Fossil Fuels Are Making the Planet…Greener?

When it comes to many of the issues concerning the environment, particularly global warming I’m very much in the “I don’t know” camp (though if I must pick a side, I’m skeptical about the phenomenon of anthropological global warming). Why don’t I know, after all, this is “settled science” right?

I don’t know because, sadly, I believe government involvement has compromised the scientists. Politicians want scientists to arrive at a certain result, therefore; those scientists who make claims which coincide with the politicians get the big grants. Another reason I don’t know is because I am not a scientist and I don’t even play one on TV.

That being said, there is one environmental concern that policy makers have wanted to “correct” that never made sense to me: too much CO2 gas released into the atmosphere. While I am not a scientist, I do recall learning in science class many years ago that 1.) animals and humans exhale CO2 and 2.) plants need CO2 to survive. If this is true, shouldn’t additional CO2 being released into the environment be good for the environment regardless of if the source of the emissions is from fossil fuels or anything else?

Apparently, I’m not the only person who has thought about this. In the video below, Matt Ridley explains that the increased CO2 emissions have made the planet, wait for it….greener! Literally.

This may seem counterintuitive at first but his explainations for why he says this is the case makes perfect sense to this non-scientist.

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  • http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com ricketson

    I’m perplexed by the assertion that politicians pressure scientists to find evidence of anthropogenic global warming. What do you believe is the mechanism by which this pressure is exerted? Is it listed in the mission statements of any of the research funding institutes? Are political appointees overseeing grant programs?

    Also, when did the political establishment become “pro-warming”? My impression is that most of the foundational research of global warming was conducted during the Reagen/Bush years. Even today, our economy has a massive vested interest in the availability of fossil fuels — which would have major influence on both parties, whether from the corporations or the labor unions involved with the affected industries (e.g. automobile).

  • http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com ricketson

    update: this timeline suggests that the scientific consensus was established around 1977
    http://www.aip.org/history/climate/timeline.htm

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Ricketson:

    Once again, I am by no means an expert on climate change and I was very careful to say this is what I “believe” rather than what I “know” to be true. I become skeptical anytime the government gets involved because I do not trust government in general nor those who are in power in-particular. Politicians, especially those who are beholden to environmental groups, have their reasons for scaring the crap out of all of us (not unlike how Bush scared the American public about non-existent WMD in Iraq).

    I would LOVE nothing more than to be proven wrong that scientists care more about discovering scientific truths as opposed to discovering ways to skew their findings to suit politics to get more funding (that’s the mechanism IMO). I really want that to be true.

    I do think it’s interesting that the lecture by Matt Ridley about how fossil fuel emissions are making the planet greener…why is this the first I have heard of this phenomenon? (And yes, I realize that the planet becoming greener and global warming are 2 separate issues). Is this something that has been accepted or rejected overall by climatologists? I have so many questions…

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Here’s some additional food for thought: Climategate 2.0

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    This is another reasoon why I am skeptical.

  • MingoV

    The pseudo-environmentalists’ false claim of anthropogenic global warming is unrelated to “saving” the environment. It’s about eliminating technology or eliminating people. Many serious environmentalists (my definition: those who devote at least four hours a week to their cause) are either Luddites (who want to ban technology and revert to the Stone Age) or nihilists (who believe humans are a blight on the planet and should be exterminated).

    Governments and politicians support the claim of AGW because it is a “crisis” that allows governments to gain more power and control.

    ——

    The belief that increased atmospheric CO2 improves plant growth is true: that was one of the findings of the original greenhouse studies. Another finding was that growth was best with high temperatures and relative humidities of 95-100%. These are tropical jungle conditions: hot, humid, and higher CO2 from all the decomposing matter.

  • Ricketson

    Stephan, you’ve brought up a lot of issues, and I’ll try to share what I know (as a biologist).

