Thursday, January 8, 2015

Carbon dioxide--Good or Bad?

The Danger of Narrow Viewpoints

I was surprised to see an article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post a few weeks ago that reported that the fossil fuel industry has begun touting the benefits of carbon dioxide.  Two days later, I saw a pro-CO2 bumper sticker.  This got my attention.

According to the report, the industry is doing an about-face.  For years, they have been saying that reports of global warming are false.  Now, though, they are admitting that fossil fuels are causing an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--but they are contending that is a good thing!  The basis of their argument is that CO2 is required for plants to grow, so more CO2 in the air will boost agricultural productivity and help feed the world's growing population. 

The argument reminded me of the old adage, "It's an ill wind that blows no good."

The argument also reminds me of a point that has become a central theme of many of my blogs, as well as of some of my other activities--that energy supply is an extremely complex, multifaceted arena, and that it is a serious mistake to make decisions based on single measures, good or bad.

Every technology has pros and cons, and looking at any single measure presents a distorted reality.  This is as true of "renewable" advocates who tout the lack of emissions from wind and solar plants, but ignore issues of reliability, needs for limited rare earth supplies, land requirements, etc., as it is of "antis" of any stripe (fossil, nuclear, or other) who single out a concern without putting it in perspective based on the relative level of risk and possible mitigating strategies.  

Let's look at the CO2 argument as an example.  Yes, CO2 is essential for plants.  We all learned that in biology class.  If that were the only measure of importance, we would not have to think about the future at all.  We could continue to spew out as much CO2 as possible.

But that is not the only measure of importance.  That same CO2 is expected to have serious climatic effects.  OK, some would say that may not be all bad, either.  Siberia could become the new breadbasket of the world.  BUT, at the same time, current areas of high agricultural productivity could become deserts and cease to be productive.  And rising sea levels could devastate heavily populated coastal areas of many countries, and even wipe out some island nations. 

I could add many more potential effects--on wildlife, disease, etc.--as well as noting the health effects of other pollutants from fossil fuels.

I would fully agree with anyone who notes that some of these effects are speculative, or may not prove to be as devastating as we now think.  There may be factors we don't yet fully understand that counterbalance some of these effects, and there may be some effects that human engineering can mitigate or reverse.

And I would also agree that we need to continue the use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that some of the effects being postulated will be proved real, and that any mitigation is likely to be difficult and costly, and possibly to have other side effects.    

While I can understand the temptation of the fossil fuel industry to go on the offensive to counter what they believe to be the negative image of their industry, I don't think such a narrow and distorted presentation is either ethical or productive.     

It would be far more constructive if they would work to help understand the potential effects better, to contribute to strategies to deal with any effects, and to improve techniques for carbon capture and sequestration.


1 comment:

  1. I agree that it is unethical to distort the science. But some in the fossil fuel industry are mimicking the tactics of some in the nuclear industry (radiation is natural, it doesn't cause cancer). Who themselves are mimicking the tactics of some within the cigarette industry (tobacco is natural, it doesn't cause cancer).

    It's a systemic problem.