Perhaps more carbon dioxide is good for us!

From the orthodox side, one of the common refrains in the debate over anthropogenic global warming is that one cannot take any notice of what is said on websites: one must go to the peer-reviewed literature. Some of those who push this line seem to believe that if it is peer-reviewed it must be the truth, especially if it is in one the ‘best’ journals. Peer review is really the first stage in getting information and argument out in the world, and is effectively a statement that the paper in question looks interesting and has no obvious faults. It is what happens then that it is interesting. Most papers are cited once or twice, and then forgotten — hence the current obsession with citation counts among academic researchers who seek promotion. The more you are cited, the more important your paper was — maybe.

I’ve written about peer review before, and add here only that the obsession with peer review would be more sensible if there were more review articles: an extensive consideration of all the work in a particular area over a period of years to see what we have learned, what the issues still are, and what can, at least for the moment, be set aside. Such articles are invaluable, but they are an immense amount of work, and are not, at least in my experience, given the status as publications that they deserve.

I’ve come across one that fascinated me in the area of AGW, a consideration of about 450 papers that focus on one question: is it likely to be the case that, as the IPCC asserts, that current levels of warming are already stressing the Earth’s natural  and agro-ecosystems, and the the future is really dire? Heaven knows how long it took the author, Craig Idso, to get through this material, because he goes through all the peer-reviewed papers he could find about all the areas of the Earth, including Australia, to see what has been said on this subject. Idso is a well-known figure in the AGW debate, a scientist who runs a website called CO2 Science. His father and brother are also active in research and publication in this area.

His conclusions are straightforward. If you look at what has already happened, given the increase of carbon dioxide in the past fifty years, then there has occurred what he calls  ‘a great greening of the Earth’, with the planet’s biosphere having doubled its carbon uptake, with something like a ten per cent increase in primary productivity since 1980. This has taken place despite all the floods, fires deforestation and pest outbreaks that we have experienced over the same period.

But more, it also looks as though plants successfully adjust their physiology to deal with warming, and will be able to do so even if the kind and rate of warming that the ‘climate change’ models predict for the rest of this century actually occur. Plants can do this because more carbon dioxide allows them to obtain more food from the air, but also to require less water for the same amount of growth. In short, says, Idso, we are likely to experience more greening in the years ahead, not crop failures and food shortages.

Since Australia is a separate domain in his survey, I went to see what I could learn about my own country. Much of this work concerns the Northern Territory, and revolves around research on patches of rain-forest that typically occur inside the dry savannah of much of the Top End. Not only has the rain-forest grown in size since the 1950s, but it is expanding at the expanse of the the dry country as well. And other studies of dry woodland suggest that it is increased carbon dioxide, not increased rainfall, that is the primary cause of the growth.

This is not the story we hear about the future from the media, but it is the sort of counter-weight that is necessary amid all the scary talk. If the IPCC were not committed to carbon dioxide’s being the villain in the story you would expect this mountain of material had already been considered by those writing the IPCC’s coming 5th Assessment Report, due in 2014. But there seems no sign of that yet. In the meantime, Dr Idso’s survey is there for all to read. ‘Has it been peer-reviewed?’ you ask. ‘Is it in Nature, or another prestigious journal?’

No, he has done the work himself, and published it himself. It is almost of book length, but written accessibly. I commend it to anyone interested in the topic.




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