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The Future of Life on Earth: What to Do about CO2
Volume 12, Number 50: 16 December 2009

Many rational people are persuaded that even if there is only a one-percent chance that business-as-usual anthropogenic CO2 emissions will lead to dramatic global warming, we should still strive mightily to greatly reduce those emissions, because of the catastrophic consequences that are typically attributed to the projected warming by climate-alarmist organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - which has declared carbon dioxide to be a dangerous air pollutant - as well as the many national delegations from around the world that are meeting in Copenhagen to develop an international accord to deal with their vision of an imminent climatic holocaust. These groups say it is better to be safe than sorry; and this conclusion, on the surface, may appear both logical and ethical. However, in an erroneous application of the precautionary principle, they have considered only a portion of the currently-available pertinent knowledge; and when the great array of untapped and under-appreciated knowledge is considered, a very different conclusion presents itself, as we demonstrate in the paragraphs that follow.

How much land can ten billion people spare for nature? This was the question posed by Paul Waggoner in the title of an insightful 1995 essay, wherein he explored the dynamic tension that exists between (1) the need for land to support the agricultural enterprises that sustain mankind, and (2) the need for land to support the natural ecosystems that sustain all other creatures. The question Waggoner posed is extremely important, for Huang et al. (2002) have noted that human populations "have encroached on almost all of the world's frontiers, leaving little new land that is cultivatable." And because of the great rate of humanity's ongoing usurpation of this important natural resource, Raven (2002) has warned that "species-area relationships, taken worldwide in relation to habitat destruction, lead to projections of the loss of fully two-thirds of all species on earth by the end of this century."

So what can be done about this unimaginable biological catastrophe, which is bearing down upon us like an unstoppable freight train?

A starting point for the solution of the problem was provided by the late Norman Borlaug - father of the Green Revolution and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner - who wrote at the beginning of the new millennium that "by 2025, we will have to nearly double current [agricultural] production," in order to adequately feed the growing number of people on the planet. One year later, Tilman et al. (2001) reported that humans already appropriate "more than a third of the production of terrestrial ecosystems and about half of usable freshwaters" for this very purpose. And they calculated that meeting the food needs of the planet's human population in the year 2050 - a mere four decades from now - "could lead to the loss of about a third of remaining tropical and temperate forests, savannas, and grasslands," and that it would require nearly all of the planet's remaining usable freshwater, which had also been suggested by the work of Wallace (2000).

In light of these facts, Tilman et al. concluded that "an environmentally sustainable revolution, a greener revolution, is needed." In fact, something far-and-away eclipsing humanity's normal ability to devise and execute will be required in order to avert the impending catastrophe; for as Tilman and his associates rightly noted, "even the best available technologies, fully deployed, cannot prevent many of the forecasted problems."

Here, then, is the real and inescapable problem facing the world's many life forms - Where will we find the food and water needed to sustain our growing populations? - for, clearly, we are going to need much more of both of these precious commodities if we ever expect to make it through even the first half of the current century, without humanity destroying much of the rest of the biosphere in the process.

In a subsequent study, Tilman et al. (2002) suggested a strategy for broaching this problem that is built around three essential tasks: (1) increasing crop yield per unit of land area, (2) increasing crop yield per unit of nutrients applied, and (3) increasing crop yield per unit of water used. Amazingly, these three things are precisely what enriching the air with CO2 promotes; for rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations tend to increase land-use efficiency, nutrient-use efficiency and water-use efficiency. And Idso and Idso (2000) have calculated that the projected 2050 shortfall in world agricultural production can be overcome without the taking of unconscionable amounts of land and water from what we could call "wild nature," by the additional benefits anticipated to accrue from the expected concomitant rise in the atmosphere's CO2 concentration, but only if there are no forced reductions in anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Answering the central question of what to do about CO2 thus comes down to answering two other questions. First, which temporal projection - climate change or population change - is likely to be more reliable? Second, will future extinctions of earth's wild plants and animals be more likely to result from global warming or from land and water usurpation by man?

With respect to the first question, it should be readily evident to most rational people that we know a lot more about the population dynamics of the human race and its agricultural enterprises than we do about the climate dynamics of the earth-ocean-atmosphere system; while with respect to the second question, Idso and Idso (2009) have reviewed a host of research studies that reveal an amazing ability of earth's many life forms to successfully respond to global warming via a wide range of self-preserving phenomena. But when there is no habitat left to inhabit and no water left to consume, due to man's usurpation of these two essential resources to sustain their own numbers, the extinction of much of "wild nature" is an unavoidable consequence. Thus, simple logic clearly suggests that the danger of massive plant and animal extinctions at the hands of man via habitat and water resource takings is much more likely to occur than are massive extinctions driven by CO2-induced climate change.

In conclusion, if we want to take the truly logical and ethical path to the long-term survival of the vast majority of the species that comprise earth's biosphere, we ought not enact laws (such as the Cap and Trade monstrosity currently being considered in the U.S. Senate) or issue regulations (such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency appears poised to attempt) that are designed to artificially limit mankind's CO2 emissions. Quite to the contrary, we should allow these emissions to follow the currently-upward trend that is dictated by the natural course of technological development, which will ultimately lead to a new and higher quasi-equilibrium atmospheric CO2 concentration, because more CO2 in the air is what we desperately need, in order to prevent the planet from experiencing one of the greatest mass extinctions events of its entire history.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Borlaug, N.E. 2000. Ending world hunger: The promise of biotechnology and the threat of antiscience zealotry. Plant Physiology 124: 487-490.

Huang, J., Pray, C. and Rozelle, S. 2002. Enhancing the crops to feed the poor. Nature 418: 678-684.

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E. 2000. Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration. Technology 7S: 33-55.

Idso, C.D. and Idso, S.B. 2009. CO2, Global Warming and Species Extinctions: Prospects for the Future. Vales Lake Publishing, LLC, Pueblo West, Colorado, USA.

Raven, P.H. 2002. Science, sustainability, and the human prospect. Science 297: 954-959.

Tilman, D., Cassman, K.G., Matson, P.A., Naylor, R. and Polasky, S. 2002. Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418: 671-677.

Tilman, D., Fargione, J., Wolff, B., D'Antonio, C., Dobson, A., Howarth, R., Schindler, D., Schlesinger, W.H., Simberloff, D. and Swackhamer, D. 2001. Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change. Science 292: 281-284.