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Why we should work hard to raise the CO2 concentration

Many texts about the climate and related issues are highly, boringly repetitive. I believe that a typical person who regularly follows the research and debate about similar issues has heard 99% of the things that are written about the climate change or carbon dioxide etc. Even the research that claims to be new is often just rehashing some memes that have been around – and we usually have very good reasons to suspect that the results of the research were decided before the research was performed.

But there are some good exceptions. Two days ago, ex-moonwalker Harrison Schmitt and physics professor Will Happer of Princeton wrote an opinion article for the Wall Street Journal from which I could have learned some new things:

Harrison H. Schmitt and William Happer: In Defense of Carbon Dioxide

The demonized chemical compound is a boon to plant life and has little correlation with global temperature.
The basic theme of the article is simple and most of us learned it as fifth-graders: CO2 is primarily the plant food while its other implications for Nature are negligible in comparison. Humanitarian organizations should work hard to help the mankind to increase the CO2 concentration and it's surprising that virtually all of them are failing to do so.

Needless to say, the article was greeted with a highly nervous reaction from the anti-scientific left-wing extremist sources. They must think it's a blasphemy to remind anyone that CO2 is the key compound that plants need to grow – and, indirectly, that every organism needs to get the food at the end. See, for example, the hysterical reactions by Climate Science Watch, the lousy and badly biased astronomer Phil Plait, anti-Fox-News attack dog organization Media Matters for America, and many others. Many of them seem to literally say that it's been disproven that plants need CO2 to grow; I kid you not. The insanity of certain people who put ideology (and not just any ideology: I mean a highly pathological ideology) on the first place has no limits.

Mr Plait and others, please, try to gradually get used to the fact that we are past the peak global warming hysteria. The elementary parts of common sense, e.g. the realization that carbon dioxide's impact on Nature as a plant food is many orders of magnitude more important than the role of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, will be returning to all segments of the society and you will be increasingly recognized as kooks if you deny such facts about 101 botany, 101 economy, and 101 ecology, even among the people whom you expect to be "ideologically obedient". Your position is totally unsustainable in the long run and even the medium run.

The (for me and others) new insights that the authors presented were differences between C3 plants and C4 plants. The latter evolved to cope with lower CO2 concentrations but they still have to pay some price.

In both cases, plants absorb CO2 through stomata in their leaves and they need a very large amount of water to grow. A higher CO2 concentration allows them to reduce the number of stomata and save water, if I simplify things a bit. So one may say that a higher CO2 helps the plants to deal with the shortage of water.

Today, the average CO2 concentration reached 400 ppm or 0.04% of the volume (or, equivalently, of the number of the molecules in the air because the air is a nearly ideal gas) "today". The mankind will reach a maximum that is much higher, perhaps 600-1,500 ppm between 2050 and 2300. I don't know any details. No one knows them.

But if those future generations stop pumping CO2 into the air, its concentration will drop dramatically. These days, Nature absorbs about 2 ppm worth of CO2 every year from the atmosphere; it's because the "excess CO2" above the equilibrium value which is about 280 ppm for our temperature is about 120 ppm. If the excess is gonna be 600 ppm, like in 880 ppm, it's very plausible that Nature will be eager to absorb five times more, i.e. 10 ppm from the atmosphere every year. That could be described as a nearly 1% drop of CO2 in the atmosphere per year which could reduce the efficiency of agriculture by 0.5% or so per year.

It's not too much but it's not negligible, either. If their technological tricks are already maximized, they could easily find out that the dropping CO2 is an order from Mother Nature that the population should drop by 0.5% a year. The Earth's ability to feed the mankind may start to drop at that point. 0.5% isn't a cataclysmic population decrease and it may be respected without mass starvation, by a lower birth rate. But it would still be annoying.

Nowadays, we enjoy CO2 concentrations growing by 2 ppm i.e. 0.5% a year and this increase contributes a non-negligible part to the increasing efficiency of the agriculture. I hope that when people are forced to get used to the dropping CO2, they will either find a way to mitigate this unwelcome evolution – e.g. by burning lots of biomass or something else – or they will have some other tricks.

For example, in 100 years, most of the agriculture may take place in some huge "greenhouses" (which are more useful if the CO2 concentration in them is kept at elevated levels). What some nations are doing about beating Nature's limitations on agriculture is impressive. Open the new Google Earth Engine with the Landsat Annual Timelapse 1984-2012. You may see the satellite pictures of any region on the globe to check how it was changing during the last three decades. You are offered some real local catastrophes, like drying of the Aral Sea (or a lake in Iran), some changes that are overinterpreted as tragedies although they're really not, like Amazon deforestation and the retreat of a glacier in Alaska, but also examples of some impressive human activities.

