Building a world of
resilient communities.



Reactions to the phytoplankton crisis

As I was preparing my post How We Wrecked The Oceans—Part II, I ran across several reactions from scientifically illiterate but politically savvy bloggers. I want to go through some of what they said. I am not here to praise them.

Several readers picked up on my remarks that the catastrophic result—we have lost 40% of the phytoplankton in the oceans since 1950—seems unlikely because surely we would be feeling the effects of such a disaster now. The Earth's major processes (it's primary productivity, the carbon cycle) don't change overnight—there is a lot of inertia in these systems. A major shift may take decades or even centuries to play out, even given the very rapid changes (in Geological Time) humankind has set in motion. Right now, our best knowledge says we have lost phytoplankton in the oceans at a rate of 1%/year since 1899. Until some new research casts doubt on that result, we must provisionally assume it is accurate.

Writing at The Atlantic, business & economics editor Megan McArdle gave us her views in The Phytoplankton Panic. She quotes and reacts to political blogger Kevin Drum's Phytoplankton Dammerung

Kevin Drum brings the gloom:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can't possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action.

As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you'd rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

I actually think that Kevin misses the point a little:  if this is true, 2% of GDP isn't going to cut itWe'd better get back to an emissions level around 1940, or earlier, and stay there.  Being that we now have about 2.5 times as many people in the country, and the world, as we did then, that's going to be tricky.  If higher emissions means the trend will continue, we're pretty much doomed...

Drum, writing at Mother Jones, immediately makes the phytoplankton result a political issue. Liberal Democrats ("the Good Guys") can fix this problem at minimal cost but Conservative Republicans ("the Bad Guys") won't let them. Here's what the Congressional Budget Office said about Waxman-Markey, the House version of the CO2 cap & trade bill to which Drum is referring—

Reducing the risk of climate change would come at some cost to the economy. For example, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concludes that the cap-and-trade provisions of H.R. 2454 [Waxman-Markey], the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACESA), if implemented, would reduce gross domestic product (GDP) below what it would otherwise have been—by roughly ¼ percent to ¾ percent in 2020 and by between 1 percent and 3½ percent in 2050. By way of comparison, CBO projects that real (inflation-adjusted) GDP will be roughly two and a half times as large in 2050 as it is today, so those changes would be comparatively modest. In the models that CBO reviewed, the long-run cost to households would be smaller than the changes in GDP...

I assume Drum's 2% of GDP cost estimation for fixing global warming is roughly the midpoint of between 1 and 3½ percent in GDP in 2050.

This is the proverbial Free Lunch, which as we should all know by now, does not exist. Extraordinarily optimistic assumptions have been made about the growth in and the efficacy of carbon-free energy technology, and about future economic growth, where GDP is assumed to be roughly two and a half times as large in 2050 as it is now. When assessed against all this future growth, the cost of mitigating global warming is basically nothing, as Drum assumes. This is pure fantasy. And what of McArdle's bold assertion that we need to get back to 1940 CO2 emissions levels and stay there?

Here is the graph from the International Energy Agency showing what needs to be done to stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere at 450 ppm (parts-per-million). It is taken from my long, technical article Economic Growth And Climate Change — No Way Out?

Source: IEA's 2009 World Energy Outlook. As the IEA's caption notes, global economic growth (in real terms) is assumed to be 2.7% per year after 2030.

Look at the curve, study the graph. Does that look doable to you? To fix anthropogenic climate change, we must return to pre-1940 levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and maintain those levels indefinitely as the human economy grows exponentially out to 2150. Can we achieve this? Of course not—these kind of scenarios are delusional!

But through the lens of politics & business-as-usual, not only can we achieve 450 ppm, but it will only cost roughly ¼ percent to ¾ percent of GDP in 2020 and by between 1 percent and 3½ percent of GDP in 2050. Paul Krugman's Who cooked the planet? makes precisely the same brain dead point Kevin Drum does about Good Guys versus Bad Guys (and those evil Chinese). Such is the level of political discourse in the United States.

Am I right to say that politics makes you stupid as I first wrote in All We Have Is Each Other? Perhaps it's a chicken & egg problem—which comes first? The politics? Or the stupidity?

Returning to our intrepid bloggers, Drum notes that the BBC made sure to include a sanitized version of the phytoplankton catastrophe—

If the planet continues to warm in line with projections of computer models of climate, the overall decline in phytoplankton might be expected to continue. But, said, Daniel Boyce, that was not certain. "It's tempting to say there will be further declines, but on the other hand there could be other drivers of change, so I don't think that saying 'temperature rise brings a phytoplankton decline' is the end of the picture," he said.

Boyce is waiting around for something magical to happen which will reverse the phytoplankton decline. The Atlantic blogger McArdle picks up on this theme in the third of her attempts to rescue the situation—

1.  It's one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they're using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we're now using.  That doesn't mean they're wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we're burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we're burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction. 

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen...

I agree with her first point. (How could I not?) Her second point says all the carbon we're burning used to be in the atmosphere. Well, yes, it was in the atmosphere at some point, but not all at the same time! (The last time CO2 levels were at current levels is thought to have been the early Miocene Epoch about 22 million years ago.) Apparently, Megan is unfamiliar with the Earth's Carbon Cycle.

As to the third point, the climate was in a (more or less) stable equilibrium throughout the last interglacial period (the Holocene Epoch, roughly the last 12,000 years) until we humans disturbed that equilibrium. There is little reason to expect some Gaia-like thermostat to kick in which will preserve the former stability when we consider the massive, unnatural pressure we have exerted on Earth's natural systems. This is just wishful thinking, but who knows? Maybe we'll get lucky!

It is not my intention to depress you today by pointing out the likely impossibility of fixing this phytoplankton crisis, especially if we've truly got an unreversible trend on our hands. But there is no excuse for whitewashing the problem, and there is no excuse for scientific illiteracy when that's what we need more of in public policy discussions. I have little faith in the ability of Homo sapiens to fix the problems our species has created, and the mindless remarks of people like McArdle, Drum and Krugman only reinforce that belief.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.

Take action!  

Find out more about Community Resilience. See our COMMUNITIES page
Start your own projects. See our RESOURCES page.
Help build resilience. DONATE NOW.


This is a community site and the discussion is moderated. The rules in brief: no personal abuse and no climate denial. Complete Guidelines.

Sandra Postel: Repairing the Water Cycle

El Niño has been dropping much-needed rain this winter on a parched …

Recognizing the Rights of Nature and the Living Forest

“The message our Living Forest proposal delivers is aimed at the …

Learning from the Life of Murray Bookchin

Ten years ago, American radical Murray Bookchin drew his last breath in the …

Does your City have a Future?

In the past, as in the future, local ecosystem resources were the key to the …

The World's Forest Will Collapse if we Don't Learn to Say No

An alarming new study has shown that the world’s forests are not only …

Carbon Tax: The Low Oil Price Opportunity

Carbon taxes constitute a widely discussed policy tool for reducing …

Beyond the Oregon Protests: The Search for Common Ground

Thrust into the spotlight by a group of anti-government militants as a place …