by Karl Denninger, Market Ticker:
If the hair doesn’t go up on the back of your neck when reading this sort of thing, it damn well should.
It was a moment of the kind that changes lives. At a press conference held by climate activists Extinction Rebellion last week, two of us journalists pressed the organisers on whether their aims were realistic. They have called, for example, for UK carbon emissions to be reduced to net zero by 2025. Wouldn’t it be better, we asked, to pursue some intermediate aims?
A young woman called Lizia Woolf stepped forward. She hadn’t spoken before, but the passion, grief and fury of her response was utterly compelling. “What is it that you are asking me as a 20-year-old to face and to accept about my future and my life? … This is an emergency. We are facing extinction. When you ask questions like that, what is it you want me to feel?” We had no answer.
Softer aims might be politically realistic, but they are physically unrealistic. Only shifts commensurate with the scale of our existential crises have any prospect of averting them. Hopeless realism, tinkering at the edges of the problem, got us into this mess. It will not get us out.
The entire premise rests on the belief that there are exponential tipping points beyond which there is no redemption, ever, when it comes to climate — and we’re driving the Earth’s systems in the direction that will reach them.
Let me point that there is no scientific evidence for that position. None whatsoever.
There is, however, nearly-irrefutable evidence for the converse. It rests in the fact that we’re here, today, on this rock.
What am I referring to? What are known in concert as buffering reactions.
The Earth possesses them as does every living thing on the planet both through physical chemistry and, in the case of living things, biological process. This is irrefutable fact.
You are alive because of such buffering reactions. One of hundreds in your body, which is a complex biochemical process, deals with respiration. The process of biochemical reactions that produce energy in your body result in CO2 and other waste products (uric acid, etc) being released. The CO2 in the blood stream is a dissolved gas and dissolving a gas disassociates the ions in question; the result is a small amount of CH2O3, or carbonic acid, being present in the blood. That in turn slightly lowers blood pH since acids, by definition, have a lower than neutral pH.
Your body reacts to this by increasing the respiration (breathing) rate. The CO2 is thus expelled from the body and the carbonic acid is removed, slightly raising the pH of the blood. Your breathing then slows.
Let me emphasize something here: The change in pH as a result of this process is extremely small; normal blood pH ranges from 7.35 to 7.45 (7.0 is neutral.) Yet your body, indeed that of every animal that respires, is tuned to these extraordinarily small changes and responds with a buffering reaction that attempts to reverse that change. It does so automatically and immediately — within seconds.
Most people believe that the body keeps arterial O2 saturation in the blood at almost-100% by direct biochemical measurement. Not so. This is why you will suffocate silently and painlessly if you breathe an atmosphere that has no oxygen in it. Your body doesn’t think anything is wrong because there is no increase in CO2 level nor change in blood pH, there is no respiratory response or distress (breathing faster trying to get what little O2 may exist), you just pass out and die.
Now if you are chronically diseased (such as by smoking for decades) then this reaction will become damaged. Normally, without a secondary mechanism to regulate respiration, that condition would immediately kill you as your O2 saturation would fall below lethal limits or your blood pH would go out of the required range to support life. It doesn’t, because the body has a secondary mechanism; it can directly determine O2 saturation to some degree and if your CO2 sensing mechanism is damaged to the point that it doesn’t function properly it is capable of taking over sufficiently to keep you alive. But that “backup” is much slower, much less-precise and your exercise tolerance is essentially zero if your body is using that mechanism.
The Earth has thousands of such buffering reactions. The oceans, specifically and just as one of these reactions, have an utterly enormous amount of carbonate dissolved in them. You might recognize that word, and you should, because it’s the same molecule — CO2 — that is dissolved in the blood.
The oceans (indeed, all bodies of water) constantly exchange CO2 with the atmosphere. This is known. But what’s not known well at all is exactly what sort of boundaries are on this reaction, where equilibrium points are, what shifts said equilibrium points, or what the shape of the curve looks like in the actual world rather than in a laboratory. It’s a hell of a lot more-complex than it first appears and there’s a damn good argument to be made that this singular buffering reaction is largely responsible for the possibility of life on this rock.
Throughout the history of the planet some extremely large disruptive events have happened. Very large volcanic eruptions that make anything experienced in the history books look like firecrackers and asteroid strikes to name two. We know these happened because they leave behind direct evidence, and we know roughly when they happened.
In the absence of buffering reactions within the larger context of the planet’s chemistry life on this rock would have been extinguished millions of years ago and this would be a lifeless rock. It wasn’t and isn’t.
Now it is absolutely true that the Earth cannot support unlimited and permanent exponential population growth of any species. There is no such thing as permanent exponential growth of anything, ever, period. You must stop such growth voluntarily at some point or you will be forced to stop by a foldback event where you cannot support what you grew. This is true for populations and it is true for economies.
Governments refuse to accept this and make promises based on the belief they can violate this law of mathematics. They’re not just “wrong” by accident either — they know they’re lying.
As I pointed out in Leverage behind every unit of GDP is a unit of energy. Energy can neither be created or destroyed; it can be exchanged through nuclear reactions with matter (E = MC^2 and all) but if stored by some process and then released it is inherently dissipated back into the environment. Sequestering the product somewhere (again) also requires energy from some other place; CO2 is sequestered into plant material by solar energy as just one example. All chemical reactions have (although often omitted when not being quoted by a chemist or other scientist) an energy term in joules/mol — either liberated or required. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
While it would be nice to postulate that we will come up with some sort of Star Trek technology improvement before we hit the natural limits and foldback points of exponential expansion, especially of people, that’s not exactly comforting. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t, but history suggests it will be won’t and we’ll get the nasty. Nature has a way of doing that, and the “nasty” is frequently something like the plague that kills off a material percentage of the population!
In point of fact warming and higher CO2 levels are, on a planetary scale, beneficial. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels make plants grow faster, which is good if you need them to either feed people directly or feed animals that then feed people. In addition while warmer temperatures will shift crop production they too are beneficial in that longer growing seasons also improve crop yields. While it is absolutely true that severe warming would inundate certain areas that’s a local issue, not a global one. On a global — not local — basis if you are interested in trying to sustain an exponential population growth pattern for a longer period of time you want more CO2 in the atmosphere and you want a warmer climate — period.
This is a function of math, not politics.