Letter to the Editor from Ret. Chief Justice Robert E. Bakes

Dear Editor,

This letter is a summary of a larger article which I submitted to The Advocate entitled, “Is Global Warming Bad? If So, Is There a Better Way to Stop It?” That article is a response to articles published in the January 2019 issue of The Advocate prepared by the Environment & Natural Resources Law Section.

Contrary to reports in the media and some in the scientific community, carbon dioxide (CO2) is not an air pollutant. The atmosphere consists of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), argon (.93%); carbon dioxide is only .04% (400 parts per million-ppm). However, even in that miniscule amount carbon dioxide is the gas that supports all life on earth through the process of photosynthesis, in which plants convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into vegetation. That vegetation forms the base of the food chain which supports all creatures, humans, animals, and insects. And the oxygen we breathe is a byproduct of that photosynthesis.

Without carbon dioxide, even in those minuscule amounts, there would be no vegetation on earth, no animals, and nothing for humans to eat. Put simply, we humans wouldn’t exist.

But we do exist, and comfortably too, thanks to conditions eons ago when the earth was much warmer, wetter, and carbon dioxide was in much higher concentrations. Those conditions produced the lush vegetation that was laid down millions of years ago and became the huge seams of coal, and pools of oil and natural gas, which brought humans out of the stone-age. That stored energy has provided the food, electricity and hundreds of thousands of other products that support the seven billion people currently living on this planet.

With the population estimated to reach 10 billion by the end of this century, the world will have to rely even more on that stored energy to feed, clothe and house an additional three billion people. The current global warming started about 150 years ago at the end of the last little ice age. That warming and the carbon-based commercial fertilizers manufactured from natural gas have increased the production of food necessary to feed the ever-increasing global population. Solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power can supplement the electricity supply, but nothing can replace carbon in the thousands of uses and products in which it forms the chemical base.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide can cause heat to be trapped in the atmosphere, potentially increasing global warming. But global temperatures oscillate naturally between warming and cooling in 1,500-year cycles. If trapped CO2 in the atmosphere does exacerbate the natural global warming phenomenon, there are geoengineering experiments currently being investigated to block sunlight from parts of the world to remediate global warming. The cost of that geoengineering is estimated to be only .01% of the hundreds of trillions of dollars necessary to deconstruct carbon from our energy mix and replace it with who knows what! The “green” anti-carbon revolution is a misnomer. It is carbon dioxide that makes things “green”!

The full article in response to the January 2019 issue is available below.

Retired Chief Justice Robert E. Bakes

Is Global Warming Bad?   If So, Is There a Better Way to Stop It?

(Without destroying our current carbon-based energy system)

The world is engaged in a massive expensive effort to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which most scientists and politicians believe is causing increased global warming.   And the costs of the current attempts to remediate that warming are astronomical.  As reported in an article in the 12/1/18 Economist magazine, p.68. (‘Verdant and vibrant”), “If the world is to tackle global warming, vast amounts of money–$3.5 trillion annually from now until 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, a forecaster—will have to flow into clean-energy research and generation.” That is more than $100 trillion to the year 2050 and $250 trillion by 2100.  And that doesn’t include the cost of retrofitting the existing energy system.

Despite the current worldwide attempts to restrict carbon dioxide emissions, the problem is getting worse.   The Idaho Statesman newspaper reported on 12/6/18 that Global carbon emissions recently soared to record highs, with India increasing 6%, China 5%, and the U.S. 2 ½%.  While the scientific community is divided, most believe that carbon dioxide is accelerating world temperature increases.   But that may not be all bad.  Increased global warming could help produce more food necessary to feed the anticipated 2-3 billion increase in the world population by the year 2100.  Even if on balance global warming causes more harm than good, there may be a better and cheaper way to contain global warming without the gigantic and expensive attack on the world’s carbon energy resources (coal, oil and natural gas), and the expense of retrofitting the entire existing world energy infrastructure–power generation and transmission, chemical and industrial uses, office buildings, homes– to a new energy regime.

First, it is important to recognize that there is very little carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere, which consists of Nitrogen-78%, Oxygen 21%, Argon .93 %, and Carbon dioxide only .04%,(400 parts per million(ppm).  Wikipedia, “Atmosphere-composition”.   However, even in that miniscule amount carbon dioxide is the compound that fuels all vegetation growth on earth thru a process called photosynthesis in which plants convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into the carbohydrates that produce vegetation.  Vegetation forms the base of the food chain for all creatures, human, animal or insect.  And oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis which maintains the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere which humans and animals need to survive.  Simply put, without carbon dioxide, even in that miniscule amount, there would be no life on earth because there would be no photosynthesis producing vegetation and oxygen.

