Is the burning of fossil fuel a significant planetary activity?

After all, the Earth is a planet. Is even the presence of humans significant on the rough and diverse thin surface of this planet?


Denis G Rancourt | activistteacher.blogspot.com

The total pool of fossil fuel carbon itself, which has been burned to date (2010), is not large compared to organic and non-mineral carbon on the planet. It is 3.7 x 10^14 kg-C.

We certainly make every effort to see ourselves as significant on this spinning ball in space. We like to point out that the lights from our cities can be seen from our extra-atmospheric “spaceships” at night and that we have deforested continents and reduced the populations of large wild mammals and of fishes but is all this really significant in the planetary web known as the biosphere?

INSIGNIFICANCE OF FOSSIL FUEL BURNING ENERGY RELEASE

The present (2010) historic maximum of anthropogenic (caused by humans) fossil fuel burning is only 8% or so of global primary production (GPP) (both expressed as kilograms of carbon per year, kg-C/y). GPP is the rate at which new biomass (living matter) is produced on the whole planet. And of course all biomass can in principle be considered fuel that could be burned with oxygen (O2) to produce CO2 gas, H2O water, energy, and an ash residue.

This shows the extent to which anthropogenic energy production from fossil fuel burning is small in comparison to the sun’s energy delivery to Earth, since biomass primary production results from the sun’s energy via photosynthesis.

The sun’s rate of raw energy delivery to the planet is, in turn, much greater (more than one thousand times greater) than the energy captured by GPP because most of the sun’s light energy is not used for photosynthesis but instead is either sent directly back out into space or produces fluid convection, wind, rain, water currents, erosion, etc., and because photosynthesis itself, even for the light directly striking a plant’s photoactive surface, is highly inefficient (less than 2% of incident light energy is converted to biomass chemical bond energy).

So, on the global scale of things fossil fuel burning energy release is miniscule (8% of 0.07% = 0.006%).

Given all the fuss that is made about the present rate of fossil fuel burning (2010; 0.8 x 10^13 kg-C/y where 10^13 = 10,000,000,000,000 with thirteen zeros), it is important to keep in mind that this represents an amount of CO2 release comparable to or somewhat less than the CO2 released by simple breathing from humankind and its domestic animals. The combined biomass of humankind and its domestic animals (cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, pets, etc.) is in turn estimated to be only 0.04% of Earth’s living biomass (all expressed as kilograms of carbon, kg-C), which is a lot more CO2-producing breathing. (Ants, for example, are estimated to represent ten to one hundred times the biomass of humankind and ants can be argued to have “transformed” the planet and its ecology far more than humans.)

The corporate-finance-military-empire interest in fossil fuel is that it is concentrated, extractable and compositionally homogeneous enough to be amenable to industrial processing, that its demand can be created and its supply controlled, and that new and existing alternative transportation technologies or strategies can be sabotaged and are not presently competitive on the geopolitical military battlefront (although hydrogen-based fuels are presently used for rocket propulsion).

INSIGNIFICANCE OF FOSSIL FUEL AS A CARBON POOL

By comparison, the present total mass of CO2 as carbon in the atmosphere is 8.6 x 10^14 kg-C where CO2 is a trace gas with present concentration 390 ppmv (parts per million by volume) and where the atmosphere is the smallest global reservoir of carbon on the planet.

Even as Earth’s atmosphere goes the present concentration of CO2 is historically low compared to biomass highly productive periods during which CO2 concentrations where as high as 20 times the present level. Past bio-productive periods are part of the reason we have fossil fuels today.

The present low concentration of CO2 is growth limiting for plants under conditions where other essential nutrients do not first limit growth. Indeed, experiments have shown that today’s plants grow up to 50% faster than under present conditions when the CO2 concentration of the ambient atmosphere is 1000 ppmv, all other factors remaining the same and non-growth limiting.

Beyond the atmospheric carbon reservoir, the present planetary biomass alone (1 x 10^15 kg-C) is approximately three times the amount of total post-industrialization fossil fuel burned to date where even this biomass carbon is only carbon in living organisms.

