How Continued Life on Earth Depends on Humans—Too Many of Whom Misunderstand the ProblemsAlan Carlin | September 8, 2016
Most people understand that our green planetary oasis in the immense universe is highly unusual in terms of the favorable conditions it offers for life on Earth. But from a long-term perspective, there are some troubling signs. The Earth’s internal temperatures are gradually cooling and less carbon dioxide is being naturally emitted into the atmosphere from sources within the Earth. Ice ages are becoming more severe with lower temperatures and declining levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
These signs of an aging planet are troubling because they indicate Earth is very gradually becoming less accommodating for life. Fortunately, humans have come along and are capable of helping out–but only if they can understand the clues and take helpful actions based on them.
The easiest problem to alleviate is the long term gradual decrease in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which endangers the availability of this basic input to plant photosynthesis; in fact, humans may have already inadvertently implemented an interim solution. The ice age severity problem is more difficult to alleviate and appears to be a very serious problem from a longer term viewpoint.
So far humans are not doing very well even understanding the problems let alone taking actions that would alleviate them. In fact, the most outspoken group with regard to CO2 is taking actions that would make the situation worse. Fortunately, what they propose is very expensive and they will almost certainly ultimately prove unsuccessful in accomplishing their objectives. The same group generally refuses to consider anything that might actually help the ice age severity problem either.
The remainder of this post will largely discuss the easier of the two problems–keeping atmospheric CO2 above the starvation level for plants. It is easy to show what the problem is using what should be largely noncontroversial science. There is also a recent report by Patrick Moore discussing it, where a much more detailed discussion of the science can be found. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been irregularly decreasing over geologic history and during the most recent ice age reached a low of about 180 ppmv. As discussed in JK Ward, plant growth was stunted because of low levels of an essential nutrient which is required for photosynthesis and thus for life on Earth. 150 ppmv, just 30 ppmv lower, appears to be the threshold of starvation for most plant life. Animals, including humans, would not be far behind if plants died from CO2 starvation. Current atmospheric CO2 levels are about 400 ppmv, only about twice that at the depths of the last ice age.
So in terms of the long perspective of geologic history we are too close for comfort to the point where life on Earth will come to an end because of the lack of sufficient carbon dioxide in the air during future ice ages when atmospheric CO2 levels are much lower. This level probably will not be reached during the next ice age, but starving plants of a vital nutrient will hardly help the environment either. Plants appear to grow best in air at concentrations between 1,000 and 3,000 ppmv, where they have been for much of the last 300 million years with very favorable results for life on Earth and no proven or even signs of catastrophic adverse effects.
Humans Are the Only Likely Saviors of Life on Earth
Rather than being a burden on the environment as many “environmentalists” have often claimed, it now appears that humans are the only likely saviors of life on Earth. During earlier periods of geologic history when there were very high CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere, carbon deposits were created in the form of coal, oil, natural gas, and various kinds of carbonaceous rocks. The rock was created with the help of organisms looking for physical protection by creating shells made of calcium carbonate. Life on Earth will inevitably die unless carbon can be recovered from these deposits and put back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 since natural additions to atmospheric CO2 have long since fallen below depositions into the oceans as the Earth has gradually cooled and natural emissions of CO2 from Earth’s interior have gradually decreased.
By a historical accident, humans have recently started using these deposits of fossil fuels for a highly useful purpose–multiplying their capabilities to use mechanical energy and very recently even for supplementing human brain power. This has resulted in the transformation of human life from brutish to prosperous where it has been pursued in the developed world and more recently in some less developed countries. The resulting emissions of CO2 make it very inexpensive to recover and restore the carbon sequestered long ago since it requires no added effort beyond what humans have already been doing for their own self-interest. Humans are the only ones likely to do this recovery and restoration so vital to prolonging life on Earth. We need to encourage them to do this, not discourage them (such as through regulations or even a carbon tax that may end up endangering life on Earth if pursued long enough, widely enough, and vigorously enough).
