Saturday, July 5, 2008

Global Warming - Two Book Reviews

This is one of the best pieces I've read on global warming, because it contains a very elegant solution that does not involve the impoverishment of countries such as China now in order to acheive a reduction of carbon in the future. For anyone who happens to see this blog entry and doesn't want to read the entire article, the most interesting item to me was the observation that every carbon atom in the world ends up as part of a plant within 12 years.

From the article:
There is a famous graph showing the fraction of carbon dioxide inthe atmosphere as it varies month by month and year by year [the graph is reproduced in the review]. It gives us our firmest and most accurate evidence ofeffects of human activities on our global environment. The graph isgenerally known as the Keeling graph because it summarizes thelifework of Charles David Keeling, a professor at the ScrippsInstitution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Keeling measured the carbon dioxide abundance in the atmosphere forforty-seven years, from 1958 until his death in 2005.


At this point I return to the Keeling graph, which demonstrates thestrong coupling between atmosphere and plants. The wiggles in thegraph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphereis incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with thecarbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands.That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to globalwarming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees"within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years. Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuel sand other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful,capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxidethat comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within thegrasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

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