Tag Archives: climate change

In Defense of Carbon


Carbon is the basic building block of life.  It is an element, indestructible.  We have the same amount of carbon on earth now as always.  It goes through a cycle.  Because it is so versatile, it can join with numerous other atoms to create complex structures.

I’m a climate change agnostic.  I know the climate changes every day and every season.  Whether human beings are changing the climate in a significant way is the subject of heated debate.  I do know humans are poisoning the environment, but the most dangerous chemicals involved are not carbon dioxide or methane.  These two are naturally occurring substances that are intimately involved in the cycles of life and death.

Organic chemistry is based on whether the compounds under study contain carbon.  Photosynthesis is the means by which plants use energy from light to convert water and carbon dioxide to food for the plant.  In this process, water is hydrolyzed (meaning broken down into its constituent atoms) with the hydrogen joining with carbon to form sugars, such as glucose and sucrose.  The sugars contain energy that fuels plant growth, maintenance and manufactures the substance of the plant itself, like cellulose.

That plants can make their own food from light, carbon dioxide and water is a marvel of solar technology, because all food ultimately comes from plants.  The mechanism of photosynthesis, according to my botany text (Botany:  An Introduction to Plant Biology, 6th edition, T., Elliot Weier, et al., 1982) took almost 200 years to be understood, and it still contains undiscovered secrets.  Researchers are now working on harnessing the 100% efficiency of plants to make electricity.  In contrast, solar panels are only between 15-20% efficient.

According to Botany, a series of discoveries beginning in 1700 led to the eventual understanding of how photosynthesis works.  In 1700, a Flemish physician and chemist Jan van Helmont grew a willow branch in measured soil and water.  It grew from five to 169 pounds in five years, but used only two ounces of soil.  In 1772, Joseph Fleming noted a sprig of mint could restore confined air that had been made impure by burning a candle, but in 1779 Jan Ingen-House noticed air was only revitalized when the green portion of the plant was exposed to light.  In 1782, Jean Sonebier discovered carbon dioxide was necessary in the “fixed air” supply of the green plant, and in 1796 Ingen-House determined the carbon went into the nutrition and structure of the plant.  In 1804, Nicholas Th. de Saussure observed water was also involved in the photosynthetic process, and in 1800 chemists discovered that carbohydrates were formed.  Experiments using “heavy oxygen” (oxygen with atomic weight of 18 rather than the usual 16) proved the oxygen liberated in photosynthesis came from water rather than CO2.

The basic chemical reaction for converting carbon dioxide and water to glucose is:

6CO2 + 6H20 +686 kcal –> C6 H12 O6 + 6O2

The oxygen is released into the atmosphere.  Plants also release water vapor through evaporation, and this induces liquids and nutrients to move upward through the xylem (the plant’s substance, including transportation “vessels”).

The glucose produced is used directly, or stored as insoluble starch.  It’s used to make cellulose and other structural components, or is combined with nitrogen, sulfur or phosphorus to make proteins.

When a plant or any life form dies, the stored carbon is either consumed by another life form or it is released as CO2 and methane (CH4), among other substances.

Igniting the hydrocarbon molecules reverses the photosynthetic process in a one-to-one ratio.  CO2 and water are re-created, and the energy bound up in the molecule is released as heat or used to do work.

The chemical reaction when the simplest hydrocarbon, methane (natural gas), is burned is:

CH4 + 2O2 –>  CO2 + 2H2O

Natural gas, oil, coal, ethanol, and plastic, to name a few, have the same carbon and hydrogen building blocks, in different combinations.  All have high energy contents and produce CO2 and water when burned.

Ethanol—which is now a federally mandated gasoline additive—has a lower energy content than gasoline so lowers gasoline efficiency. Ethanol, also called “ethyl alcohol,” is old-fashioned grain alcohol, the same substance distilled by farmers in Revolutionary War days, and the stuff that led to the Whiskey Rebellion when the whiskey tax was passed in 1791.

Plastic has a high energy content and burns hot.  Plastic waste is accumulating around the planet, in huge ocean “gyres,” as well as other bodies of water, sewage and drainage systems.  Its breakdown products are associated with endocrine (hormonal) changes in people and animals.

The main weakness of the climate change initiative is that the focus on “greenhouse gases” diverts attention from more immediate and ongoing threats to the planet.  The use of single-use packaging, for instance, uses valuable natural resources, such as paper, and environmentally harmful industrial products, such as plastic, that end up in landfill or in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The ethanol mandate, passed in 2007, is a particularly toxic piece of legislation.  Under this scenario, farmland is used to produce corn, soy, or other carbon-containing plant matter, to be distilled into alcohol for burning in cars.  Not only does this deplete soil that might otherwise be used to grow food, but it requires massive amounts of water, time and money, so is a pox on the planet and on the engines that use it. It is particularly harmful in small engines, like lawnmowers, so conscientious users must use ethanol-free gas to protect their engines.  That Archer Daniels Midland, the main corporate beneficiary of the ethanol mandate, is set up to distill ethanol for cars as well as ethanol for drinking, should provide clues as to how regressive this mandate is.