Then, the ultimate questions which the world community must resolve are:    (1) if increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is accelerating natural cyclical warming, do the benefits of that additional CO2 induced warming to outweigh the damage which it causes; (2) if the global warming benefits do not outweigh the damage, is there a better way to control global warming without eliminating carbon/carbon dioxide from the world’s energy structure.

In a statement often attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, there are times when “a page of history is worth a volume of logic”.  Nowhere is that truer than in the role of carbon dioxide in the history of the world.   Geological history discloses that in eons past the earth was warmer, wetter, and vegetation was unimaginable dense, thanks to high carbon dioxide concentrations.  According to a 2017 article by Dennis T. Avery, an agricultural and environmental economist and senior fellow for the Center for Global Food issues in Virginia:

“Our crop plants evolved about 400 million years ago when CO2 in the atmosphere was about 5,000 parts per million!  Our evergreen trees and shrubs evolved about 360 million years ago, with CO 2 levels at about 4,000 ppm.  When our deciduous trees evolved about 160 million years ago, the CO2 level was about 2,200 ppm-still five times the current level.”

Dennis T. Avery

Most of the energy that currently drives the world’s economies come from those high carbon dioxide days millions of years ago that laid down vegetation in huge layers.  Those layers became seams of coal and pools of oil and natural gas.  Humans have been living off that stored energy since the beginning of time, but especially in the last 2-3 centuries.  Without that stored energy humans would still be living in the stone age.  While that supply won’t last forever, there’s probably enough for several more centuries.

But rapidly increasing carbon dioxide concentrations may create a problem– it tends to trap heat in the atmosphere, and in too great concentrations may cause increased global warming.   The word “increased” is the key.   The earth has been in a continual state of global warming since the last big ice age which occurred about 12,000-15,000 years ago, which covered most of North America with ice and snow, hundreds of feet thick in some places.  As reported by Dr. Avery, “What few realize, however, is that during the last Ice Age too little CO2 in the air almost eradicated mankind.  That’s when much colder water in oceans (that were 400 feet shallower than today) sucked most of the carbon dioxide from the air…The Ice Age’s combined horrors-intense cold, permanent drought and CO2 starvation-killed most of the plants on earth.  Only a few trees survived, in the mildest climates.  Much of the planet’s grass turned to tundra, which is much less nourishing to the herbivores [which] prehistoric humans depended on for food and fur.  Recent Cambridge University studies conclude that only about 100,000 humans were left alive worldwide when the current interglacial warming mercifully began.” (Avery at ps. 1-2)

Even the little ice age, which occurred more recently – about 3-5 centuries ago – substantially reduced temperatures in Europe causing major crop failures resulting in millions of people and animals starving.  The Norse, who settled in Greenland around the year 1000 A.D., during the Medieval Warm Period, farmed and raised grain and cattle for several hundred years until they were forced to abandon their settlements about 1500 A.D. because extreme lower temperatures during the little Ice Age made farming Impossible.  It had the same effect in North America.  While the indigenous people here did not have written languages, the record of such cooling is reflected in such events as the abandonment of the pueblos in the southwest U.S.

So, global warming and cooling is nothing new.   Warming has been occurring naturally in cycles, most recently after the end of the recent Little Ice Age, and geologically for eons before that.  However, the prior warming and cooling periods were slow enough, and populations were sparse enough, that populations were able to adjust without too much dislocation.   For example, the Norse had decades to relocate out of Greenland.  Holland had centuries to build up its dikes. But the current global warming is predicted by some scientists to cause oceans to rise too rapidly, causing dislocations, especially in low lying cities and countries.