    First, the possibility that rising CO2 levels will spur plant growth is widely discussed among biologists. This is the first that I’ve heard about the satellite data, but it is well established that CO2 can “fertilize” plant growth under the right conditions. For a taste of how this is discussed, a google search for “plant community response carbon dioxide” gives a few pointers to academic papers:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/104/37/14724.long
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v466/n7302/edsumm/e100701-09.html
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22924486

    Second, regarding the benefit/harm of increased CO2, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that this effect (increased greening) is particularly beneficial. It would be one thing if it were increasing crop yields (which it may be doing under some circumstances), but increasing total carbon fixation (and subsequent decomposition) is neither good nor bad. For instance, there is no reason to expect it to impact the likelihood that various plant species go extinct.

    CO2 has two other widely discussed effects — greenhouse and water (ocean) acidification, and these effects are likely to greatly outweigh the fertilization effect when viewed in terms of human activities and biodiversity.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    I don’t know that I agree with the idea that “government involvement has compromised the scientists”… I think the issues occur at much higher levels.

    I’ve now spent 20 minutes trying to find a link specifically about the problems with science journalism, but I’ve had no luck… So I’ll give you a task:

    Next time you read a salacious news story about some sort of scientific study, look for the *ACTUAL STUDY ITSELF*. Ideally, you’ll find a study that was published in a journal which offers free access to the text of the study.

    Then, read the study. This is where it gets hard. Often they’ll get into relatively difficult statistical terminology that might be hard to decipher, especially if you don’t come from a science/engineering/statistics background. But if you read critically, you can probably get the gist of what is going on even without having a completely firm grasp on the math.

    Now — look at the actual journalist’s report, then look at the study, and see whether you think the journalist accurately reported what was in the study. You’ll be surprised…

    I’ve got one link to an example — I’m not sure if you’ll be able to see this, but if you’re on Google+ I can find a way to make it available:
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/115216653877301345187/posts/cUAimg9cjRL

    But it refers to this journalist’s story:
    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/story/2012-04-09/Autism-obesity-pregnancy/54126558/1

    And then I read the original source study:
    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/04/04/peds.2011-2583.full.pdf

    Essentially when comparing them all, it looks like the journalist read the abstract, interviewed the author of the study, but either didn’t read or didn’t have the capability to understand the actual source material.

    This is the first rung in translating scientific research into common wisdom, and it can break down spectacularly due to no fault of the scientist.

  • Ricketson

    Now I’ll try to address the issue of scientific integrity.

    First, I’ll say that as a scientist, this is a very serious issue. Scientists rely on their credibility, both as individuals and as a profession. We make substantial efforts to weed out fraudulent science and identify biases in scientific work.

    For instance:
    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
    http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/

    Short of truly heinous acts, fraud is the cardinal sin among scientists. It is okay to reach inaccurate conclusions, but to publish unreliable results is nearly unforgivable … scientists are the first victims of such misinformation, and many of us have wasted too much time (weeks, months) trying and failing to replicate and build upon the unreliable work of others.

    So it’s a big deal when you insinuate that a group of scientists is essentially a bunch of fraudsters, and I would like to clear up any issues.

    There is always the risk that funding sources (whether state or other) will influence the research that they fund. Scientists have implemented safeguards, but they are imperfect. The US probably has the best state-funding system, where the individual funding decisions are largely insulated from politicians and ultimately left in the hands of the scientists themselves.

    However, there are still some fields that I believe are overly influenced by politics. Research into “drugs of abuse” is a prime example. This is an anti-drug consensus among the powers-that-be (codified in the Controlled Substances Act), and this research funded by an agency with a clear agenda (the National Institute on Drug Abuse). When reading these articles, it is clear that the researchers start with the assumption that smoking marijuana is bad (even if they don’t say so explicitly) and they are looking for some way to justify that opinion.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have time to get into the specifics of the climate sciences, but suffice to say, I think that science is solid (with a number of caveats, which apply to all research).

  • Ricketson

    Brad, science reporting often has me pulling my hair out. There aren’t many newspapers that I consider worth reading. Three of the better sources are the NYT, the Economist, and Scientific American.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    And to follow up with my previous thought, this purely deals with the ability for a journalist to accurately report on scientific research.

    It leaves out the question of journalistic bias, the question of building readership (i.e. reporting on the “sexiest” topics), etc. For example, the stuff I link above, you can see that the journalist plays up an autism/obesity angle because they’re both huge topics today, but completely leaves off the key — that the underlying study was about blood sugar imbalances, diabetes, etc in mothers and obesity was only one aspect of it.

