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Tue, Jan. 21

Talk of the Town: Global warming data not current

At the Oct. 19 film showing and discussion on climate change at Yavapai College, the Courier quoted business professor Terry Lovell as saying that "cockroaches make more CO2 (carbon dioxide) than we do."

I emailed Dr. Lovell to ask where he learned this fact. He promptly wrote back saying that the Courier had misquoted him, and that it was termites, not cockroaches that dwarfed the human greenhouse gas contribution. His source? A paper in Science from 1982.

Science is a highly respected journal, and the article Lovell cites by Zimmerman and colleagues was interesting in 1982. Our understanding of the global carbon cycle has increased tremendously over the past three decades.

Termites are not responsible for any net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Neither is human respiration. When we breathe out CO2, we are just releasing the CO2 that a zucchini plant took out of the air over the summer. It is only when we release carbon that has previously been kept out of the atmosphere, such as in burning fossil fuels, that we increase the CO2 in the air.

The real issue with termites, as even the 1982 paper Lovell cited explains, is methane. Globally, termites do produce the second most methane of any natural source, which matters particularly when humans increase termite habitat through deforestation (also in the article that Lovell cites). But all termites on the planet still only emit an eighth of human-caused methane production from landfills and livestock in the U.S. alone. This information is available with a quick Google search to anyone interested at the following EPA website:

My question is, why isn't Lovell interested? If an undergraduate student turned in a paper to me quoting this 1982 Science paper as his or her sole source of information, given all the research that has been conducted on greenhouse gas fluxes over the past 27 years, the student would flunk - pure and simple. And if this were only a case of poor scholarship, then I would let Dr. Lovell worry about his academic reputation. But unfortunately, an overwhelming amount of the "scientific" evidence that Lovell and the makers of the film he showed rely on, is misquoted, acontextual, or simply false.

Yes, some scientists argue that climate change is either not human caused or exaggerated. But then I have never known any scientific claim to have complete consensus. What is remarkable about climate change is the degree to which there is consensus amongst the overwhelming majority of atmospheric, agricultural, ecological, hydrological, and climate scientists - that we should take action immediately to substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

If the climate change impacts of our lifestyle in the U.S. somehow were to affect only U.S. citizens, then maybe it would be fine for us to do nothing and play out this climate experiment. We could continue, as we have already, to drive atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases higher than they have been for 650,000 years, and see what happens.

But our actions do not just affect ourselves. Because greenhouse gases travel across borders, our energy-use choices may very well have severe impacts on people who have scarcely enjoyed a lifestyle made possible by fossil fuels, not to mention millions of other species.

Ask yourself, what level of risk are you typically willing to accept with life threatening situations? If you owned a house built on granite rock that emitted radon, and it posed a 90 percent chance that someone in your family would contract cancer from it, would that be acceptable? A 25 percent chance? In August, scientists working in Siberia found that previously frozen peat bogs, covering an area the size of France and Germany combined, are melting. We don't know for sure what the implications are, but a serious risk exists that they will begin to release exceptional amounts of previously locked away carbon in the forms of methane and CO2. This finding constitutes one of the "runaway greenhouse" scenarios in which a slightly warmer temperature results in more thawing, which feeds back and warms the earth more and then more again. Is the sky falling? No. Is this a risk equal to radon-producing granite under your house? Definitely.

With coastline inundation in Bangladesh, to agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, to the economic well-being of Arizona farmers and ranchers, to the extinction of countless species hanging in the balance, I hope the quality of informed public discussions on this issue improves in Prescott and across the nation.

Tim Crews is on the Environmental Studies faculty of Prescott College. He holds a doctorate in Ecology from Cornell University. He is currently on sabbatical leave at Rothamsted Research in the U.K.

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