In summary, I contend that, “climate change” includes changing the political climate to recognize that growing trees is better for the planet than giving corporations “carbon credits” not to cut them down.

Political Climate Change

I’ve followed the “global warming,” then the “climate change” controversy for a number of years and have a number of reservations about the terms being used, the focus on “greenhouse gases,” and the almost religious fervor “climate scientists” adopt when pushing their agenda.

I’m an amateur scientist, at best, a “life scientist,” who still believes observation is the best science there is.  I can’t deny the environment is changing, becoming de-vitalized, and I also believe mankind plays a significant role.  That and other transgressions against fellow man and nature have made me ashamed to be human. I look to my pets and nature to restore my belief that nature will survive, even if humans poison or nuke themselves out of existence.  It may take awhile, and the earth may generate a variety of mutant life forms, but nature will win in the end. Best to make a friend of her.

While I am no scientist, I’ve taken more undergraduate and post graduate science courses than most Americans have.  I’ve taken biology, botany, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, biochemistry, and a variety of medical science courses. I’ve done published research, too.  The last showed me the limitations of the “scientific method,” which assumes cause and effect and must control for variables. The primary rule in Western scientific research is that you can have no more than one variable.  You begin with a hypothesis that you want to prove or disprove.  You “control” for variables, meaning you have a treatment group and a “control group.” In other words, you create artificial circumstances to suit your study design and outcome you want or expect.

Contrast this with the Oriental pattern-based approach, which embraces variables and looks for patterns among them.  The presumption is nature is composed of interactive processes that enhance or mitigate each other.  Everything is connected in a large, multi-dimensional web.

When it comes to the environment, it’s impossible to limit research to one variable and determine cause and effect.  We know what came before, and we use computer models to predict what will come next.  We want to attribute causes to “climate change,” and have focused on CO2 and other “greenhouse gases,” specifically methane/natural gas (CH4).

I contend this is too simplistic.  First we are technically at the end of an ice age, so planetary warming is at least partly natural.  Carbon is the basic building block of life, an element, that can combine with many other atoms to create a variety of molecules.  The difference between inorganic and organic chemistry is based on whether the substance under study has carbon.  Methane/natural gas is the simplest hydro-carbon there is.  It is part of the life-cycle, and every decaying life form produces it.  Cow farts (which have been blamed for adding to greenhouse gases) and human farts all contain methane, as do other life form farts.  It rises from the marsh and from landfill.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, the demonized poster child of the “climate science” religion, is the chief nutrient of plant photosynthesis, the process that combines carbon from the air with light to create food for the plant, and thus for every creature that eats plants.  Carbon dioxide comprises significantly less than one percent of the atmosphere.  By comparison, oxygen makes up 21 percent.  If carbon dioxide is the primary culprit in climate change, then overpopulation, with more people exhaling CO2 and farting methane, is a significant factor in the production of greenhouse gases CO2 and methane.

No one of the scientists has addressed the fact that burning one molecule of methane/natural gas (CH4) produces two molecules of water for every one of CO2. Apparently none of the computer models programmed to track carbon emissions and predict climate change factors in the enormous amount of water added to the environment with the burning of fossil fuels.  Water vapor is another “greenhouse gas” in fact, as anyone who has ever visited a greenhouse knows.  What is the effect of cloud cover on the earth below?  What is the effect of all the mass of buildings, highways, and parking lots?  These have replaced forests and fields, which played a role in keeping the earth cool and absorbing rainwater before it flooded.  Has anyone accounted for the thermals (vortexes of hot air rising from cities) creating fronts that change weather patterns all around?

The Industrial Revolution begun with the cheap abundance of coal and is intricately intertwined with its advance.  This closely followed major other changes in paradigms, specifically Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, and the subsequent mechanistic view of the universe.  The mechanistic paradigm brought “determinism,” which separated life (and god) from science.  The idea that the universe functions like a machine, with everything governed by knowable physical laws, contradicted the Biblical presumption of free will.

We have made a quantum leap from Newtonian physics with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.  At the atomic and subatomic level, there is enormous variation and spontaneity within a larger order.  All of a sudden, free will becomes scientifically valid again, the experimenter does influence the experiment by expectation or desire, and cause-and-effect paradigms begin to lose relevance.

I’m more concerned about the effects of environmental toxins than the buildup of greenhouse gases.  The industrial revolution has led to unsustainable levels of toxic waste in air, water, and land, and we continue to dump poisons way worse than carbon dioxide into the world environment.  We are poisoning ourselves along with the insects, but insects reproduce faster and develop immunity quicker than human beings do.  Plastic, also containing hydrocarbon chains, release toxic chemicals, especially when heated, that Americans blithely drink in their bottled water.  We’re increasingly afraid of tap water because of contaminants in pipes and groundwater that we’re only beginning to recognize.

Yes, we are devitalizing and perhaps even killing the earth, but we need to broaden our scope to look at multi-factorial contributors.  It’s not a government problem to solve.  We should look to ourselves as individuals, a nation of excess and waste. Don’t depend too much on salaried scientists, whose primary obligation is to their government, university, and corporate employers.  They agree with each other in finding simple targets and ignoring the greater industrial pollution that continues as fast as it can generate profits on Wall Street.