Global Warming May 2012

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  GLOBAL WARMING, GLOBAL DISRUPTIONStanley RiceProfessor of Biological Sciences at Southeastern Oklahoma State University*Presented at Tulsa, OklahomaSponsored by Oklahoma Academy of Sciences ( Sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education ( May 17, 2012*Not sponsored by Southeastern Oklahoma State UniversityIntroduction[Slide 2] Global warming (which will cause global climate change) is not the end of the world. We won’t have thousands of people falling over dead from the heat or running away from great walls of water pouring in from the ocean like Godzilla. It will not be like the movie The Day after Tomorrow.  But it does not have to be.[Slide 3] Our national and world economy is precariously based on the assumption that climatic conditions will remain the same in the future as they have been in the past. Global warming is going to negate that assumption. Even a little bit of climate change can cause disruption to our economy and to the natural world.[Slide 4] Global warming is not the only process that threatens to disrupt our economy in the future. Population growth is also a threat. For example, the rapid population growth in the American southwest is already putting strain on water supplies. Global climate change may reduce snowpack in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada and encourage the spread of deserts. The intersection of rapid population growth and global-climate-change-induced water shortages may prove disastrous for the American economy. A similar situation is developing in the Himalayas, Andes, and Africa.[Slide 5] We cannot ignore the effects of global climate change on the natural world. There are both environmentalists and anti-environmentalists who depict global warming as being a disaster for polar bears. But as environmentalist and businessman Paul Gilding indicates, the polar bears can take care of themselves. Nature can take care of itself. We need to worry about ourselves.[Slide 6] The more important point is that human civilization depends upon ecosystem   services. Ecosystem services are all of the things that the natural world (especially trees and other plants) do for us, for free. Of course, they aren’t really doing it for us. Trees are just trying to make a living by removing carbon dioxide from the air and by putting roots down into the soil. But, as it happens, those processes are greatly beneficial to us. Ecosystem services include oxygen production, carbon dioxide removal, soil-building, biodiversity (which benefits medical research), and pest control (wild birds and bats eat pests), and many other things. How could anyone put a dollar figure on ecosystem services? But economist Robert Costanza and colleagues tried to do just that. The number they came up with: $33 trillion a year. And that was in 1997 dollars. To my knowledge, nobody has attempted a revised estimate. You could think of it as the amount of money we would have to spend to compensate for those services if they were lost. If you cut down a forest, you may profit from the lumber or from development of the land, but you have lost the water regulation, carbon storage, and oxygen production that the forest was previously providing for free. Global climate change will damage natural ecosystems and reduce their ability to  provide these free services for us—especially since we are chopping down trees and paving over prairies at the very same time that we need their help in preventing global climate change.[Slide 7] I would like to begin by identifying my connection to the topic. When I was in graduate school, my advisor studied the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide enrichment on plant growth and was one of the first scientists to consider the possibility that carbon dioxide enrichment would affect different species in different ways (for example, flowers and pollinators). Later he explored the idea that global warming would greatly enhance the natural production of allergens. Since that time, I have written about global warming in two of my books, Green Planet   and  Encyclopedia of Biodiversity.  My  Encyclopedia of Global Warming   was under contract but the New York publisher has stopped publishing books and the project is in limbo. Some of my current research involves the study of spring  budburst times in deciduous trees as an indicator of biological response to climate change.[Slide 8] I would also like to identify my biases. We all have biases, and we should get them out in the open. I am a botanist. So I love trees. You might think that this makes me side with extreme environmentalism, with declaring global warming to be the end of the world. But this is actually not the case. My bias would be to agree with the organization represented by the denialist website They say, don’t worry about carbon dioxide; plants absorb it from the air and make food out of it; and the more carbon dioxide there is in the air, the more the plants will grow. As a botanist who studied  photosynthesis in graduate school, as the author of Green Planet: How Plants Keep the   Earth Alive,  this viewpoint appeals to me greatly.  