But there are also major benefits from Global warming.    In an article in the December 1, 2018  issue of the Economist magazine entitled, “Good times in Grainville”, the Economist noted that in Russia “Rising temperatures and improving technologies mean longer growing seasons, higher crop yields and wider swathes of arable land in much of Russia”, … “Everyone is moving north”.  The article further notes that “In 2016 Russia became the world’s leading exporter of wheat for the first time since before the Russian revolution”… “Grain is our second oil,” said Aleksandr Tkachev, the agriculture minister.  During the early Soviet days, before the recent warming trend, Russia was an importer of grain.  Global warming has helped Russia become the world’s leading producer and exporter of wheat, which perhaps explains why Russia, and four other countries including the U.S., balked at “welcoming” the recent special report of the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Poland which severely criticized the inadequate goals to limit carbon dioxide emissions.     Global warming appears to be economically good for Russian agriculture– and probably for Canada as well, and for other countries in the world’s temperate zones which have large swathes of arable land which a warmer climate with more carbon dioxide would make more productive.

As reported by scientists S. Fred Singer Ph.D. and Dennis T. Avery in their book “ Unstoppable Global Warming-Every 1,500 Years”, (ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD 2008), world temperatures tend to oscillate between warming and cooling periods  of approximately 1,500 years, and the earth is currently in a warming phase since the end of the little Ice Age about 1850 A.D.  The increase in worldwide population has benefitted from “more CO2 in the air [which] enables plants to grow better at nearly all temperatures, but especially at higher temperatures…” (Unstoppable at p. 174)  The ever-increasing world population (from 7 billion to 10 billion by 2100) will require more food which global warming and increased carbon dioxide could help produce.   According to Singer and Avery, “Doubling the level of CO2 raises the net productivity of herbaceous plants by 30 to 50 percent and of trees and woody plants by 50 to 80 percent, based on extensive reviews of the research by Sherwood B. Idso and Bruce Kimball, then of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water conservation Laboratory and Henrik Saxe, of the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural School of Denmark.” (Unstoppable at p. 175).  That has been demonstrated in the greenhouse plant industry which in recent decades has been injecting high levels of CO2 into sealed greenhouses which substantially increases plant growth.  So before the world engages in an all-out war on carbon dioxide emissions, it should compare the benefits of global warming to its detriments.  Only if it appears that the damage it causes will substantially exceed the benefits, should the world consider rejecting the current carbon energy regime.

But even before that, we should examine to see if there is another way to stop excessive global warming without spending hundreds of trillions of dollars to restructure the entire world’s energy and economic systems to eliminate carbon dioxide.  There is a way called “stratospheric aerosol injection”—injecting aerosols high into the atmosphere.  It occurs naturally when there is a major volcanic eruption, such as occurred in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo erupted belching sulfate gases into the atmosphere causing a .5 degree cooling of the earth’s atmosphere.  The most dramatic example of stratospheric aerosol injection occurred 66 million years ago when a giant 7-mile wide asteroid hit the shore of the Yucatan peninsula causing the extinction of the dinosaurs and three-fourths of the species on earth.  As reported in the PBS NOVA program on January 22, 2019, it wasn’t the shock and heat wave that caused the extinction, although it killed everything within several hundred miles.  It was the mega tons of clouds of smoke, dust and sulfur dioxide hurled into the atmosphere which quickly spread around the world, eliminating substantially all sunlight for months or years causing a global winter.  With no sunlight, there was no photosynthesis and substantially all vegetation around the earth died causing the great animal extinction. According to NOVA, only a few small species survived, living on seeds not damaged by the blast, seeds which eventually sprouted bringing back vegetation to earth, starting the cycle over again.

Stratospheric aerosol injection could possibly solve the global warming problem.   As noted in another article in the Economist magazine, December 1st, 2018, ”The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that reflecting sunlight back into space before it warms the Earth’s surface, perhaps using particles—a form of ‘solar geoengineering’—is ‘highly likely’ to limit temperature rises”.

There are recent indications that some in the scientific community have started to recognize that solar geoengineering may be a better and cheaper way to control global warming if that is necessary or desirable.  Several years ago Harvard University established a Solar Geoengineering Research Program to study the possibility of controlling global warming by using aerosol injections into the atmosphere.   A recent article reported that Harvard scientists, supported by a $3 million dollar grant from Bill Gates and others, are preparing a geoengineering experiment in the spring of 2019 to “launch a maneuverable balloon into the stratosphere above the United States southwest…[to].programmatically release calcium carbonate into the stratosphere” to block out the sun’s rays from the earth as a way to defeat climate increase.  See https://prepforthat.com/harvard-scientists-block-sunsrays.com. (12/8/18)

