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Atmospheric CO2 Enrichment:
An Equal Opportunity Provider

Volume 5, Number 15: 10 April 2002

On 4 April 2002, a Science/Research report in the online edition of the Harvard University Gazette lamented the fact that a new study had recently demonstrated that a 350-ppm increase in the atmosphere's CO2 concentration may enhance pollen production in ragweed plants by as much as 60%.  The report's concern was that the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content might thus mean more allergies for people.

The article also decried the fact that another study had demonstrated that a smaller 200-ppm increase in the air's CO2 concentration actually tripled the number of cones and seeds produced in a pine forest.  The report's complaint in this case was that under CO2-enriched conditions "plants may boost production of their propagative elements to enhance their reproductive success," and that this phenomenon "could alter competitive relationships among different plants, encouraging the growth of weedy species."

Not surprisingly, the report concluded that the results of these studies "highlight the need to reduce carbon dioxide levels," or as the associate director of the Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment put it, "I believe this study can help us understand the true costs of burning fossil fuels."

Is there something wrong with us, or have a lot of people who should clearly know better gone completely bonkers?

To help you decide, consider the fact that just last month in a ceremony in Rome on the occasion of World Water Day, Godwin Obasi, secretary-general of the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, told a gathering of diplomats and government officials that our planet's looming water shortage is a "major threat to food security."  Describing the situation in more detail, Louise Fresco, assistant director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said that "irrigated food output would have to jump over 80 percent to meet developing nations' demands by 2030," but that "water availability was set to rise just 12 percent."

"How can you obtain 80 percent more production from just a 12 percent increase in available water?"  Fresco asked.  Answering her own question she correctly concluded that "agriculture needs to become more productive and needs to produce more crop per drop."

More crop per drop.  That's exactly what one gets when the air's CO2 content rises.  In response to an increase in the atmospheric concentration of the world's most effective aerial fertilizer and anti-transpirant, plants produce more organic matter on a per-unit-leaf-area basis, while simultaneously transpiring less water on the same basis.  This double-barreled effect of atmospheric CO2 enrichment thus leads to a significant increase in plant water use efficiency, which is the very definition of "more crop per drop."  And that increase is typically on the order of 30 to 50% for a 300-ppm increase in the air's CO2 content.

So what would you rather see?  Your grandchildren sneezing a little more?  Or starving to death?  And don't think this question is some flippant exaggeration.  It's not.  In fact, it's one of the most significant moral questions of our day, yet one of the most ignored.  And it's especially relevant for people in developing nations - who are, unfortunately, so easily ignored - where the latter alternative, i.e., starvation, will become stark reality if the folks responsible for the Harvard research report and similar wrong-minded politicians around the globe have their way with the world.

If the situation were not so serious, it would be laughable: Harvard professors complaining about plants "boosting production of their propagative elements to enhance their reproductive success"?  That is exactly what is needed to enhance the productivity of the world's most important crops ? and to solve perhaps the greatest dilemma currently facing the world, i.e., how to feed its projected human population only a quarter-century from now.

And to cry great crocodile tears over the fact that weeds will also be benefited by extra CO2?  Give us a break!  This has got to be the ultimate example of cutting off one's allergen-sniffing nose to spite his face, which he must feed to live.  In fact, just as atmospheric CO2 benefits crops and weeds alike, so do all the major elements needed for proper plant growth and development - such as sunshine, water and nutrients - do the same.  Indeed, this is the policy of heaven itself; for as is recorded in the Bible (Matthew 5:45), even Deity "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

Yes, CO2 is in good company when it comes to being an equal opportunity provider.  Its increasing concentration in the atmosphere benefits all plants everywhere.  And weeding the garden is just one of the many universal tasks incumbent upon those who grow the crops that sustain us.  So it has been since the time of Adam; and so it shall ever be, until God gives us knowledge to do otherwise.

Dr. Sherwood B. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President