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The Global Carbon Cycle (Princeton Primers in Climate)
The Global Carbon Cycle (Princeton Primers in Climate)
David Archer
Princeton University Press, 2010
216 pp., $37.50

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Bill McKibben

Against Lysenkoism

The patient, cumulative work of consensus science.

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For the moment, Archer writes, the carbon cycle is doing its best to compensate for the dose of CO2 we've spewed into the air—the oceans, for instance, are absorbing about two gigatons of carbon a year and becoming steadily more acidic in the process, which in turn endangers much of the life beneath the waves. Over the next little while, however, scientists warn, even the inadequate buffering attempts of the carbon cycle could flip, and the earth could begin augmenting the carbon in the atmosphere. As permafrost heats up, for instance, peat deposits currently frozen safely away will begin to melt, releasing potentially massive amounts of carbon into the air. Worse, as Archer explains in his final chapter, a warming world may also liberate huge amounts of methane currently frozen beneath the oceans, and since methane is itself a potent warming gas it has "a huge potential to alter the climate" even beyond the damage already caused by CO2.

The calm, straightforward tone of this book, and the huge mass of consensus science on which it is based, are the product of another marvel, the human mind. The patient, cumulative work of thousands of researchers has delivered us a timely warning about our future, a warning that could have been delivered at no other moment in the planet's history. The warning is stark: the carbon cycle, at the root of what we like to think of as the planet's natural cycles, runs on very slow geologic time. Global warming, by contrast, is a fast and furious affair that so far has raised the planet's temperature about a degree Celsius, enough to start the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice and knock many other systems out of kilter. The climatologists warn that unless we act with swiftness and courage to end the burning of fossil fuels, atmospheric concentrations will climb past 500 ppm and the temperature could climb four degrees or more within this century. That would produce a grim planet, at least for most of the species that currently inhabit it, ours at the top of the list. Remember the language from that NASA study: not compatible with "the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted."

In the face of this scientific warning, our political leaders have essentially done nothing. The U.S. House of Representatives voted in April to defeat a resolution saying simply that "climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare." This is Lysenkoism, pure and simple—the attempt to overrule science when its findings are ideologically offensive. Oddly, the champions of this Lysenkoism style themselves "conservative." As Archer's book makes painfully clear, they're acting with a radicalism unprecedented in the planet's history. Their rhetoric is unlikely to sway the forces tracked by physics and chemistry.

Bill McKibben is the author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books/St. Martin's).

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