Only recently has any effort has been made by governments, the scientific community, or the media, to evaluate the benefits of global warming, and to compare those benefits to the detriment that global warming might cause in parts of the world, such as low lying cities and countries which will be subject to flooding by rising seas.    But before the world gets too heavily invested economically and politically into trying to stop global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, it should consider the solar geoengineering option.  According to an article in Wikipedia “Around 5 million tons of SO2 delivered annually to an altitude of 20 to 30 km is predicted to sufficiently offset the expected warming over the next century” at an estimated cost of only 2 billion to 8 billion dollars annually. That amount is not even one one-hundredth(.01) of the estimated $3.5  trillion annual costs of the current global warming anti-carbon mitigation effort, as reported by the International Energy Agency in the Economist article.

But solar geoengineering has some complications too.  Which entity is going to determine how much warming will be allowed to occur?   If any country can control global warming by injecting aerosols high in the stratosphere that ultimately spreads around the world, then that country has control of the world’s thermostat.  While Russia and other countries and regions may want the world warmer so it can raise more grain and other agricultural crops, Holland and islands and low-lying countries along the oceans may want the world cooler to stop rising oceans.  And most countries and communities in the world will have conflicting interests.  For example, in Florida, the tourist industry will want stable ocean levels for its beaches and waterfront hotels and homes.  But as reported in the PBS news broadcast on Sunday, March 31, 2019, rising temperatures and ocean levels along the Florida east coast are allowing the Mangrove trees to migrate north protecting the shores from erosion and providing sanctuaries for fish and wildlife.  Further research would probably demonstrate thousands of such conflicting interests.    If any country that wants to lower the earth’s temperature, for whatever reason, can turn down the earth’s thermostat by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, which as previously noted is not that expensive, then it could become a “race to the bottom” by the country that wants the coolest world temperature.   Not a good prospect!

But is that any different than the current world situation where a majority of the countries are joining to try and stop global warming by limiting carbon dioxide emissions?  And as the world tries to establish carbon controls, India and China, and yes the United States, continue to increase CO2 output, while Russia, and other countries, benefit from global warming.   If most of the countries of the world think they can agree to invest hundreds of trillions of dollars in this century to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to control global warming (unsuccessfully so far), then they ought to be able to agree to invest even a small part of that capital on solar geoengineering research to control warming.   Some of those aerosols might even be positioned, like satellites, in geosynchronous orbits over equatorial areas where most global warming occurs, cooling the equatorial areas while allowing the northern climates to warm to improve agricultural production.

With so much at stake, it would seem prudent to divert at least some of the hundreds of trillions of dollars now being proposed to fight carbon-induced global warming into solar geoengineering research.  But it won’t be easy.  Most of the scientific community and world governments and community leaders are intellectually, economically and politically committed to spending hundreds of trillions of dollars to eliminate carbon from our energy mix, without any idea where those trillions will come from.  Never-the-less, suggesting that some funding be diverted to other possible alternatives to control global warming will face opposition from heavily entrenched vested economic and social interests.  However, solar geoengineering if successful would be infinitely cheaper than trying to eliminate carbon from the world’s energy supply, which may not even be economically feasible.  And allowing carbon dioxide to increase in the atmosphere would increase food production to feed the increasing world population.

It is important to recognize that burning carbon to generate energy does create air pollutants. Air pollution is a serious problem that must be addressed.  The removal of many air pollutants is currently being required in industry and automobiles.  However, public health requires that much more needs to be done to improve air quality, particularly in cities.

However, carbon dioxide is not an air pollutant!  It has been described as “the gas of life”.  It supports all plant life on this planet thru photosynthesis.  Without carbon dioxide, there would be no plants.  Without plants, there would be nothing for humans and animals to eat and no oxygen to breath.  Humans simply wouldn’t exist.

So if solar geoengineering can control global warming while allowing carbon dioxide to increase, it should at least be given a try before the world attempts to deconstruct the current carbon energy system.  But even if the world does decide to move ahead with a so-called “green” non-carbon revolution (an oxymoron–it’s carbon dioxide that makes things green), it first needs to answer two questions:  1) how much GDP is the world willing to sacrifice to deconstruct the current carbon energy system; and 2) where will the hundreds of trillions of dollars come from that it will take to create a non-carbon energy system.  Until those two questions can be answered satisfactorily and economically, there is only one practical choice–use the current carbon energy system, but invest and regulate it to improve air quality, particularly from autos and coal-fired plants.