Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Something odd happened between April 2017 and July 2018. I haven’t discovered exactly what prompted it but the rather good science writer and journalist, Carl Zimmer, seems to have flipped his wig. Well, at least he flipped his viewpoint on Global Greening.
In April 2017, Zimmer wrote a nice article for the New York Times titled “Antarctic Ice Reveals Earth’s Accelerating Plant Growth”. The article is a straightforward report on research performed by Dr. J. E. Campbell of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, University of California in Merced, California (and others…) called “Large historical growth in global terrestrial gross primary production” published 5 April 2017 in the journal Nature.
Eric Worral did a WUWT news brief on the 30 July ’18 Carl Zimmer NY Times article. I thought the issue needed a little more attention — in fact, I thought it needed a series of four essays, of which this is the first.
Zimmer reported in the New York Times (in April 2017):
“Analyzing the ice, Dr. Campbell and his colleagues have discovered that in the last century, plants have been growing at a rate far faster than at any other time in the last 54,000 years. Writing in the journal Nature, they report that plants are converting 31 percent more carbon dioxide into organic matter than they were before the Industrial Revolution.
The increase is because of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere, which fertilizes the plants, Dr. Campbell said. The carbon in the extra plant growth amounts to a staggering 28 billion tons each year. For a sense of scale, that is three times the carbon stored in all the crops harvested across the planet every year.“ ….
“The pace of change in photosynthesis is unprecedented in the 54,000-year record,” Dr. Campbell said. While photosynthesis increased at the end of the ice age, he said, the current rate is 136 times as fast.
With all that extra carbon dioxide going into plants, there has been less in the air to contribute to global warming. The planet has warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, but it might be even hotter if not for the greening of the Earth.” ….
More carbon dioxide might spur even more growth. But many climate models project that plants will suffer as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift. Despite the extra carbon dioxide, worldwide plant growth may fall, and plants will no longer help to buffer the impact of global warming.
“I’ve been referring to this as a carbon bubble,” Dr. Campbell said. “You see ecosystems storing more carbon for the next 50 years, but at some point you hit a breaking point.”
— Carl Zimmer, writing in “Antarctic Ice Reveals Earth’s Accelerating Plant Growth”
That’s what Zimmer reported in the April 2017 NY Times article. That is a nicely written, well-balanced piece of writing. The topic discussed is what is often called “Global Greening”, as shown by NASA in this image.
A bing search for “global greening” returns an interesting set of results. I am treated to a definition of global greening from The Guardian, then a link to a NASA page “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds”, and then a News About Global Greening section which leads off with “‘Global Greening’ Sounds Good. In the Long Run, It’s Terrible.” which was written in 30 July 2018 by the very same Carl Zimmer who authored of the piece featured at the beginning of this essay.
By July 2018, Zimmer has flip-flopped and his new piece is trying to convince us that more plant life, more photosynthesis, aka Global Greening, is a bad thing. How can that be?
Here’s excerpts from Zimmer’s latest:
Rising carbon dioxide levels are making the world greener. But that’s nothing to celebrate.
“Global greening” sounds lovely, doesn’t it? … Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, and we are now emitting 40 billion tons of it into the atmosphere each year. A number of small studies have suggested that humans actually are contributing to an increase in photosynthesis across the globe.. ….
Elliott Campbell, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues last year published a study that put a number to it. Their conclusion: plants are now converting 31 percent more carbon dioxide into organic matter than they were before the Industrial Revolution. ….
“Recently I talked Dr. Campbell and …. Here are four reasons he believes nobody should be celebrating “global greening.””
Remember, just the April before, Zimmer talked to Dr. Campbell, and wrote the first news item about Global Greening — a fair scientific approach and mostly positive about the effects of greening. But now, Zimmer has gone back to Dr. Campbell to find out what is bad about greening…..and he tells us exactly why he is now trying to make a good thing look bad.
Apparently, when Global Greening was Good News, it was also Good News for the Bad Guys. And you know what that means….all right thinking “good guys” (those in the Climate Alarm business) now have to make sure that the Good News is really Bad News so that the general public won’t listen to those Bad Guys – the Climate Science Skeptics. Zimmer has to double back and paint his earlier views over with some green-wash — because here’s what the Bad Guys said:
“So-called carbon pollution has done much more to expand and invigorate the planet’s greenery than all the climate policies of all the world’s governments combined,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute declared shortly after the study came out.
“The best messages are positive: CO2 increases crop yields, the earth is greening,” wrote Joseph Bast, the chief executive officer of the Heartland Institute, in an October 2017 email obtained by EE News.