They include expanding coal mining in Wyoming – I don't like it too much; and Dubai coastal expansion which is impressive at any rate. But my winner is the Saudi Arabia irrigation. What these Saudis managed to do with the desert is amazing. Look at the nicely ordered crop circles! The diameter of these circles is almost 1 kilometer. Cool. With enough energy, similar things can be built in Sahara and elsewhere, too. I see no reason why the average population density sometime in the future shouldn't exceed the current population density in the Netherlands – 500 people per square kilometer – which would mean that the world population may rather easily surpass 50 billion at some point (many centuries in the future).

I don't claim that I like the idea – large fields and forests where no one annoys me for hours in the afternoon usually seem more pleasing to your humble correspondent than overcrowded, loud areas ;-) – but liking something is a totally different issue than expecting something to take place!

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snail feedback (20) :

reader jp said...

"around 400 ppm or 0.0004% of the volume" is 2 orders of magnitude off.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Tx, fixed. I meant 0.0004 without percent.

reader Honza said...

Hi Lubos. You talk about the C3 and C4 plants, but are totally ignoring my favorite- the CAM plants. ;-) That is the coolest adaptation of them all, being mostly used by succulent plants and very useful in arid conditions.

reader Eugene S said...

I've read Plait's article, it strikes me as irresponsible scaremongering.

Sure, growing pineapples in Toronto might be fun, but what do you think will happen in Kansas when the summer heat gets cranked up to broil, and changing weather patterns dry up all the rain for a few months at a time?

How does he know that? Does he have a crystal ball that tells him what future weather patterns will look like? Possibly he will point to some model that "predicts" this, but I have lost pretty much all confidence in 100-year forecasts at this time.

In the comments below the article, commenter "bcs89" tries valiantly to introduce readers to the concept of "climate sensitivity", for which the warmistas heap tons of abuse on him or her. But it's the right thing to do. The warmistas usually neglect to mention this in public debate.

bcs89 links to a middle-of-the-roadish Economist article, which cites recent research that pegs the likely temperature rise for CO2 doubling much lower than the IPCC estimates. Plait ignores this and yaps, "try living on Venus" (!) as if that meant anything. Another worthwhile link is to this Cato Institute article.

That said, I don't feel comfortable about hundreds of coal-fired power plants coming online worldwide. It's a source of environmental pollution, which accounts for many thousands of deaths every year, not least from radioactive isotopes being released from smokestacks.

There has to be a better, more efficient way of supercharging edible plants with CO2 food.

reader CJ said...

The facts are CO2 has gone up but temperatures have not, This simple truth completely negates the Catastrophic Climate Change Theory (CCCT) which predicts as CO2 goes up so do Temperatures. The inconventient truth is the Greens defending this fraudulent theory are in effect denying millions of working people and the poor of the world access to our vast natural fossil fuel resources. Resources that belong to the people not the elites in the Government. Resources that if made available to the people would provide cheap energy and millions of good paying jobs.

There is still hope that more will see the light as more and more scientists speak truth to power. Freeman Dyson a renowned physicist who has been teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. "most brilliant physicist on the planet." since Albert Einstein. scoffs at those who believe in Catastrophic Climate Change.

"I just think they don't understand the climate," he said of climatologists. "Their computer models are full of fudge factors." Ditto the World Bank and the rest of their ilk.

reader Gene Day said...

The world can easily support seven times the current human population in the distant future but it sure looks like it won’t have to. The people who study such things assert that the human population growth rate, measured as percent growth per year, reached its peak between 1965 and 1970 and will become zero within fifty years and, likely, sooner.

At that point earth will support its historical maximum of no more than than 10 billion people and the number will slowly decline from there. Nonethelass, Happer is clearly correct in touting the humanitarian benefits of increasing CO2.

Interestingly, there are about 1.5 billion cows on the planet and, therefore, the total cow mass is approximately twice the total human mass. The respiration rate for cows is surely less per kilogram than for humans but their CO2 production is comparable to the human production, at least roughly. More cows would be a nice benefit in several ways.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Gene, even if the population rate converged to zero, the total population may still diverge to infinity! ;-) That's a subtle mathematical fact but for example, if the population rate goes like C/year, the population will go to infinity because integral(1/time) diverges.

reader Eugene S said...

There is, however, one unexpected side-effect of elevated CO2 content that does not get mentioned often, namely a condition called "ischemic priapism". This may cut down on health-care costs by obviating the need for expensive prescription of erectile-dysfunction drugs. However, a few hundred more ppm won't be enough; 50,000 ppm is more like it.

reader Nancy B. Hultquist said...

