Jim’s First Book:


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If we stopped using fossil fuels today and millions of young trees were planted, the amount of CO2 in our planet’s atmosphere would be reduced, at least temporarily.  As they grow, trees and other plants extract and embody carbon from the atmosphere and thus reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  But when plants die and decay or burn, the carbon they have embodied is recombined with oxygen and released into the atmosphere as CO2.  A large percentage of atmospheric CO2 cycles through the biosphere once every 20 to 30 years.1

Thus, if forests and other vegetation communities are expanded permanently, a permanent reduction of atmospheric CO2 would occur, but only if the combustion of fossil fuels ends.  As plant communities become larger, they can store more carbon. This storage can be more or less permanent since the CO2 released by burning or decaying plants will be absorbed by new growth.  However, if the use of fossil fuels continues, the only way plants can be used to reduce the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere would be to harvest them and store them in a place where they could not decay or burn.

While photosynthesis is only one aspect of the carbon cycle, it does illustrate the need to think through natural processes.  If we do this, we can better understand whether a perceived solution is really going to be effective or if we need a more comprehensive approach, based on how our planet's life support system actually works.

Another way that this lack of whole planet or biospheric analysis manifests is in how we focus on a problem. Take the issue of increasing levels of atmospheric methane. The media has made much of the fact that cattle and other domestic ruminants are collectively releasing large amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere as part of their digestive processes. Molecule for molecule methane gas is 20 to 30 times more effective in trapping atmospheric heat as is CO2.2


1 Clark, Mary. Contemporary Biology. Second Edition, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, London, Toronto, (1979):  p. 528
2 Schneider, Stephen H. Global Warming. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, (1989):  p. 20, (Taken from the uncorrected proof)

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