Thursday, 25 September 2014

On climate change, rainforests and saving the oceans

Climate change seems to have become a major concern, if not the major concern, of our time, for many in the West at least, in spite of the competing furies of war, terrorism, disease and the continued hunger of so many in poorer parts of the world (not to mention those in need of aid in our own backyards!) Is this because the others are familiar horrors, and familiarity breeds contempt? Is it the scaremongering that leads us to believe that if we don’t DO SOMETHING immediately the climate will go on and on getting warmer until we can’t live on the planet? – this seems to be a very real fear for many.

As readers of this blog will know, I am not all that convinced by the case for anthropogenic warming. The world has been much warmer than it is today, before humans ever arrived on the scene, never mind before they began burning fossil fuels. Cows emit methane, a much more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the Ice Age plains of Europe were full of their ancient relatives. But on the other hand, it is clearly true that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the oceans are very high, probably the highest they have been for many millennia, and whether or not this has caused the relatively modest warming we have experienced over the past century or two, it is likely to be significant for the overall climate trend of the planet. However, I think we are concentrating far too much on reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide, which will only slow down the rise in CO2 levels, and not enough on reduction of the CO2 that is actually present.

The Earth has a very good balancing mechanism of its own, which works well if we don’t interfere with it. What is not much discussed, however, in comparison with reduction in CO2 emissions, is the way in which we are wrecking the Earth’s own carbon-reduction system. The rainforests (which are sometimes recognised in public debate as in need of protection) and the oceans (which seldom are) both play their part. It is fairly well known that the rainforests take in CO2 through their leaves, as part of the process by which they make food for themselves, and of course they also very usefully give out oxygen. A carbon-rich atmosphere should encourage them to grow well, which is itself part of the Earth’s climatic balancing system. I think we may just have learned the lesson that it makes no sense to cut down rainforests (which are long-term environmental investments by the Earth and which cannot be replaced quickly) in order to plant biofuel plants. I don’t seem to have heard much about that lately – and you can run cars on waste products from fish and chip shops, apparently, so I would hope that this madness has now ceased. But the rainforests still need much more protection from the rich(er) West because most of them are situated in tropical countries which have less other resources. We can do far more than we are doing in this regard.

Even more urgent, however, is proper protection of the oceans as an environment, because they too are a major sink for dissolved carbon dioxide. The fact that CO2 levels in the sea are so high at present means that the sea cannot absorb any CO2 from the atmosphere, as it normally would. It is effectively saturated. This may be partly because of the high levels in the atmosphere, but I think it may also involve some change in the numbers or behaviour of the plankton that do the absorbing. However that may be (and you only have to read the hotly debated issues in the scientific and pseudo-scientific press to know that no one has all the answers!), when I read that a recent survey of the ocean surface has calculated that across the globe, around 40 per cent of the surface is affected by human litter, much of it from ocean-going ships of various kinds, I almost despair. How long will it take us to give as much attention to our precious marine treasures as we do to galloping carbon dioxide emissions or (to a lesser extent) to the rainforests. All pollution is a serious matter, because the Earth can only deal with so much. If we want a healthy planet to live on we must look after all its elements, quite apart from the scenic beauty that surrounds us.

I think we are right to be watchful about rising temperatures. There are tipping points either way which can prevent the Earth from rebalancing the climate quickly (though so far it has always managed it in the end, over millions of years). But climate change can be caused by many different factors, of which carbon dioxide levels are only one, and quite possibly a small one at that. In any case, if we are really concerned about these levels then to neglect any part of the Earth’s own system for removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere seems a form of collective madness. Sadly, we humans seem rather prone to that – once an idea has taken root, we can be blind to others even when they are related to it, if they are related at a tangent. Maybe it is a kind of protective blinkering. After all, ‘human beings cannot bear very much reality.’ For most of the time, most of us do not sail the oceans, and so the reality of marine pollution is hidden from us. But it is real, and it is increasing from an already high level. To clean up the oceans must be a positive thing to do – but like the atmosphere we all own it, and must work together to look after it. History suggests that this is the task that human beings find most difficult. In order to do it, we have to have a sense of belonging together. But that’s the subject of another posting, another day!

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