Friday, May 23, 2008

CO2 Not a Pollutant?

The recent ruling that CO2 is a pollutant by the United States Supreme Court made only a small splash in the news and was met with mostly cheers from global warming alarmist as well as several condemnations and predictions of economic fallout from the skeptics. What concerns me is that the CO2 problem has mostly been tied with global warming while spending little time considering less controversial issues. Despite what you believe about the link between CO2 and global temperatures, you simply can't ignore the fact that CO2 is now 160% above the average that has existed for the last 420,000 years (and likely beyond). The previous largest deviations never went past 122%, with lows around 80% of the average. Looking at the past 420K years of CO2 levels clearly shows that the earth has quite happily been hovering around an oscillating equilibrium of ~234ppm (parts per million). So what happens when you suddenly tilt that equilibrium in a period of say less than 100 years?

We will eventually find out, but here's a little experiment you can try at home with your dirty laundry. Start a load of laundry with about 14 shirts or other evenly sized items. After the wash cycle, take your sopping wet clothes out before the spine cycle kicks in. Let the washer pump out the water and then put 9 of your shirts evenly distributed around the bottom. Let the spin cycle start up for a few seconds.. notice that there is a little vibration, but overall it is quite smooth. Now take the remaining 5 shirts, wad them up and stick them to one side. Start up the spin cycle again. What happens? OK, so you probably don't have to actually do this to know that your washer will start wobbling horribly and making all kinds of noises that you will want to stop as quickly as possible.

The problem with thinking about CO2 as a pollutant is that in being an inert substance as well as an essential part of life doesn't make it as nearly as intimidating as all those nasty chemicals we hear about. The reality however is too much of anything no matter how seemingly harmless can be quite bad. Case in point, people actually manage to poison themselves by drinking too much water. The other problem is that science is just starting to understand where all this extra CO2 is going to go and what problems it is going to cause.

Today I finally saw a news story in the Seattle Times discussing one of these problems in the latest studies on the acidification of seawater. In a nutshell, the ocean has alway been an important carbon sink, absorbing large quantities of CO2 and sequestering it to the bottom of the ocean. The trouble is, just like any sink, they can fill up or sometimes backup when overloaded. Increased concentrations lead to increased levels of carbonic acid (the same substance in soda that gives it bite and leads manufactures to coat the cans so they aren't eaten away). This chemical imbalance in oceans could be very bad news, dissolving the shells of shellfish and killing fish eggs. The economic impacts could be devastating, not to mention the ripple effect of disrupting an ecosystem as vital as our oceans.

While I can understand the economic concerns with curbing CO2 production, as with any disaster, inaction is ultimately far more expensive. Our world has greatly benefited from past environmental actions not just because it protects our valuable resources, but also because it has challenged us to improve our technology and standard of living. Just try and imagine a world where sewers and factories still dump directly into rivers and oceans! I firmly believe that with just a little vision, we can create a lot of opportunities while taking swift action to control a very serious problem.

Anyway, the article led me to revisit some of the playing I did with historical CO2 and temperature data. Since my last post on the subject I fixed a problem in the data that made it look like temperature increases always came prior to CO2 increases (sometimes they still do!), and have normalized and smoothed some of the data to make it easier to look at. Below is the whole data set plotted. It makes it quite clear that there is definitely a correlation between the two. I'm still reserving judgment on the extent of and relation of causation, but as in my previous post am also quite concerned that reinforcing effects may actually release even more naturally stored CO2 that we aren't even considering still (think permafrost and desertification).

In the next plot I took the lowest point in the cycle of our current CO2 trend, which as was about 20,000 years ago. I then took the same bottom from the cycle preceding our current one (~140K-100K years ago) to see what ours should look like compared to what we are observing. This clearly shows that mankind is most certainly creating some new unknown cycle since we should actually be starting a declining trend in CO2 levels instead of the prominent "Yikes!".

Take what you will from this post, but I hope I've made it clear that no matter how you feel about global warming, we can't ignore the obvious. Carbon Dioxide is now a pollutant because we've changed the map. It's time we own up to our responsibility of stewards of this planet and take action to protect not only the earth, but also ourselves, for this is the only place we currently have to live.

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