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Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Behind the Scenes on 'CO2 Is Green'
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
It is hard to square Leighton Steward's cheery message with the vast swaths of dead trees across the mountains of northern New Mexico.
"Fall of '02 is when they started to die," biologist Craig Allen told me a few years ago as we walked through a forest of piñon corpses in the Jemez Mountains.
The years 2002 and 2003 were very warm and very dry in the mountains of northern New Mexico. It's been this dry here before, but this time around far more trees died. Why?
When Allen and a group of colleagues crunched the numbers, they noticed that, like much of the globe, New Mexico has been warmer in the 21st century than it has been since we've been measuring.
It was bark beetles that finished off the trees, but it was the heat of the drought of 2002-03 that made the difference between a garden-variety drought and the massive forest die-off, the scientists concluded.
Scientists say the reason for the warming is rising levels of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from the tailpipes of our cars and factory stacks. That heat, Allen and his colleagues concluded, explains the widespread tree death.
So why does Steward, a charming 74-year-old Texan, say carbon dioxide emissions are a good thing?
That is the claim made by an organization founded by Steward, which has been running half-page ads in the Albuquerque Journal. "CO2 is green," the organization claims. Increasing amounts in our atmosphere "actually help ecosystems and support more plant and animal life." Plants breathe in carbon dioxide, and more carbon dioxide will be good for them, Steward argued in a telephone interview.
To say that is at odds with the scientific literature on this issue would be an understatement.
Joe Galewsky, a climate researcher at the University of New Mexico, called Steward's claim "a gross oversimplification of the situation."
While it is correct that increased carbon dioxide levels could be of small benefit to plants, the damage caused by higher temperatures is far greater, Galewsky said.
This is about more than just trees in the mountains. New research shows that higher temperatures over the next century as a result of greenhouse warming could have a dramatic effect on crop production.
U.S. production of two dominant food crops corn and soybeans could drop anywhere from 30 percent to 82 percent by the end of the 21st century, according to Wolfram Schlenker at Columbia University.
Note that a 30 percent drop is the best-case scenario in Schlenker's study, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The beneficial effects of CO2 fertilization are dwarfed by the negative effects of the predicted increase in very warm temperatures," Schlenker told me.
"Even moderate increases in temperature will decrease yields of corn, wheat, sorghum, bean, rice, cotton, and peanut crops," a comprehensive report from federal researchers earlier this year concluded.
A report last week from the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded that an additional 25 million children worldwide will suffer malnutrition by 2050 because of damage climate change is causing to agricultural productivity.
Steward and the other people behind the recently incorporated "CO2 is Green" nonprofit think otherwise, and they want New Mexicans to contact Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in the hopes of persuading him not to push for regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
Which raises the question, then, since they're spending money to try to influence your elected officials, of just who these people are.
The organization's press agent described Steward in an e-mail as "a best selling author who studies climate change and atmospheric CO2 levels." That is true as far as it goes, if by "studies climate change" you don't mean actually publishing anything in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. But it leaves out a salient point.
Unmentioned in the press information sent to the Journal, in the ad, or on the company's Web site, is the fact that Steward is also a retired oil industry geologist. He still serves on the board of directors of EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company that is one of the corporate descendants of the company formerly known as Enron.
Steward's two partners in the enterprise work for a major Texas-based coal company.
These are industries that have an economic stake in what Bingaman and his colleagues are up to on climate change. In addition to understanding what scientists actually say about this subject, it is worthwhile to understand who is spending money to try to convince you otherwise. The effort to influence Bingaman does not seem to be working. Calls to the senator's office in the past week have been running four-to-one in favor of legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to an aide.