Saturday, January 30, 2010

"A voice in the wilderness"

From San Diego By Bill Manson

....I’ve come to see Oechel because he’s a legend in green circles. Long before most, he was studying the tundra in Alaska and Iceland for signs that it was about to begin defrosting. He’s also known for resisting corporate pressures to play ball and stay quiet. He’s authored pioneering papers detailing how a few degrees’ warming is causing the Arctic tundra to change from a reliable frozen carbon sink to a potential carbon bomb, releasing thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon in short order. After he published that, he says, the Department of Energy cut $500,000 from his research grant in 1992. Two years later, when he published a paper demonstrating that higher CO2 levels don’t stimulate ecosystems long-term, a second $500,000 was taken away. The last $300,000 of his D.O.E. grant was withdrawn after another paper on carbon and global warming came out.

But he has hung in there, all the while training another generation of ecophysiologists like himself.

“The poles are the radiators for the planet,” Oechel says. “They radiate energy to outer space because of the reflections from snow, the clear sky, the low humidity. They’re net exporters of energy to space, while the mid-latitudes and the equator are net importers of energy. The Arctic has become our canary in the coal mine.”

But his contribution to the Copenhagen debate boils down to one word: population.

“I’m unaware of anyone dealing with this double-edged sword of an increasing population and an increasing resource use.” We are approaching the Perfect Storm, he says: Just as Earth reaches her limits of tolerance for carbon emissions, the developing world is about to explode in fossil-fuel-driven consumerism, led by China and India. “Over the 30 years I’ve been involved in climate-change research, China has gone from a per capita CO2 emission of 1/32 of that of America to about 1/3. I’m not picking on China. Most of the developing world wants to develop, and if the developing world reaches just 1/3 the U.S.’s resource use — and if you apply that to the current population of almost 7 billion, let alone a likely future population of 13 billion or more — it just explodes in terms of CO2 emissions and resource use.”

Oechel is part of the first generation of eco-academics who’ve had to muscle their way into an academe (along with their corporate backers) not ready for them.

“My formal training is as an ecophysiologist,” he says. “Since the late ’70s, the focus of my research has been on the impact of increasing atmospheric CO2 on natural ecosystems. For instance, the new estimates for the Arctic now are that there may be 1.7 thousand gigatons of carbon in the upper three meters of soil. If any significant fraction of that came out as CO2 and methane, it would have a huge perturbation on existing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Because the total atmospheric CO2 now is less than 800 gigatons. So there’s a huge potential impact of that organic matter being oxidized and released to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.”

Oechel believes we’re doing “more poorly than the worst emissions scenario we could imagine. It doesn’t take much math to say, ‘We’ve got an increasing population and an increasing per capita consumption.’ It just doesn’t pencil out. If we started draconian reduction scenarios now, we would still see 600 to 700 ppm [of CO2] in the atmosphere or more [up from 380 ppm now]. So, it really is misleading and cynical to talk about switching out lightbulbs and carpooling. Somebody’s got to step back and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a problem which goes well beyond these issues on the surface.’ And it’s not that we couldn’t do something. It’s just that there appears to be no political will to do it and very little education and information, so people don’t even realize where we are and where we’re headed.”

Oechel once met with Al Gore for a couple of hours, long before Al released his movie. “In the lecture, he had nothing on [the effect of a burgeoning world] population and nothing on increasing global consumption. I talked with him — argued with him — for a couple of hours, and with his staff. He really thought technology was going to solve everything. I was astonished, someone as intelligent as Al Gore missing the big picture.”

So what should San Diego do? “In addition to the things on the table at Copenhagen, I think we need a big analysis like the IPCC [the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] but to include population and economic growth as well as analysis of the best available and emerging technologies. So far, people steer clear of anything that looks like population control. I believe that can’t continue. For instance, I haven’t seen anyone calculate the thermal output of humans. I think every person puts out heat the equivalent of a 75-watt incandescent lightbulb. So you take 7 billion people, you’ve got 525 billion watts in heat. That’s not trivial [when you’re calculating]. Just from human metabolism.

“Let’s say San Diego adopted the [San Diego Foundation Regional Focus] 2050 report, and we reduced our carbon output by half, and that’s doable. It would make San Diegans feel good, but then what? It would only be of use if it became a model for other communities and governments to pick up.”

...They say it would require five-plus Earths to sustain us if the whole world wanted to live at Western standards. It’s physically not doable. So we have to decide: do we want fewer people, educated and living in a fairly appropriate manner, with enough to eat and shelter? Or do we want 14 billion living like cockroaches? Right now, we’re going for the 14 billion cockroaches.”...

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