In June, Mr. Bast co-authored an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he cited Dr. Campbell’s work as evidence of the benefits of fossil fuels. Our unleashing of carbon dioxide contributes “to the greening of the Earth,” he said.
— Carl Zimmer, writing in “‘Global Greening’ Sounds Good. In the Long Run, It’s Terrible.”
So, Zimmer now says, in July 2018, “Recently I talked Dr. Campbell, and as it turns out, he feels people like Mr. Bast are drawing the wrong lessons from his research.” Let me translate that for you…just guessing of course, but roughly this means — “For heaven’s sake, Campbell, the climate skeptics are making hay out of your global greening study, and pointing to my piece in the NY Times for support! I’ve had a dozen calls complaining that I’m helping the skeptics — you’ve got to tell me what’s bad about global greening so I can debunk my own April 2017 article on your research!”. So that’s what Campbell does — together, he and Zimmer manage to squeak out four “bad things” about Global Greening.
Bad Things About Global Greening: (quoted from Zimmer’s article — not my fault if they don’t make sense –kh)
1. “More Photosynthesis Doesn’t Mean More Food“
2. “Extra Carbon Dioxide Can Make Plants Less Nutritious”
3. “More Plants Won’t Prevent Climate Change”
4. “Global Greening Won’t Last Forever”
It is fascinating how Zimmer (and Campbell, we are told) agree that these points, which range from not-true through vaguely-true to trivially-true, add up to “It’s Terrible!” — but Zimmer has been caught out on the wrong side of the Climate Wars DMZ and must prove his loyalty to the Consensus Team — and makes a fool of himself in doing so. As each of these points requires their own discussion, this essay will be Part 1 of 4
Let’s look at #1 — “More Photosynthesis Doesn’t Mean More Food”.
Zimmer quotes Campbell saying “Yes, we now get far more food from each acre of farmland than we did a century ago. But extra carbon dioxide only accounts for a small fraction of the increase.” “A 30 percent increase in photosynthesis does not translate into a 30 percent increase in strawberries off the land,” said Dr. Campbell.” This is, of course, trivially true — the increase in photosynthesis doesn’t all go into production of food for humans — it does translate into an equal increase in food for the living things of Earth.
Zimmer should have quoted the IPCC — as Vanessa Schipani, writing at https://www.factcheck.org, does in her piece CO2: Friend or Foe to Agriculture? [ NB: FactCheck.org is a left-leaning political “fact checking” site — generally happy to confirm any liberal/progressive statement and deny or denigrate conservative viewpoints] telling readers:
“The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report does say that increased atmospheric CO2 has “virtually certainly enhanced [crop] water use efficiency and yields.” So, [Lamar] Smith is right that more CO2 leads to more photosynthesis, which correlates to increased crop yields. And he’s also right that “[s]tudies indicate that crops would utilize water more efficiently” in an atmosphere with more CO2.
But the IPCC adds that the CO2 effect has a greater impact on wheat and rice, than on corn and sugarcane. [NB: 95% of plants are C3, like wheat and rice, and only 5% are C4 like maize and sugarcane – kh]
Photosynthesis in wheat and rice relies more on CO2 in the atmosphere, while corn and sugarcane rely more on “internal cycling” during photosynthesis, Jerry Hatfield, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and The Environment, explained to us over the phone.”
Schipani at least quotes the real science as it applies to the question. CO2 fertilization enhances both crop water usage and yields — more in some crops than others — but the enhancement is across the entire plant spectrum. [The difference is due to what are known as C3 and C4 plants ]
Zimmer tries to downplay the increase in production of food crops due to CO2 enhancement — playing the percentages game, “not all of it is food production.” Of course, an increase in photosynthesis of phytoplankton in the sea doesn’t produce more strawberries — and no one ever said it did — it will, however, produce more fish. But it has been proven over and over again that enhanced CO2 does increase crop yields and can be expected to increase crop yields into the future.
This question is, you guessed it, a Modern Scientific Controversy — in which there is a Consensus View (informed and dictated by the Climate Consensus) and a Contrarian or Pragmatic View — which is based on real world, on the farm results. Total crop yields all around the world have continued to grow and increase in output per acre, owing to the Green Revolution, improved crop varieties, improved agricultural practices, increased use of fertilizers and atmospheric CO2 enhancement.
It is a questionably true to say “extra carbon dioxide only accounts for a small fraction of the increase” and would only be true to the extent that the other factors are currently so large, depending on the crop and the state of local agriculture. In areas using modern farming methods, seeds, and fertilizers the increases are largely due to CO2 fertilization. In areas of more primitive agriculture, the gains from shifting to better seed varieties, modern methods and fertilizers outweigh, but don’t negate, the contributions of CO2.
