Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Unintended Consequences

As someone who is decidedly lacking in any gift for science, I appreciate the earnest labors of those who display such an aptitude. But beyond the direct largesses that science and scientists have rendered unto man, perhaps the greatest gift provided by the study of the unknown is humility. When researchers concede that they seek to know much and understand very little - and that there are always more questions than answers - their humble efforts bring us all closer to knowing the heart, if not the mind, of God.

It is when science presumes that the scope of the known meets or exceeds the expanse of the unknown that foolishness insinuates itself in the place of true knowledge. The party line among "warmists," both laypersons and researchers, is that increased use of ethanol will faultlessly stabilize or reduce atmospheric CO2 (with the collateral benefit of being derived from entirely home grown sources.)

As has often been the case, the promise of scientists of questionable objectivity has collided head on with the realities of science itself. As much became evident upon publication of two studies in the online edition of Science. Both articles (abstracted
here and here
) indicate that the current processes involved in producing ethanol actually have the effect of increasing atmospheric CO2.

The first study - written by a group of investigators based in Minneapolis - reports that converting land to use in generating corn-based biofuels "creates a 'biofuel carbon debt' by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2" than the greenhouse gas reductions derived from the use of biofuels in the first place. The researchers reviewed available literature to determine the amount of carbon lost when land is converted to crop production, and developed best estimates for land types as diverse as rainforests, grasslands and abandoned cropland.

Similarly, the second study is presented by Princeton University law professor Timothy Searchinger, et al., and proposes that the use of corn-based biofuels "nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years." In an interview with Science, Mr. Searchinger explains how this increase in greenhouse gases comes about.

The basic problem is that previous models counted the benefit of using land to grow biofuels, but they didn't count the cost. In other words, the basic reason people think that biofuels can reduce greenhouse gases is that when you grow the feedstock for the biofuels, whether its corn or switch grass, you take carbon out of the atmosphere... Unfortunately, when you dedicate land to growing a biofuel, which is how most biofuels are produced, you're actually using that land to produce the biofuel, but you're not using that land to produce something else. So if that something else was a forest or grassland, and you end up plowing up that forest or grassland, you get a huge release of carbon. And that huge release of carbon is carbon that's been stored over decades, and according to our calculations, greatly exceeds the carbon benefit that you get per year of using biofuels.
Although neither article suggests that biofuels derived from waste biomass would create a similar "carbon debt," both are damning in as much as they show that the headlong rush to mandate the use of ethanol derived from corn in motor vehicles would exacerbate climate change (that is, if we accept the dubious assumption that CO2 is the singular driver of global warming.)

And while the benefits of using ethanol are at best ethereal, the costs of increased demand for corn are real and directly observable, as Searchinger himself attests.
What actually happens is when we divert our grain to fuel, we're increasing the demand for that grain, and the price goes up. And essentially, every farmer around the world sees a higher price, in fact, right now, much, much higher prices than are typical. And because the price has gone up, people try to make more of whatever the price went up, in this case grain. So they will plow up additional lands if they have the opportunity to do that.
So again, the artificially elevated price of corn has the effect of inducing farmers to convert more land to use for growing corn, thus continuing the cycle. Worse yet, the heightened demand for corn increases the cost of everything from canned soda to corn tortillas. And as usual, it is the poorest of the world's poor who are left to bear the brunt.

As stated at the outset, I am not a scientist. But if I were so inclined, I would investigate a research question that comes to me at present. I would direct my attention and talents to determining why so many otherwise reasonable people would believe that a single naturally-occurring molecule could possibly be the cause of impending planetary apocalypse, and how such a notion could ingrain itself so deeply in the minds of the scientific community. I might then attempt to study the effects of such a hysteria on the conduct of scientific research itself in order to determine what the real cost of global warming alarmism has been to humankind.

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