Combustion of Fossil Fuel - A Global Impact
An Opposing View
Our newsletter #184 Reissued March 26, 2010, concerned itself with the impact of combustion of fossil fuels on the survival of what we (poetically) termed the "Inhabitants of Earth."
Responses did not delay, of agreement and disagreement alike. Dr. Randy Golding sent us an enlightening, differing viewpoint that I wanted to share. You can respond to Randy through our email in case you want to continue this dialogue. I enhanced his wording with images so as to make you stop and reflect; but the wording is totally his.
Dr. Golding says:
Yes, you are wrong to worry about oxygen reduction. Carbon dioxide toxicity for humans is 100 times the current concentration. Burning all the world's known oil reserves in one day would increase the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere by 17%. Burning the same amount of coal the same day would increase the total amount to a 34% increase, from the current level of 0.00038 to 0.0005. This would reduce the oxygen available by the altitude equivalent of 10 feet: the difference between the oxygen available to the life guard versus the people lying on the beach.
That carbon dioxide level would stay constant if all the plants in the world stopped producing oxygen, but of course the only way to stop the plants from making oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide levels will be to replace them with solar energy conversion devices.
Notice that burning all the oil known to us would increase carbon dioxide levels by a smaller amount than occurred between the beginning of the industrial age and now. It is a fact that rises in carbon dioxide levels always follow rises in temperature and that the temperature always goes up first. It is not possible to have causes follow effects.
If we are fortunate enough to burn all the oil, the rate of plant growth worldwide would likewise increase significantly. Plants would need less water to grow, most of the oxygen would be produced in the oceans and the rate at which carbon is permanently sequestered from the atmosphere by ocean plants would also increase by a commensurate factor.
The Earth's global temperature may or may not increase, but not by enough to matter to anything but species without the ability to adapt to small changes. The least effect on temperature would be in tropical climates where water vapor already dominates the greenhouse effect. The biggest change would be in the temperature at the poles.
This would not threaten any species at all. Currently the carbon dioxide infrared absorption lines are dark, meaning that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere has almost no effect on the amount of radiation absorbed by the atmosphere. It merely shortens the height of atmosphere required to absorb it all.
I understand that polar bears can swim up to 100 miles in open ocean and that they are migratory animals that frequent the shores of Hudson Bay which freezes in the winter. There also seem to be plenty of land masses that remain within the ice cap. If the polar bears are so vulnerable to changes in the northern ice cap, how did they survive the last few global warming cycles since the last ice age, the ones we did not cause?
Isn't that an amusing if not famous picture of the "stranded" polar bears that are sunning themselves on a small iceberg while curiously looking at the passing eco-tourists? How is that for an inconvenient fact? What other species are people are worried will perish, the plankton, the krill or the humpback whales? All of these also flourish in the summer up there.
That brings us to the topic of rising ocean levels.
Even if we could get the global temperature to rise, the ocean levels are not going to be anything to worry about. Holland was there during the last warm period during the dark ages and the Dutch did not have to move their sea ports closer to the ocean as they began to trade with the Spice Islands during the last major cooling period.
Now even if the ocean levels were to rise, the question is not environmental but economic. Does it cost the economy more to build sea walls around major cities, or move the cities than to strangle them in eternally higher energy costs? Does anyone actually believe that energy costs will go down after expensive alternative energy sources become cheaper than artificially expensive carbon fuels? Does anyone believe that current governments are not interested in increasing the cost of carbon fuels by whatever means necessary?
Now on to the environmental issues, the real issues. What kind of damage do you think will be done to the environment by producing the amount of energy we need from sunlight? How much of the surface of the earth currently used by plants, the basis of the food chain for all living things, will be taken by humans for non-food uses?
The best way for humanity to achieve independence from carbon fuels is to give the most developed countries all the cheap fuel they can possibly use at the lowest price at which it can be provided, so that the economies available to produce the technology that will be needed when the transition away from carbon makes economic sense will be running full power in order to best fund the research.
That way, 3rd world countries will have cheaper energy during their entire development cycle, even after carbon fuels become more expensive than alternative sources.
The best thing of all is that by doing so, we won't all be doing the bidding of the Chinese in the meanwhile.
Randy Golding, Ph.D., Chemistry