Hooray! Plants will save the world!  It is with a heavy heart that I report to you that this viewpoint is wrong. (1) Carbon dioxide levels are increasing in the atmosphere every year, and have been doing so for decades at least; plants have not prevented this. Furthermore, in order for plants to cleanse the air of carbon dioxide, they need good soil and plenty of water. If drought accompanies warming,  plants can’t cleanse the air of carbon. (2) Field experiments have shown that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air sometimes causes greater plant growth, and sometimes does not; and it may stimulate plant growth only temporarily. The slogan of is, “CO2 —We call it life!” Well, so do I. Without the help of plants, carbon dioxide levels would be rising a lot faster—but it is still rising.[Slide 9] I would also like to identify my bias regarding the type of solution we should  pursue. I have a strong preference for what are sometimes called “no regrets” solutions. These are solutions—such as energy efficiency—that we would benefit from doing anyway, even if they did not help to reduce carbon emissions. Back about 1978 I used to drive a car that got 14 miles a gallon. It wasn’t big, or sexy, but just inefficient. I produced a lot of emissions. I drive a Toyota now, which has almost three times the fuel efficiency. Reduced emissions are not the only reason I prefer the car I now drive. No regrets.  National fuel efficiency standards are not something that we increased  solely  to reduce carbon emissions or global warming. We also did it to reduce dependence on Middle East oil, for example. Just in case we are wrong—that global warming turns out to be maybe worse than we thought, or not as bad as we thought—we should, I think, choose solutions that are good to do anyway.[Slide 10] Humans have biases. I have them. So do the thousands of petroleum engineers who have signed petitions saying that they do not believe global warming is happening. At least in my case my job would be unaffected by whichever opinion I had. As a competent  professor of biology, I could emphasize in my teaching the role that plants have in cleaning the air of carbon dioxide. I could join with the folks. But can a petroleum engineer really have no bias whatsoever in favor of burning petroleum? I was born in Cushing, Oklahoma. If I still lived there, I suspect I would be all excited about the southern  portion of the Keystone Pipeline. I’m happy that our state, including the state university system, benefits fr om tax revenues made possible by natural gas. You see, I have biases  both ways. I think  it is unfair to paint anyone who talks about global warming as being an environmental extremist. I wrote a letter to Senator Tom Coburn once, and his response (or the response of his staff) was, in effect, why do you hate oil so much? Look at all the wonderful things oil has done. Well, of course, I had never said that I hated oil. That was  not a conversation that I chose to continue.Global warming: Too much of a good thingGlobal warming can be caused either by increased sunlight intensity or by the buildup of greenhouse gases.(1)[Slide 11] Sunlight intensity can increase either when more light comes from the sun, as sometimes happens, or when sunlight hits the Earth more directly. About every 100,000 years, the movement of the Earth relative to the Sun causes the sunlight to strike the Northern Hemisphere (where most of the land is) at a lower angle. The Northern Hemisphere cools, and ice builds up. During the last two million years there have been about twenty ice ages as a result. Ice ages alternate with interglacial periods in which sunlight strikes the Earth more vertically and warms it back up. This is known as the Milankovi !  cycles and they caused the ice ages. Ice ages did not occur before two million years ago because there was a strong tropical current—the powerful ancestor of the modern Gulf Stream—that kept the Arctic Ocean warm. Back in dinosaur days there was no Arctic Ocean, and ocean currents kept the Earth mild. Dinosaurs, and the trees that they ate, lived almost up to the North Pole.[Slide 12] Calculations performed by climate scientists (using powerful computers) indicate that modern global warming is partly due to an increase in sunlight intensity—but sunlight accounts for only about 8 percent of modern global warming. The best place to find scientific information about global warming is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ( This panel publishes consensus documents approved by scientists and government representatives from countries all over the world, including America.(2)[Slide 13] Greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, are invisible, which means that visible light from the Sun can pass right through them. However, carbon
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