August 4, 2010

If you haven’t happened to read the Center for Environmental Journalism blog recently, you might head over there and check out my colleague Tom Yulsman’s interview with our other esteemed colleague Jim White. And also, this one here.

“Carbon dioxide levels, methane levels, are already very high relative to what we know existed for the last million years. I don’t think that we’re going to turn that around very quickly. We could get into some very serious geoengineering in terms of removing these greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Very expensive things to do.

My feeling is we just need to understand what the science is telling us and make intelligent decisions. I don’t really believe that it’s my role as a scientist to tell policy makers what to do. My role is to tell them this is the information you’re going to get, and we need as a society to make decisions. My pitch as an educator, as a professor, is that those be educated decisions. And whether it’s we’re going to adapt or we’re going to deal with this from a geoengineering sense, it doesn’t really matter to me . . . What matters to me is that we do this with intelligence and that we don’t just deny the obvious.”

But here’s the quote I really like:

“We’re the only creature on the planet that can actually think through these things, and we ought to start thinking”


  1. “…very high relative to what we know existed for the last million years.” Oh please. We have directly measured CO2 for perhaps the past 150 years. Prior to that for about the next 5000 years we can infer CO2 levels from tree proxies and a few other sources. Prior to that we have the Vostoc ice cores.

    Yes, it’s true CO2 is higher now than the past 400,000+ years (let’s go with a million years for arguement sake). However the Vostoc ice core time interval varies from about 500 years to around 5,000 years between data points. If there were a peak of 100 years anywhere inbetween those data points, it would not be apparent in the data. Since CO2 would leach out of the ice until the ice became sufficiently dense to prevent any further leaching, it functions as an integrator, and hence anamolous peaks and valleys will tend to disappear.

    Current CO2 levels are about 390 ppm in the atmosphere. Looking at the data, CO2 has approached 300 ppm at least four times over the past 400,000 years, so our current 390 ppm is perhaps 20% higher than the existing record. I wouldn’t call that “very high.”

    CO2 levels follow temperature increases, not the other way around. Temperatures have been higher over the past 400,000 years as measured from the Vostoc ice cores, and CO2 had dutifully followed the temperature rise. Probably 90% or more (I’m guessing here) based on the ice core data shows temperatures lower than present, or to put it another way, we are at the top of the roller coaster.

    One more thing, stopping at one million years is nice, but 65 million years ago the CO2 levels were around 3,000 ppm and temperature was only 5 or 6 degrees fahrenheit higher than now.

    Where is the crisis and why do we need geoengineering to remove CO2 and methane?

  2. Don’t know about your claims. I’m not a scientist, and judging from your argument regarding what counts as “very high” in ppms, it’s entirely conceivable that you’re not either. As it happens, Jim _is_ a climate scientist, and I know him. He’s a pretty cool guy. Snappy dresser. Good sense of humor. Down to earth. Not the type to ring alarm bells.

    As for geoengineering, nobody said anything about needing geoengineering, did they? I take it that his point was that we’re committed to these concentrations, not that we need to geoengineer our way out.

  3. Nope. I’m not a scientist; just a simple back-woods buck tooth engineer (for the last 30 years) who graduated from CU in 1980 with a BS in EECS. What would I know about reading data? I’ll send the links to the data and graphs tomorrow, as I don’t have them at my fingertips right now. Till then, have a good evening.

  4. Oh, by the way, I’m not disputing the numbers, only the interpretation of the numbers.

  5. Look, any jackass can read data; and almost any jackass can make a case using numbers that most of us don’t know the ins-and-outs of. I may not be a scientist, but I know enough about science to know that there’s a lot I don’t know about science; and that one thing may look one way to me but turn out to be somewhat different.

    So, what’s the option here? Listen to a dude who thinks he’s got the numbers and the data, which he’ll back up with 30 years and a BS in engineering? Or listen to a dude who actually studies the science of the climate, is published in multiple peer-reviewed journals, and goes into the field to conduct studies of his own? I’ll opt for the latter any day. It’s a safer bet, of course.

    You can show me graphs and charts galore, about climate science or about the dangers of vaccinations or about the health effects of garlic. Since I’m not in a position to knowledgeably evaluate those claims, they’re just random gibberish — voodoo — as far as I’m concerned. My money is on the button that says strong scientific argument.

  6. That’s the funny thing about this whole Global Warming/Climate Change debate. If all of the data pointed in one direction, then the science community and the engineering community would agree completely and be discussing what course of action should be taken, if any, not whether there is even any cause for alarm.

    By the way, the opening statement “…already very high relative to what we know…” is a bit alarmist since the data really doesn’t support that level of alarm. The temperature of the climate has gone up and down over millions of years without human influence. Who’s to say we are in the ideal climate now?

    One question, if I may. When did we, as a people, get so arrogant as to believe we could engineer the climate when we can’t even predict the weather a month from now? Even if we could engineer the climate to a particular outcome, should we? Would it be the ideal climate, and who would determine what the ideal climate is?

  7. Those are totally great and appropriate questions. I’m not someone to argue for geoengineering the climate, and have, in multiple places, argued strongly against it. It’s a very bad idea spurred by an arrogance about the action-guiding potential of scientific findings that seems to be endemic in the climate community. We need to find other ways out of this fix. Here’s an article I wrote with my colleague Lisa Dilling. It just came out two days ago.


  8. Good Morning Ben,

    I read the abstract for the article you referenced above and would agree that ocean fertilization would be unjustifiable in the context of your argument. Of course, to create the fertilizer may require as much carbon release as is proposed to be absorbed. And let’s not forgot the law of unintended consequences. More phytoplankton means less sunlight to ocean depths, resulting in less warming of the water, or actually cooling resulting in more droughts, colder winters, mass starvation as crops fail before becoming mature, causing the population to revolt, overthrowing the government, then invading a neighboring country for their food, and so on, ultimately causing an increase in carbon emissions as the region gears up for war.

    I personally don’t believe geoengineering is a solution for CO2 emissions, and any attempt would just push the problem to the future. Humans do geoengineering every day when they level a hill for a new mall, or plant a garden in the back yard. Any geoengineering, in whatever form, should have the intent to improve life on the planet. Many solutions proposed would cause massive suffering for a significant portion of earth’s population.

  9. Here’s a slightly different take on the same position:


    • Interesting article Ben. Your observations about the difference between a pollutant and something that is essential. As an example, the increase in carbon dioxide has caused a corresponding increase in the crop yields over the past several decades, more than can be explained by improved farming techniques.

      Suppose we remove CO2 from the atmosphere but fail to stop it at some desired level, and it continues to fall to below 150 ppm? This would be bad news for everything, as photosynthesis shuts down, plants,and then eventually people die.

      In my experience, humans are great at starting a chain of events, but lousy at stopping them if the results are not what was desired.

      • Bob H.: “In my experience, humans are great at starting a chain of events, but lousy at stopping them if the results are not what was desired.”

        Ah, irony.

  10. Of course if Bob H. is right there’s a Nobel in it for him.

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