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Carbon Call

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Not realistic from a political standpoint, not realistic because the targets are incredibly expensive-that's a Yale economist's take on the multi-trillion dollar strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unveiled April 4 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Others find it hard to even imagine...the magnitude of changes, the speed needed to reach the report's emission peak by 2015, then subsequent reduction of 50%, to level off at 85% of the emissions of 2000. This could cost up to 3% of the world's gross domestic product. Such economic bloodletting will only happen when imposed by nature, and that could be gruesome.

A persistent problem is the amount of denial still going around, and the big bucks fomenting belief that what we now see happening all around us might not really be happening-though if it is happening, it could be beneficial. With catastrophes that scientists actually working in the field of climatology say are imminent, who wouldn't rather be comforted by industry shills, or rather listen to "experts" claiming we ought to be glad for global warming. The latter insist that the planet's preferred state over the last 40 million years is ice age. Then about 8 thousand years ago, mankind started planting crops, clearing trees and burning biomass, darkening the planet's surface while emitting greenhouse gases and saving us from freezing. There is truth in what they say, although if a little is good, billions of times more is not necessarily better. Has moderation ever been in the civilization playbook?

Instead of sitting in this luxurious blue lifeboat and arguing over the size of the hole in the hull, or arguing about how to slow the leaking-rather than risking a sinking, perhaps it's time we started bailing. Tweaking emission levels at this point are just so much arguing about that hole, because carbon dioxide we've already emitted tends to persist in the atmosphere about a century. And major systems we've already sent into positive feedback increasingly threaten to make anything we do or don't do now virtually irrelevant.

Systems such as the special type of permafrost called yedoma-so rich in carbon it's estimated to contain 100 times the amount released annually by combustion of fossil fuels. Alaska and Canada have a few hundred square miles of yedoma, but Siberia is where global warming is thawing the greatest quantities of this permafrost flash-frozen 40,000 years ago. Carbon is escaping from the melt margins as carbon dioxide if it is dry, and methane if it comes from under meltwater, often the case in Siberia. Methane persists in the atmosphere only about a decade before breaking down into carbon dioxide, and other chemicals, but as a greenhouse gas it is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Yedoma is currently bubbling out methane 5 times faster than what was originally measured.

The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones.

The Global Economy lives by fossil fuels, Peak Oil guaranteeing that the Oil Age will taper off through increasing scarcity, but it won't end because we are out of oil.

Clean alternative energies have long suffered at the hands, and pockets, of the mighty fossil fuel industries, keeping economies of scale from greatly improving the economics of alternatives while hidden subsidies made fossil energy horribly expensive. And despite improvements across the alternative energy spectrum, we remain quite distant from replacing more than a fraction of the energy we depend on from fossil sources.

It's crucial that improvements be made in the efficiency of conversion of fossil fuels, and use of their energy. Also crucial is the decarbonization of fossil sources, whether it be elemental carbon recovered before combustion, or C02 recovery after combustion, as with power plants. A variety of reliable methods are available for sequestering recovered carbon, such as in depleted oil and gas wells, salt domes, or in ocean sediments.

With oil wars casting their spells, development of clean, alternative energies is not a top national priority, though impressive progress still prevails, and technological innovation promises to keep dazzling. But right now, we need to bail as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as possible, as fast as we can. Our best option is photosynthesis, plants absorbing carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen while fixing sunlight into myriad useful products-what a perfect deal The equation is pure elegance: sunlight falls on photosynthesizing plants ------> six molecules of water + six molecules of carbon dioxide produce one molecule of sugar + six molecules of oxygen.

Forests are the biosphere's lungs, and they are being razed in a global plague particularly virulent in Asia and South America; the Amazon basin alone is losing 30 million acres a year-at a time when we most desperately need the lung power. But to our incredible good fortune we have a green Superhero, nature's single most prolific photosynthesizer in temperate climates. One of the world's original cultivated crops, a plant wars have been fought over, and civilizations grew by. Our most valuable natural resource for bailing CO2 out of the atmosphere, hemp. We can seed supercharged lungs-the most robust plant of all, renown for gulping CO2 and exhaling oxygen while fixing sunlight into more useful products than any other plant, including biomass fuels. But hemp is behind bars since the 1930s, convicted of threatening profits of William Randolph Hearst, and Pierre duPont. Hearst and duPont demonized hemp in a guttural lunge of political sway, got our hero slammered. One of the worst crimes against the American People, and it just keeps producing.

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Rand Clifford lives in Spokane, Washington. His novels and earlier essays can be found at
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