Culture

Good News in Global Warming

(NASA)
So far from being a villain, carbon dioxide is essential to life on earth.

There were two big pieces of news out of NASA this week. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and scientists at the Southwest Research Institute discovered a new moon, orbiting a dwarf planet named Makemake (one of the many Pluto-esque bodies that live in the far reaches of the solar system). And NASA announced that the Earth is getting greener. Literally greener. Plant growth is way up.

Why is plant growth way up? Because of all the extra carbon dioxide in the air. According to the study, which was published this week in the scientific journal Nature, the total area of the planet that’s covered by plants has increased by more than 11 million square miles in the last 33 years. For perspective: North America, including Greenland, is a little less than nine and a half million square miles. Of course, not all of this increase is due to CO2 and global warming. But 78 percent of it is. (Says the study.)

This is very good news. Plants feed the world. It is not, however, unexpected news. Wall Street Journal readers may recall a piece published in May of 2013 called “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide,” by William Happer, one of Princeton’s top-flight physicists, and Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, a former Republican senator from New Mexico, and an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon.

‘In Defense of Carbon Dioxide’ criticized the ‘conventional wisdom’ about CO2 and the ‘single-minded demonization of this natural and essential atmospheric gas.’

“In Defense of Carbon Dioxide” criticized the “conventional wisdom” about CO2 and the “single-minded demonization of this natural and essential atmospheric gas.” “Contrary to what some would have us believe,” wrote Schmitt and Happer, “increased carbon dioxide will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.”

Needless to say, they were right on the money.

And this was no shot in the dark — in fact, the benefit of carbon dioxide to plant life is not only a well-established fact, but suffocatingly obvious, when you think about it: The (very reasonable, entirely correct) trope of conservationists is that we need more plants, because we breathe oxygen and emit carbon dioxide, whereas plants breathe carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. It follows that plants need carbon dioxide in more or less the same way we need oxygen. This is why — point out Schmitt and Happer — commercial greenhouses tend to grow plants in air that is 150 percent richer in carbon dioxide than the great outdoors.

Schmitt and Happer’s piece also explained that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 make plants more resistant to drought — basically, by reducing the number of water-wasting air holes a plant needs to breathe — which (they say) is why droughts in the age of global warming don’t look like droughts in the age of the Dust Bowl. And they point out that the current elevated CO2 levels are still much lower than CO2 levels were in the distant (pre-human) past.

They add that “variations in global temperature correlate much better with solar activity and complicated cycles of the oceans and atmosphere” than they do with increased levels of carbon dioxide. And that “there isn’t the slightest evidence that more carbon dioxide has caused more extreme weather.”

Unfortunately, Happer and Schmitt’s good tidings were not enough to assuage the concerns of environmental opinion-makers. But the fact that their predictions have been perfectly borne out should give some ammunition to fighters of the good fight.

And in the meantime, everyone on every side of the global-warming argument should take a few moments to appreciate these, our salad days, and — at last — some good news in global warming.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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