Saturday, March 16, 2013

Climate Change: The 90% Solution (Not)

I wish Joe Nocera would stop writing about climate change, so I can get on with my life.  Unfortunately, he keeps spouting nonsense—aggressively malicious nonsense directed at climate activists—and, like the saying has it, silence is acquiescence.  And we certainly don’t want to do that.

So here we go again.  This time Nocera is talking up “A Real Carbon Solution”, which turns out to be a coal gasification program in Texas.  It is the very future of energy, the soul of sustainable development.  You see, they will turn the coal into gas before they burn it, capture 90% of the carbon and use it either for fertilizer or to pump out more oil from hard-to-get deposits.  Everyone who is enlightened is on board.

But there is a serpent in the garden, and his name is Bill McKibben, the same guy Nocera has repeatedly attacked for his opposition to the Keystone pipeline.  We are told that McKibben is so deluded that he is unable to understand what causes greenhouse gas accumulation and what doesn’t.  He just doesn’t get that fossil fuels aren’t the problem; we just have to burn them better, so that energy companies and environmentalists can be reunited in a circle of joy.  McKibben has dustheap of history written all over him, right?

Of course, as you may have already suspected, McKibben, who has been booking up on the topic for over 20 years and consults with leading climate scientists, actually has a pretty good handle on what causes what, and it’s Nocera who glaringly exposes his ignorance.

Take the carbon we extract from the goal gas and spread on our fields.  It will just stay there, right?  After all, how can you pollute the atmosphere if you sprinkle the stuff on topsoil?  And what’s wrong with pumping more oil?  What does that have to do with climate change?

If, on the off chance, Nocera has a glimmer of doubt and wants to see if there’s an aspect of the science he may have overlooked, I would recommend that he search under “carbon cycle” and “carbon exchange”.  It’s part of an obscure field of study called “ecology”.  He might be surprised to find out that chemical substances actually move through soil, water, atmosphere and living organisms, and that clever humans haven’t found a way yet to build a wall around any piece of the system and keep carbon where we put it.  Unless you truly pump the stuff back into the deep earth and keep it isolated for eons, extracting carbon is the problem.  What you do with it after you extract it is strictly second-order, because it, well, cycles.

But don’t take it from me.  Read up on it yourself.  In particular, ground yourself in the study of biogeochemical cycling.  You just might avoid making statements in public that are simply ignorant and mean.

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