The latest twist in the political and ideological wars is “climate disruption” – the notion that carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels is “disrupting” global climate, with a variety of disasters as consequence. Here are a few basic facts we should all take into consideration:
First, carbon from fossil fuels is not some novel pollutant industrial civilization has cooked up. It was originally taken from the atmosphere by plants and micro-organisms, buried in swamps and sea bottoms, and over geological time transformed into coal, oil and natural gas. When burning these we do not add “new” CO2 to the air. We simply return what was once there.
The average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since life began on earth has been eight times what it is today. That is the normal. The comparatively small amount of CO2 we release from fossil fuel consumption barely inches us closer to the level this planet has been used to.
Second, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is the raw material of all life. Of all elements in the periodic table, carbon has an extraordinary ability to bind to itself and to other elements to build complex molecules. All “organic” molecules (that is, molecules which are components of living matter) are built around a carbon skeleton. No other element will do.
Life as we know it began when primitive bacteria used sunlight to split carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen, using the carbon to grow and releasing the oxygen. Plants continue to do this today. The more CO2 there is the faster and more easily plants grow, producing more food for animals and humans. The optimal carbon dioxide level for plant growth is the average given above: eight times the current concentration. In other words, CO2 increase means, literally, a greener earth.
Third, the “greenhouse effect” of carbon dioxide is only one factor, probably a minor one, in “climate change”. Water vapor is far more abundant and powerful as a “greenhouse gas”. In any case, climate is always “changing”, under the influence of several factors:
The sun, and the various cycles (such as sunspots) it goes through
The earth’s orbital position and axial inclination with regard to the sun
Global energy transfer mechanisms – winds, ocean currents, long-term cycles and events such as El Nino – which are still poorly understood
Spatial inputs such as cosmic rays
Huge changes in climate, like ice ages, took place long before man was around. Our single-minded focus on carbon dioxide keeps us from developing a general theory of climate incorporating all the above influences.
This brings us to the fourth point: our current ignorance. Because we lack general understanding of how the climate works, we put ourselves at risk of missing future climate changes, which could be either beneficial (a long, warm period with plenty of plant growth) or dangerous (significant cooling or even an ice age).
The current controversy over “global warming” needs to be replaced with a coordinated international effort to study and understand global climate. This has been done before: the International Geophysical Year of 1958-59 contributed immensely to our knowledge of the earth. So let us move on to an International Climate Year – ICY for those who like cool acronyms.
In the meantime, enjoy your Cadillac, if you are blessed with one. Every gallon of gas turned to CO2 is actually a gift to the planet. And, tell our elected leaders to stop the war on energy. We need an energy policy that will revive our economy and create jobs, leads to energy independence and allows the research needed to find long term solutions to unmet future needs.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.