An ecological perspective on global climate change


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Lou Laux, emeritus professor of biology at Wittenberg University, wrote this commentary for the Dot Earth blog on greenhouse-driven climate change from an ecological perspective.

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An ecological perspective on global climate change

  1. 1. A commentary written for the Dot Earth blog by Lou Laux, emeritus professor of biology, Wittenberg University The Ecological Perspective of Fossil Fuels and Global Climate ChangeUnderstanding climate change must include the fact that there are an estimated 8.7 million different species oforganisms, approximately half of which are microscopic, primarily bacteria, algae, and fungi. Every individual withinevery species, a number probably in the trillions upon trillions of individuals (7 billion of us alone), must metabolizethe element carbon, the basic element of life. That means carbon is being cycled continuously through the 8.7million species that make up the biosphere, mostly as the molecule, carbon dioxide, using the air, water, and soil asthe primary transportation routes. The ecological shorthand for the above is the carbon biogeochemical cycle.Since every species has its ups and downs in numbers, the system is not in “equilibrium”, but it does operate withinlimits of availability of the carbon – a “balanced” system. Built into the system are two “safety valves”, technicallycalled “sinks” – the atmosphere and the hydrosphere. Both can accept carbon dioxide, and it is these spheres thathelp regulate the limits within the carbon cycle. However, there is a downside to the “safety valves”. The carbondioxide in the atmosphere is one of the principle reasons Earth is able to support life, meaning it is the primary“greenhouse” gas. Carbon dioxide in the hydrosphere regulates the pH of the water. But just what does the abovehave to do with fossil fuels and climate change? Fossil fuels are almost all carbon. Does that mean they were probably once alive? Yes, they are the fossilizedremains of once living plants and animals, highly compressed and dehydrated (Remember, living organisms aremostly water.). They were the carbon cycle of their day, but all that remains now is primarily the carbon. Fossilfuels are the interrupted remains of ancient carbon cycles. All of these fossilized plants and animals date back to470-90 million years ago, i.e. very ancient carbon. In other words over a period of 380 million years an estimated 2-3 trillion tons of carbon was sequestered. However, if in the very unlikely event this carbon were to surface andburn, fossil fuel carbon will reenter the living carbon cycle. For at least the last 60 million years, the Earth moved on, evolving a very brainy species, us. By 50,000 years agowe “conquered the world” and a favorable climate made agriculture possible about 10,000 years ago. Flashing forward, about 200 years ago this brainiest of species discovered that fossilized carbon is the mother lodeof energy. The Industrial Revolution was born. The blessings of fossil fuel energy became fossil fuel addiction,reinforced by the knowledge that there are mega tons of this stuff buried in the Earth. What was not appreciated isthat this very ancient carbon, once cycling through the carbon cycle of ancient times, is in essence alien carboninvading today’s carbon cycle, disturbing the balance, i.e. overloading the sinks. Since about a third of thesequestered carbon has already been burned in a mere 200 years of the Industrial Revolution, why are we surprisedby the consequences of overloading the sinks/safety valves – an excessively warming atmosphere, and a more acidhydrosphere. The changes to the biosphere that supports us have already proved unimaginable. Yes, it is aFaustian bargain; however, it is not a myth! The time to phase out fossil fuel energy is NOW? The technology and economics for a solar economy are sufficientto move ahead NOW. Are not the fossil fuel industries trying to convince you otherwise, or haven’t you noticed themegabucks being spent trying to convince you that global climate change is a myth. The time for rhetoric is over;the time for action is NOW!Lou Laux, Emeritus Biology Professor, Wittenberg University September 2012