink.
UPDATE JULY 12, 2014
New studies support the conclusion here.
Separating signal and noise in atmospheric temperature changes: The importance of timescale, by Santer B. D. et al, Journal of Geophysical Research, 2011, view online at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2011JD016263/abstract
Please also see for a discussion on this:
A quote from the linked article: “ The bottom line of the abstract says: “Our results show that temperature records of at least 17 years in length are required for identifying human effects on global-mean tropospheric temperature.” and “As of June, 2014, it has been 17 years since the super El Nino of 1997/1998 and there is no obvious signal that increasing CO2 emissions have had any effect on global lower troposphere temperatures. In fact, over the last 17 years, temperatures show a slight cooling trend.”
However, if the temperature trend is correlated to deforestation a good correlation is produced since this has slowed down globally in the same period, with brief periods of regrowth of forests.
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