    Oh, and people report what they already believe. So if you take a media that is largely left-wing and willing to buy the idea that humans are a scourge upon the planet, pro-warming research will be amplified and anti-warming research will be swept under the rug. And, of course, there’s the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of news: nobody is going to read a story that says nothing bad is going to happen!

    Like most of confirmation bias, people see what they want to see. Liberals see global warming stories and believe more strongly in global warming. Conservatives see anti-warming stories and believe more strongly that the threat of warming is overblown. And very few people on either side have the training or the time to read original source materials and make up their own mind, and thus they parrot back what they hear from MSNBC or from Fox News.

    While I’m not sold on the catastrophic predictions of global warming folks, I don’t fault the scientists on this one. The fault lies elsewhere. I don’t even think the fault is necessarily deliberate — the incentives merely line up where people who are attempting to do what they think is right are tilted towards hyping global warming alarmism. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s frankly the workings of a market.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Ricketson,

    I do the same. My first instinct when I read something that seems like insane hyperbole from opinion writers, journalists, or bloggers, (which much of it does) is “check the original source material”.

    When I see mistakes that suggest a writer either didn’t read or didn’t understand the source material, *especially* when it’s freely available (and of course the writer didn’t link to it), it makes me stabby…

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Ricketsen:

    Thanks for the links, I’ll take a look at them when I get a chance.

    With regard to the presentation by Matt Ridley, what do you think? Is what he is saying pretty solid or is he talking out of his ass?

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Brad:

    The treatment of matters of science by the media is a very important dimension that I should have brought up. This reminds me of an assignment I had in my college biology class I had several years ago. The assignment was to read a press article about an issue concerning biology and a peer reviewed article on the same topic. The topic I chose was stem cells. What I found really interesting was that in the peer reviewed article, the authors were very careful and used a great deal of qualifiers as to the state of the science. The press article on the other hand hyped how much the science had progressed in terms of finding cures for various conditions…it was as if these treatments were just around the corner. The peer reviewed article was much more subdued (i.e. we “may” be able to do this or that with stem cell treatments in the future).

    This was most likely the whole point of the assignment: be very careful what you believe from an article in the news about matters concerning science* as many of these journalists are not trained in the disciplines of science (and be especially careful when someone like me writes a blog post about science. In fairness, I think I made it pretty clear that my understanding was limited).

    *I think the same could be said about just about any topic (ex: legislation. How many people who comment about a law or bill in the press actually read the text of the bill or law?)

  • MingoV

    The NY Times used to be a reliable source of science news. But, over time, the science section became almost as biased and incorrect as its op/ed pages. I haven’t trusted it in years.

    Scientific American and Nature were captured by the enviroweenies. Scientific American’s coverage of global warming has been abysmal and reads like it came from the IPCC. Nature has published numerous articles about the deleterious effects of (nonexistent) AGW on various species. It’s pathetic.

    I was a reviewer for medical journals for ten years. Many of the submissions had flawed methodologies, incorrect statistics, and conclusions that were not supported by the data. I’m appalled that articles that I would reject outright (and not just request revisions) get published in major journals. Science journals are equally lax and publish many poor articles.

    What the above means is that you cannot trust scientific or medical findings unless you are knowledgeable in the field, have access to the full article, understand the methodologies, and know enough statistics to determine if the authors used them correctly. The average person cannot do this and must pick a reliable “translator.” They are hard to find.

  • Ricketson

    Mingo and others (On reporting): one problem is that reporters tend to focus on “the latest research”, which is precisely the research that has not been validated. This is related to the fact that they treat the journals Science and Nature as the most authoritative, when in fact they publish a lot of hype and speculation. The journalists confuse “prestigious” with “authoritative” — these journals are prestigious among scientists because they publish the most interesting work, not because they publish the most reliable work.

