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Tease/My Turn: Resisting the urge to leap

In the early 1970s, many policy decisions were made based on the fervor of the environmental movement despite our limited understanding of global processes. We have learned a lot since then, but the urge to leap before we look remain strong.

Today, many people consider climate change to be the most serious environmental problem of our time, and curtailing fossil fuel use is often seen as the cure-all. We must be careful, however, to approach the issue of climate change with scientific knowledge, as well as passion, so that we do not repeat the same mistake of making inappropriate policy decisions that worsen, rather than resolve, our problems.

Assuming that reductions in fossil fuel combustion alone will reduce global carbon dioxide levels is a passionate response to a complex environmental, as well as socioeconomic, issue. Much of the discussion on climate change focuses on fossil fuel combustion and the release of too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but the release of carbon dioxide is only part of the problem.

For example, the pollution of our oceans has a far greater potential impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels than our use of fossil fuels. The marine algae which live at the ocean surface produce up to 40 percent of the earth’s oxygen through photosynthesis and serve as major global consumers of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the process. When marine algae — in particular diatoms — sink to the ocean floor, the carbon dioxide they have absorbed becomes trapped in the sediment. Conversely, in addition to their role as carbon dioxide consumers, land plants release substantial amounts of carbon dioxide via root respiration and nighttime leaf respiration. Marine algae collectively account for a much larger carbon sink than what fossil fuel combustion contributes. A mere 1 percent reduction in carbon dioxide consumption by marine algae due to ocean pollution is equivalent to a tenfold increase in fossil fuel emissions. (For more information see, www.global-greenhouse-warning.com/global-carbon-cycle.html.)

As our global population expands, the demand for water, food, housing, jobs and energy will become more difficult to meet and our attempts at reducing carbon emissions will be viewed by many as a luxury we can’t afford. It’s great that people here in the developed world want to reduce energy consumption. Reductions in fossil fuel combustion in the U.S. will no doubt lead to cleaner air that will benefit our water resources and the communities that rely on them. But since such reductions in energy use are a less viable option for many in the developing world, as well as for some in the U.S., we must also consider other aspects of the problem. Limiting the discharge of waste and storm water pollution into oceans may have a greater benefit on climate change than any reduction in fossil fuel combustion could achieve.

Climate change is a complex issue requiring a complex and well-reasoned response. This time, let’s look before we leap into policies that may do more harm than good — otherwise we may be barking up the wrong tree, again.

Bruce Tease has a PhD in aquatic environmental microbiology and lives in Greenfield. He can be reached for comments at btease@comcast.net.

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