Warming air and acid ocean: thoughts for Senator Fielding

It’s no bad thing that Senator Stephen Fielding has decided to check out global warming for himself. But he’d be wise not to put too much faith in Andrew Bolt’s contrarian views. [16 June 2009 | Peter Boyer]

In visiting the United States to investigate the implications of increased carbon levels in the atmosphere, Family First Senator Stephen Fielding was just wanting to bolster his anti-warming views, said critics. But on that score alone, they really can’t complain. It’s good that Senator Fielding has begun to take a serious interest in the debate about climate change. He’s coming to this later than many, but better late than never.

We shouldn’t be concerned that he sought out people associated with the Heartland Institute, which asserts that high levels of atmospheric carbon aren’t causing global warming. Senator Fielding needs to be aware of opposing views. While in Washington he also met Obama administration officials, and on returning agreed to hear scientists who, like the US officials, believe there’s a strong link between atmospheric carbon and a warming world. This is what we expect of our Senators.

But then he posted on his website, without comment, a typically rambunctious polemic against global warming by Herald-Sun contrarian Andrew Bolt — not a good look when you want to seem objective. “Steve Fielding has had a conversion that could blow apart the great global warming scare [having] suddenly realised that global warming may not be caused by humans after all,” wrote Mr Bolt in the column. Having airily dismissed the scientific consensus about the carbon-warming link, he then went on to rail against “the Rudd Government’s plan to impose billions of dollars of taxes on all our sources of emissions — from power stations and smelters to, eventually, even cows.”

Australia’s official effort to reduce carbon emissions is being criticised from most quarters, so Mr Bolt is far from alone. But far from over-taxing our carbon pollution, as he says, the main problem with the “carbon pollution reduction” legislation is that it stops way short of effective action to reduce emissions. That said, the emissions trading bill is all we’ve got and are likely to have any time soon, and in case Senator Fielding is thinking he should consign it to a dustbin, there are some rather weighty matters that both he and the zealous Mr Bolt will do well to heed.

It’s true that some scientists see no connection between higher carbon levels in the atmosphere (which hardly anyone disputes any more) and a warming world (which they believe isn’t happening). But an overwhelming majority of scientists, supported by the peer-reviewed literature, say that the connection is proven and that global heating is a certain consequence.

It’s also true that a few scientists, including Australian physicist Dr Ken McCracken, believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimated the impact of solar activity on Earth’s temperatures. Dr McCracken thinks a deep “solar minimum”, just under way, may be enough to counter greenhouse warming for a decade or two. He thinks it might even cause some cooling.

But it should be recorded that Dr McCracken says the effect of the current solar minimum will come to an end, that he agrees with the general consensus that human-produced greenhouse gases cause warming and thereby threaten the long-term viability of Earth’s life systems, and that he supports the view that carbon emissions must be contained, starting now.

There’s another dimension to this. While Stephen Fielding and Andrew Bolt question the general scientific consensus that a higher amount of carbon dioxide in the air is causing us to get warmer, they accept that carbon dioxide levels are rising. That being so, both men should seek information about a second, so far undisputed, outcome of high carbon dioxide levels, an outcome independent of global warming but with at least as much potential to do damage to life on Earth.

The world’s oceans absorb a quarter of the carbon in the air. Much of this is taken up by marine organisms, ultimately to be stored as calcified remains on the ocean floor. The oceans are continuing to absorb carbon dioxide even at today’s excessive levels, but they pay a price. The high levels of carbon in the water are causing seawater to become less alkaline, more acidic.

For 20 million years, the animals and plants of the world’s oceans have relied on these waters remaining within a very narrow acid-alkaline band — 8.16 on the pH scale. When small changes to this balance have happened over thousands of years in times past, life forms have struggled to adapt and many extinctions have resulted.

Large-scale fossil fuel burning has happened over only 200-odd years, a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, but that is the rate at which today’s ocean waters are being forced to change in absorbing this large extra burden of atmospheric carbon. If this rapid change continues, acidity will reach a point where whole ocean ecosystems will collapse. Dead oceans mean no seafood. Worse, they mean the end of tiny plankton, microscopic organisms that produce half the world’s oxygen.

Scientists generally agree that excessive carbon dioxide is killing our planet’s life systems, and this verdict is as close to a certainty as anything in science. Let’s assume that, on this basis, we make a concerted effort to reduce emissions — to generate energy without using fossil fuels, to use this energy more efficiently and to improve our environment. Having done so, let’s imagine that we then discover in a remarkable turn of events that the science was wrong after all. Of course, the things we did in this process will have cost us money and effort, and caused some disruption to some of today’s established industries. It’s this up-front cost that bothers Andrew Bolt — and, it would seem, Senator Fielding.

Or we could do as Andrew Bolt would have us do. We could assume the scientists have made a mistake and choose to take no action. But if that assumption is wrong — if the scientists are right after all — the cost of our inaction is too awful to contemplate.

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