As always — the benefits are real in real time — but the “climate models” say “things might/may not keep getting better in the future” therefore ”Global Greening is Terrible!” — especially IF ( the inevitable IF — if climate sensitivity is very high — which is looking less-and-less likely as climate science matures) temperatures rise 5-8 degrees C and current crop areas suffer continual droughts and no one substitutes drought resistant varieties and the Greens keep up their attacks on improved plant varieties. This argument is rather like saying exercise will improve your health now but it will not prevent your eventual aging — therefore, Exercise is Terrible!
You may rest assured that global greening will benefit all life on Earth — it is the evidence of that benefit that is called global greening — increased plant life (> 30% increase) leads to increased well-being of all animal life, including mankind. You can’t just wave away basic biology.
Not satisfied with this first nonsensical argument against Global Greening, Zimmer makes an additional hash of some sort of weird attempt to negate the whole concept of carbon bio-sequestration of carbon (CO2) by plants. Zimmer and Campbell state:
“While photosynthesis does pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, much of that gas goes right back into the air. The reason: At night, the chemical reactions in plants essentially run backward. In a process known as respiration, plants pump out carbon dioxide instead of pulling it in.
“Part of the story is that photosynthesis is going up, and part of the story is that so is respiration,” said Dr. Campbell.”
The basic scientific facts are: Plants take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis during the day and release carbon dioxide during respiration at night. This said, plants take up much more carbon dioxide during the process of photosynthesis than they give off in respiration.
The reason for that is that plants use sunlight (energy), CO2 and water to make sugars (carbohydrates) which are used by the plants for energy and to then make more “plant” — fibers, tissues, wood, twigs, leaves, seeds, fruits and all other bio-mass of the plant is constructed from the basic elements of water,
oxygen, (oops — kh), CO2 and trace elements taken up by roots and from the air. (Biology professors: please feel free to expand on my simplistic rendering). Some of the sugars are “oxidized” at night, producing CO2 and water, which the plants give off through their leaves, a process called plant respiration.
It is this process of taking in sunlight, CO2, and water and using them to “manufacture” carbohydrates (sugars, plant tissues, wood, seeds, fruits) that is the basis of “Biological Carbon Sequestration” and the reason Climate Activists run campaigns to urge the planting of trees.
The sequestration takes place in the growth of the plants themselves and where the brown arrow shows carbon-based material entering the soil. Of course, with trees, the longer term sequestration is the storage of carbon in the wood itself, often for a hundred years or more. Your home may be made of sequestered carbon in the form of wooden 2x4s, wooden siding and floor joists. Much of the furniture in your home may be bio-sequestered carbon — like that that fine oak dining room table.
Some of the bio-sequestered carbon is returned to the atmosphere as soil-dwelling life forms consume the plant materials as part of its decomposition. Some of the bio-sequestered carbon gets pushed further and further into the soil and environment and one day may end up as a peat bog, oil or coal.
In the oceans, phytoplankton undergoes photosynthesis, taking in CO2 from the water, and then is eaten by little sea creatures, who themselves are eaten by others. Eventually, something dies and drifts to the bottom of the ocean, there to decompose and return some CO2 to the sea water and maybe to the atmosphere, much to remain there for a long, long time.
Bio-sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis (green plant life) is only a good thing — there is no down side. The lame attempt to paint it as a bad thing mocks a huge part of the Green Movement’s efforts to stop deforestation and encourage reforestation and afforestation, all which are carried out in the name of bio-sequestration.
Increased photosynthesis, aka Global Greening, is the process of increased bio-sequestration of CO2 by plant life. It is a positive thing, a good thing, a desired thing, a Win-Win for environmentalists as it reduces atmospheric CO2 and adds life to the biosphere.
It is not terrible — it is wonderful.
# # # # #
Author’s Comment Policy:
The idea that caught my interest was that the Climate Team feels it necessary to throw Global Greening under a bus — based solely on the fact that the skeptics use Global Greening to score points for their side of the Climate Wars. Unfortunately for Carl Zimmer and Dr. Campbell, their arguments against Greening are ridiculously weak and must be stretched past their breaking points to be made at all.
Comments addressed to me personally (“Kip… ) will elicit a response — especially if on topic and collegial.
If you know of any scientific justification for the position “Global Greening is Terrible!” I’d be happy to read it.
# # # # #
Quick Links: (added 10:00 ET 14/Aug/’18)