    Stephen: Yes, I see plenty of conversations where people are preaching about an evil new law but obviously haven’t looked at it. I try to dig them up, and often have to work very hard to do so (because the people arguing over the law never link to it). Even when I find it, the law is often uninterpreted, which points to a fundamental problem with our legislative system. For instance, see the “Monsanto Protection Act” below; it is basically one sentence:

    “SEC. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.”

    Stephen: regarding Ridley’s point… I only watched half of the video. I took it to be pretty mundane — CO2 can stimulate plant growth. I don’t know anything about that satellite data (and was unable to pull up any description of the data he presented). The only thing that strikes me as odd is that he claimed that the increased greening came from the jungles (right?)… but jungles should have already had a full canopy, and I don’t know where that additional green would go.

    He also goes on to say that productivity can increase in a sustainable manner. Again, this is a mundane point. I don’t think that any serious person denies it (but this does not mean that our current economy is sustainable). This idea was actually incorporated into Paul Erhlich’s early analysis of population sustainability (I=PAT; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_%3D_PAT).

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Ricketson:

    Yeah, I haven’t taken much time to study all of this concern about Monsanto but at first glance, it seems to me that its paranoia. I think there are some legitimate concerns about patent rights (similar to the concerns over copyright and intellectual property concerns) that need to be hashed out, however.

    From what I understand about GMOs, contrary to popular belief, they are actually safer than organic food and better for the environment (GMOs take up less land compared to traditional farming methods). What are your thoughts about GMO overall?

    Another one is vaccines. For the most part, I think that vaccines have done wonders in eradicating disease. There might be a small chance that some kids might get sick from these vaccines but I think that most of the concerns about vaccines are overblown.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Stephen,

    Believe me, the *last* place you want to find yourself is in the middle of the vaccine/autism debate. As a parent of a child with autism, I’m obviously closer to it than most, and ***HOLY CRAP*** is there some crazy out there.

    As an example, even prior to having kids I read three books on vaccines, as I wanted to do the research myself. It was clear that two of the books (which had of course been given to me by people who *believed* in those books) were anti-vaccine. But I’m a big boy — knowing the bias of the author is an information point, not a reason to avoid the book. You just have to take it with a grain of salt.

    But even that didn’t prepare me for what I was about to read — a wholesale attempt to deny the germ theory of disease.

    They didn’t make the claim that vaccines had potential bad side effects, they claimed that vaccines don’t work because the entire germ theory of disease is incorrect.

    Here’s an example:

    http://www.whale.to/vaccine/shea1.html

    Much like a libertarian arguing with a socialist, you run into a brick wall immediately called “premises”. The premises are different, the values are different, and thus arguments are either frustrating or the boil down to moral differences that exist a priori. The *only* way to convince someone is to change their premises.

    It’s the same when it comes to vaccines. You’re not arguing a cost-benefit analysis with most of the hardcore anti-vaccine folks. They believe as a premise that germs don’t “cause” disease. They believe that to contract a disease, you already have to have a weakened immune system caused by any number of factors, and that vaccines actively weaken the immune system. So they deny the very premise that vaccines are effective, believing them to be actively harmful with no benefit.

    If you get deep into that debate without realizing the premise that you’re dealing with, it’s like beating your head against a wall. The only place to have that debate is at the root premise level, Then, if you’re having that debate against someone without a science background — as is likely — they are already a priori distrustful of science due to their lack of belief in the germ theory and all of modern medicine, so trying to use any scientific data to argue your point won’t help.

    You think it’s hard to argue for or against the existence of God? Try having a debate on vaccines with a mom who has a kid with autism that has read these books. Theology is tame in comparison!

  • http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com Ricketson

    I didn’t mean to open up the “Monsanto Protection Act” as an issue, I was just using it as an example of how poorly written many laws are. But yes, I agree that many of the accusations against monsanto are exaggerated (as in the above cited MPA).

    For GMOs: I view them neutrally — I am not aware of any intrinsic problems with GMOs; the costs and benefits depends on the specific applications. Many of the complaints against GMOs are actually about issues where the GM is tangential to the problem (e.g. herbicide use, seed-saving, and complaints about the food production system that is associated with urbanization).

    For vaccines: I love them. The technology is well understood and individual vaccines typically have been thoroughly tested and the frequency of side effects are public information.