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Earth is greener. Do SUVs deserve the credit?

Posted by Richard on June 10, 2008

It should be obvious to anyone who compares, say, the north coast of Alaska (top picture) to a tropical rainforest (bottom picture) that living things struggle when it's cold and thrive when it's warm. 

[UPDATE: Sorry, Internet Explorer 6 users — I just discovered you couldn't see the right-aligned pictures. I have no idea why and lack the patience to investigate. This seems to fix things.] 

ANWR coastal plain


If you remember your high school biology lesson on photosynthesis, you also know that CO2 is a natural fertilizer for plants, which remove the life-giving carbon and release the O2.

So there's really nothing all that unexpected about the NASA data on the Earth's biomass. Scientists analyzing the satellite measurements of plant matter on land were nonetheless surprised. Lawrence Solomon, a long-time environmentalist and recovering Anthropogenic Global Warming True Believer, explains (emphasis added):

The planet is the greenest it's been in decades, perhaps in centuries.

The results surprised Steven Running of the University of Montana and Ramakrishna Nemani of NASA, scientists involved in analyzing the NASA data. They found that over a period of almost two decades, the Earth as a whole became more bountiful by a whopping 6.2%. About 25% of the Earth's vegetated landmass — almost 110 million square kilometres — enjoyed significant increases and only 7% showed significant declines. When the satellite data zooms in, it finds that each square metre of land, on average, now produces almost 500 grams of greenery per year.

Why the increase? Their 2004 study, and other more recent ones, point to the warming of the planet and the presence of CO2, a gas indispensable to plant life. CO2 is nature's fertilizer, bathing the biota with its life-giving nutrients. Plants take the carbon from CO2 to bulk themselves up — carbon is the building block of life — and release the oxygen, which along with the plants, then sustain animal life. As summarized in a report last month, released along with a petition signed by 32,000 U. S. scientists who vouched for the benefits of CO2: "Higher CO2 enables plants to grow faster and larger and to live in drier climates. Plants provide food for animals, which are thereby also enhanced. The extent and diversity of plant and animal life have both increased substantially during the past half-century."

Screw Al Gore and the doomsayers — that sounds good to me. Unfortunately, it may be coming to an end, and all those "save the planet, reduce your carbon footprint" efforts may be horribly misguided (emphasis added):

This blossoming Earth could now be in jeopardy, for reasons both natural and man-made. According to a growing number of scientists, the period of global warming that we have experienced over the past few centuries as Earth climbed out of the Little Ice Age is about to end. The oceans, which have been releasing their vast store of carbon dioxide as the planet has warmed — CO2 is released from oceans as they warm and dissolves in them when they cool — will start to take the carbon dioxide back. With less heat and less carbon dioxide, the planet could become less hospitable and less green, especially in areas such as Canada's Boreal forests, which have been major beneficiaries of the increase in GPP and NPP.

Doubling the jeopardy for Earth is man. Unlike the many scientists who welcome CO2 for its benefits, many other scientists and most governments believe carbon dioxide to be a dangerous pollutant that must be removed from the atmosphere at all costs. Governments around the world are now enacting massive programs in an effort to remove as much as 80% of the carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.

If these governments are right, they will have done us all a service. If they are wrong, the service could be all ill, with food production dropping world wide, and the countless ecological niches on which living creatures depend stressed.

All the Gaia-worshippers' finger wagging aside, I don't believe that air conditioning and SUVs have played much of a role in 20th-century warming and CO2-level increases. Nonetheless, I think we all ought to do what we can to preserve the Earth's biomass by countering the misguided efforts of Al Gore's disciples. I'm going to help protect our forests by increasing my carbon footprint. I encourage you to join me — pledge to participate in Carbon Belch Day on June 12.

(HT: Watts Up With That?

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