The Main Obstacles Are the So-called “Environmentalists” and Their Political Supporters
But there are many humans in the developed world who oppose doing what would really save life on Earth from CO2 starvation even though they mistakenly refer to themselves as “environmentalists.” Most environmental organizations and some politicians in the developed world actually support efforts to restrict human-caused CO2 emissions on the basis of faulty science. It can thus be said that these “environmental” organizations and politicians do not have the best interests of the environment and the planet at heart, either through a lack of understanding of geologic history, pursuit of self-interest (such as profits from building wind and solar generating units), or faulty reasoning.
In the last few years, many of them have even taken to calling carbon dioxide a “pollutant.” It is nothing of the sort. It is absolutely necessary for the future of life on Earth and thus for the sustainability of life on Earth as the “environmentalists” are prone to refer to outcomes they approve of. Some “environmentalists” even advocate leaving fossil fuels in the ground, which is the worst policy judgment possible in terms of preserving life on Earth. Fortunately, earlier life forms saved up some of the surplus carbon in the atmospheres of their day and it has come time to take advantage of their “foresight,” not locking it away.
So anyone that refers to CO2 as a “pollutant” or advocates leaving fossil fuels in the ground or reducing human emissions of CO2 to zero can immediately be categorized as anti-environmental in their views on one of the most important environmental issues of all time. How can you consider yourself an “environmentalist” if you advocate starving plants, which are the basis of the food chain for all life on Earth?
Given that most “environmental” organizations appear to have increasingly dug themselves into this anti-environmental viewpoint it may be necessary to found entirely new environmental organizations that actually adopt an environmentally friendly viewpoint on this very critical issue for the sake of everyone and every form of life on Earth. Some politicians, including many prominent members of the Democratic Party in the US and in many countries in Western Europe, have similar problems.
Three Important Explanations
Some may wonder about the fact that some organic compounds are pollutants and do cause harm to the environment if not adequately controlled, as they largely are in the US. Advocacy of reducing emissions of these pollutants are not covered by my comments even though these efforts can and have been pushed too far here in the US. My comments only relate to advocacy of reducing human-caused emissions of CO2, not other carbon compounds which are genuine man-made pollutants of concern.
A second possible issue is so-called ocean acidification, which some have alleged will occur if atmospheric CO2 levels are not drastically reduced. One of the many problems with this assertion is that marine calcifying organisms survived for hundreds of millions of years when atmospheric CO2 levels were at far higher levels, so this concern can be safely dismissed.
A third important footnote is that if there are indeed significant effects of CO2 emissions on global temperatures (there is considerable dispute on this topic, and it seems much more likely that the primary effect is of temperature changes on CO2 concentrations, not vice versa as the “environmentalists” claim), CO2 emissions may also reduce the effects of future likely new ice ages. This would also be of extreme importance for the future of life on Earth since life cannot easily defend itself against advancing continental glaciers. Defending Earth from a new ice age is much harder than maintaining adequate levels of CO2 in the atmosphere but needs to be addressed as well. The one thing that life on Earth does not need is lower global temperatures, which would only make future ice ages more damaging.
The very future of life on Earth, which is itself very rare and possibly even unique in the universe, depends on abandonment of the current prevailing “environmental” orthodoxy on the issue of human CO2 emissions, and those holding opposing views need to be confronted on this issue before they inflict any more of their catastrophically bad anti-environmental views on life on Earth. Their current views are surely environmentalism gone mad—in fact totally mad—since if continued they almost certainly will result in bringing life on Earth to an end when it is truly easy to postpone this fate for many many millions of years by continuing what is also in the best interests of humans and life on Earth as well.
This is truly a win-win situation. Humans need the energy fossil fuels can produce, and plants need the resulting CO2. The long term future of life on Earth literally depends on understanding and acting on this knowledge that plants need far higher levels of atmospheric CO2, not lower.