In addition there is at least 10 times more carbon contained in non-living organic matter than in biomass – in organic detritus, soils, bogs, natural waters, lake sediments, marine sediments, and so on. For example, from my own research, the boreal forest (the largest ecosystem on Earth) contains millions of lakes that have not even been counted. These virtually unstudied lakes have accumulated organic-rich bottom sediments (preserved by anoxia) that have not yet been included in global carbon accounting studies.

Furthermore, there is approximately fifty times more dissolved carbon in ocean water than contained as CO2 in the atmosphere.

These bio-available carbon pools (biomass, organic matter, atmosphere, ocean water) do not include geological stores and sources from volcanoes and active geothermal sites. Volcanic activity, in particular, is unpredictable and has been highly variable in intensity since life burst onto the planet (billions of year ago), with often dramatic impacts on global ecology.

In summary, the total amount of post-industrial fossil fuel burned to date (and expressed as kilograms of carbon) represents less than 1% of the global bio-available carbon pools.

More importantly, bio-available carbon is a minor constituent of the Earth’s surface environment and one that is readily buffered and exchanged between compartments without significant consequences to the diversity and quantity of life on the planet. The known history of life on Earth (over the last billions of years) is unambiguous on this point.

Left progressive First-World elitist and disconnected policy consumers and service intellectuals need to recalibrate their sense of self-importance and correct the blindness that this sense produces.

WHERE IS THE FOSSIL CARBON GOING?

(Falsely) assuming direct input and no other inputs or outputs, the total post-industrial fossil fuel burning to date (2010) should have produced a post-industrial increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration from 275 ppmv (parts per million by volume) to 500 ppmv or so. Instead, the measured increase to 390 ppmv is half the “expected” amount.

Likewise, on the dynamic time scale of one year, the present (2010) rate of fossil fuel burning CO2 release to the atmosphere (4.0 ppmv/y) is twice the present measured rate of increase of actual atmospheric CO2 concentration (2.1 ppmv/y).

A factor of two (in both the amount and the annual rate) is not nothing. This factor of two is in fact an underestimate because the post-industrial deforestation would also have contributed CO2 to the atmosphere. Where is the anthropogenic CO2 going?

It is too great an amount to have gone into biomass but it could have spurred plant and phytoplankton growth and gone into organic matter?

It is generally believed to have been quickly dissolved into the ocean water. This has in turn led to tenuous proposals (and an associated research industry) that the mean ocean water has been acidified by 0.1 pH units and that this postulated acidification alone may cause ecological change putting certain shell-forming organisms at risk. To date there has been no direct experimental validation of a change in ocean pH, nor has there been a conclusive demonstration that ecological damage arises from increased ocean acidity.

This ocean acidification side show on the global warming science bandwagon, involving major nation research centers and international collaborations, is interesting to compare with the 1970s-1980s hoax of boreal forest lake acidification. [1][2]

More importantly, scientists know virtually nothing about the dynamic carbon exchange fluxes that occur on all the relevant time and lengths scales to say anything definitive about how atmospheric CO2 arises and is exchanged in interaction with the planet’s ecological systems. We are barely at the point of being able to ask intelligent questions.

As with most areas of science and medicine, however, despite our gargantuan ignorance we are unfortunately able to sound knowledgeable and able to write impressive grant proposals and governmental reports. It’s a dangerous place to be for society when you have a demonstrated bad habit of serving powerful economic interests. Common sense and independent thinking are going to have to prevail if we do not want to continue with this circus.

WILL WE SURVIVE GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHAOS?

The present foray about carbon is of course motivated by the ongoing debate between “warmists” and “deniers”.

What use to be called “global warming” is now dubbed “climate change”. The climate modeller crew went from proposing out of thin air (otherwise known as the amplification hypothesis) that an anthropogenic increase in trace gas and essential nutrient CO2 would cause global warming to proposing that it would cause an increase in extreme weather events and in abnormally large regional climate changes.