John writing:
“For example, in 100 years, most of the agriculture may take place in some huge "greenhouses" . . .”

The word “most” makes this statement a little tricky because some might define agriculture quite broadly and include grazing or growing grass for hay. However, in a more restrictive sense, the future is here:
They say “Greenhouse growers produce fresh, safe and healthy vegetables locally in British Columbia.”
On the lower left, the -- Take a tour! – link is a good
start. In near-by Washington State, our grocery stores carry these vegetables.
The first diagram is so colorful and artsy-looking I did a
glancing-skip because it looked like an ad. Then Google helpfully inserted two EBay ads
between the drawing and where you mention the C3 and C4 plant differences. So then I did go back and have a look.
Here’s a link to a basic explanation and includes a
reference to the on-line site called “CO2 Science” where I first came across the subject:

reader Alexander Ač said...


of course, I am happy that you learned some basics of plant physiology ;-)

Regarding your fascination with Saudi Arabia irrigation circles - let me remind you that this is done thanks to (lot of) fossil energy and fossil water and some of these circles have already dried - So I would not bet more than 1 Euro these circles will be too abundant in coming decades. Nor will be Euro :-)

But I would be more interested, if you have some literature/data behind this extraordinary claim:

"...get used to the fact that we are past the peak global warming hysteria". Thanks,


reader Alexander Ač said...


"The world can *easily* support seven times the current human population in the distant future" - uh, are we both living on the same planet Earth, right?

You know around 1 billion people is STARVING TODAY, so I assume you are joking... or you surely know that air pollution in China is prematurely killing thousands of people every day, etc.

Did you ever attend some very basic course in ecology? :-/

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Alexander, if you forgive me, let me assure you that I understand that lots of fossil fuels are spent to make such things possible - they're among the reasons why fossil fuels are so precious.

Concerning your last paragraph, yes, I realize that you are retarded and you will promote global warming hysteria even in 2020 when all of its genuine proponents in the West will be kept hermetically isolated in mental asylums.


reader Luboš Motl said...

I am sure that you're not living on the planet which you think you're living on, Alexander.

Some people were always starving, even when the world population was lower than a million of people. As the technological progress made advances - in some corners of the world - the percentage of starving people was decreasing.

Gene knows 1,000 times more about ecology than you do, and I have a few orders of magnitude of advantage relatively to you, too. Mephisto even sent me a thick book on ecology I read - and you have not even though you unsuccessfully wanted to buy it.

reader Alexander Ač said...

Hi Luboš,

I am sure I am not the only retarded person on this planet, thats why I believe in the limits to human ingenuity and economic growth ;-)

But still, I was interested where you got the data for the clame, that we are behind the global warming hysteria peak - you have any information that (next report of) IPCC will be cancelled?


reader Luboš Motl said...

That's surely true. There are millions of people in the world who are as retarded as you are (and many members of the "IPCC" may surely be counted as your "peers" in this sense). I don't think that it is a too convincing excuse, however.

reader Kirk Myers said...

If the planet enters a period of long-term cooling (and there are plenty of indications we are headed in that direction), CO2 levels may level off or, at a minimum, rise at a slower rate. The colder oceans would act as a massive CO2 heat sink, especially if we were to see global temperature drops similar to those experienced during the Dalton Minimum or, worse, Maunder Minimum. Of course, if the Holocene Epoch were to end abruptly, mankind would be in big trouble. CO2 and warming would be the least of our worries.

reader Kirk Myers said...

Show me a country where there is widespread famine, and I'll show you a country that has embraced collectivism (e.g. socialism, communism, fascism) instead of a market-based capitalist economy. It is economic and political freedom that led to mankind's emergence from the depths of the dark ages. And it was capitalism and the division of labor that spurred greater worker productivity, creating economic surpluses and wealth and ending widespread starvation.

reader Alexander Ač said...

Luboš, I think your fascination with Saudi Arabia was a bit premature:

"Saudi started shutting down their desert wheat growing in 2008 because the aquifer was drying up. The project will be completely shut down by 2016." --


reader Jakeukalane Milegum Firisse said...


reader Gene Day said...

Alexander Ac,
The world’s food production per capita is at an all-time peak and will continue to increase. Starvation, which surely does exist, is a result of distribution problems resulting from geopolitical factors and it is not at all due to overall food shortages. The food that is wasted would easily feed all that are wanting. That number, by the way, is well under your guess of one billion.

Air pollution in China is an unrelated problem and I think your association of the two is merely a demonstration of your irrationality in all things.

I would also suggest that you refrain from insulting your intellectual superiors.