Phytoplankton Panic

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Phytoplankton, the tiny little ocean creatures that generate a massive amount of the world's oxygen, form the base of the ocean food chain, and otherwise deserve to be nominated Hero of the World Economy, First Class, are apparently dying off.  The theory is that global warming is probably doing them in.  Michael O'Hare brings the doom.  Kevin Drum brings the gloom:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can't possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action. As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you'd rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

I actually think that Kevin misses the point a little:  if this is true, 2% of GDP isn't going to cut it.  We'd better get back to an emissions level around 1940, or earlier, and stay there.  Being that we now have about 2.5 times as many people in the country, and the world, as we did then, that's going to be tricky.  If higher emissions means the trend will continue, we're pretty much doomed, at least until the Chinese economy collapses into food riots.  There's no point in waxing sarcastic about the American public; it's a nasty, nasty collective action problem that I can't see how we'd solve short of invading China.

Of course, this might make it easier to get consensus, since this is no longer a situation where low-lying or tropical poor countries suffer for our industrialization.  A lack of oxygen in the air is going to cause problems for everyone; ditto a lack of fish.  Frankly, I don't see how working women are going to survive the loss of Bumblebee Tuna.

So how much should we worry about this right now?  I mean, assuming that worrying would actually do us some good, rather than just raise our bad cholesterol and drive us to drink?

The die-off of most of the phytoplankton would be a huge catastrophe.  However, here are some reasons that we shouldn't succumb to outright panic quite yet:

1.  It's one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they're using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we're now using.  That doesn't mean they're wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we're burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we're burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction. 

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen; I'm not a fan of tampering with large, complex systems that I don't really understand, which is why I tend not to support much direct government intervention in the economy--and why I do, nonetheless, support a hefty carbon tax.

But there's a certain tendency to ignore mitigating offsets, such as the fact that higher carbon concentrations make terrestrial plants grow more lushly, sucking up some of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At least, as long as we don't turn them into biofuels, that is.  There's also a tendency to ignore mitigation rather than reduction, on the grounds that emissions reduction is "easier".  Well, I suppose it is easier if you assume away the political problems.  But no matter how hard I assume, I keep waking up in a world where we've made no meaningful progress on emissions reductions.  At this point, I've got more faith in America's engineering talent than in her ability to conquer fierce political resistance to reductions at home and abroad.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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