The change in name appeared at about the time when many statisticians were pointing out in published papers that the global mean temperature was an ill-defined quantity. That’s technical language for “has not and cannot be reliably determined”. That pretty much put an end to all the nice temperature graphs.

There are many problems with the revised climate modeller crew story. To name a few (see also [2]):

(1) There is no justification beyond conjecture for the “amplification hypothesis”.

(2) The models are vast oversimplifications of reality and the model predictions are sensitive both to the values of ill-constrained (not known) needed parameters and to changes that would make the models more realistic.

(3) All the most dramatic regional climate and ice-cover changes can be explained simply using plausible known processes without the use of computer models. [2]

(4) Historic climatologists and climate statisticians who have published on the topic have concluded that recent weather and regional climate changes are not out of statistical norms.

The astounding recent exposure (known as climategate [3]) of wholesale corruption in the climate modelling and climate data massage scientific establishment only muzzled the warmist corporate media frenzy (as part of the cover up) but did not stop the mega-financier-driven push towards creating the largest ever paper economy anchored in “cap and trade” and “carbon credits” [4], nor did it dampen the enthusiasm and conviction of the associated gravy train NOGs and special-sector public-opinion-dependent green associations, groups, and political parties.

This would be the largest financial scam in history (barring only the fractional reserve private banking money monopoly), taxing life itself and non-First-World industrial development under a militarily backed extortion regime of global extent. The powerful have eyed the prize and are not about to let go without a sustained run for the money and for global control of aspiring economic competitors.

First World left progressives, with their pathological avoidance of conflict [5], would help usher in this scheme as a way to convince themselves that they are buffering corporate exploitation and destructive resource extraction, while continuing to not directly or effectively confront corporations and the governments that work for corporations.

CONCLUSION

Whereas humankind has relatively little impact on the quantity and diversity of life in the biosphere, humankind is the main determinant factor in the welfare and health of humans and human communities. The health and welfare of human communities in turn are the main factors that determine the extent to which humans destroy the environment.

There is no lack of examples. Brutal colonial rule and occupation transformed Africa into a continent of unsustainable practices and a war zone of resource extraction for powerful global players and collaborating local elites, at the expense of war-torn populations. American militarily backed corporate occupations in Latin America have devastated the landscapes and the peoples. The mass insane agri-food corporate enterprise in North America is based on a most efficient genocide of the aboriginal peoples, the survivors of which are in prisons and on controlled reserves. And so on.

For left progressives to collaborate with First World governments that practice global extortion and geopolitical wars in order to pass carbon schemes to undemocratically manage and control the developments of non-First-World communities and sovereign states is obscene, racist, and cruelly cynical.

I would hope that concerned citizens would instead join in thoroughly ridiculing the carbon fixation of our service intellectuals and myopic-at-best politicians in order that this latest scam and similar ones go the way of the dodo. [6] Let us focus on “stop killing and exploiting”. [7]

Endnotes

[1] “Some big lies of science” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

[2] “Global warming: Truth or dare?” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2007.

[3] Climategate warming bubble burst – YouTube videos

[4] “The corporate climate coup” by David F. Noble, 2007, 2010.

[5] “On the racism and pathology of left progressive First-World activism” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

[6] For an essay about the power of public opinion and image maintenance vulnerability see “Psycho-biological basis for image leverage and the case of Israel” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

[7] “Voter psychology and the bloodless revolution to end bloodshed” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

Other essays by the same author:
http://rancourt.academicfreedom.ca/blogs-etc/essays.html

Same author’s blog specifically about climate:
http://climateguy.blogspot.com/

Denis G. Rancourt was a tenured and full professor of physics and environmental science researcher at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He practiced several areas of science which were funded by a national agency and ran an internationally recognized laboratory. He published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals. He developed popular activism courses and was an outspoken critic of the university administration and a defender of student and Palestinian rights. He was fired for his dissidence in 2009 by a president who is a staunch supporter of Israeli policy. [Seerancourt.academicfreedom.ca]