Global warming: horror fiction or real challenge?


MOSCOW. (Sergei Golubchikov for RIA Novosti) - Natural calamities are getting ever more frequent. Many scientists and political activists blame them on industry. The World Bank calls every nation to donate 1% of its gross domestic product to fight global warming.

Green activism brought Al Gore the Nobel Peace Prize. But are the environmental alarmists right?

Environmental phobias go hand in hand with technological civilization. Anxiety over climate change is carried too far, to my mind. Anxiety easily turns to panic, forcing the world into hasty, and possibly wrong, steps. The Kyoto Protocol, for instance, was ratified even before the link between global warming and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been proved. Signatories to Kyoto pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emission by a collective average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

But is the gas so bad? It is no poison, and plants need it as much as we humans need our daily bread. At present it makes up a mere 0.037% of the atmosphere. Greater concentrations cause plant life to flourish-especially forests, the greatest absorbers of greenhouse gases.

If the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere were suddenly stopped, the earth's plant life would consume that remaining in a matter of 8-11 years. After that they would curl up and die. Every living thing on earth would be doomed with them. As it is, volcanic eruptions and other calamities emit enough of the gas to stimulate plant growth and so increase the amount of air oxygen. Marine life is the richest of all, and as such the sea is on a par with the great continental forests as an absorber of greenhouse gases. As 95% of the world's carbon dioxide is dissolved in saline water, global warming makes the sea the principal source of emissions, leaving industry far behind.

To my mind, international agreements should instead seek to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbonic and nitric oxides, benzpyrene, soot, heavy metals and other toxic substances responsible for causing cancer and mutations. These are, in fact, the greatest environmental challenge to governments and the public. It is also easy to monitor the concentration of such substances in the atmosphere.

Oil slicks cover 13% of the world's sea surface. This and other maritime pollution, plus the melting of permafrost and the polar ice caps have far worse implications for the global climate than industry. The Arctic is known as the "Weather Kitchen." Its cyclones make the cold season in the northern hemisphere. I think northern Europe owes its warming of the last 20 years to a weakening of these arctic cyclones, which is the result of a permanent thaw in the Arctic Ocean.

According to experts at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, the arctic ice is shrinking by 5% every ten years. At this rate the North Pole will be completely ice-free by the middle of the century.

The melting of the ice cap is not only a result of fluctuations in temperature. The flow of the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that warms the coasts of western Europe, is shifting due to a preponderance of warm sewage and waste. The levels of pollution are disastrous. I saw with my own eyes garbage from the entire North Atlantic floating along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic archipelago washed by the Stream.

Nothing deserves closer attention from scientists and political leaders than the ocean, the Arctic and Siberia. Yet they are largely ignored. Politicians and experts win Nobel prizes with impassioned calls to fight global warming and shift national economies to sustainable development. To be honest, promises of a radiant noospheric future sound baffling to me, for there are no objective criteria to the noosphere [the third stage of environmental development after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (organic life)]. It cannot be measured, weighed or otherwise evaluated, and there is no way to establish its borders in time and space. But please don't think I shrug off the doctrine of the noosphere. On the contrary, I have the utmost respect for it, just as for those who stood at its cradle-brilliant Russian scientists Vladimir Vernadsky and Nikita Moiseyev.

There is a serious flaw in the Kyoto Protocol. Economic progress or none, Russia will become a huge carbon dioxide producer if climate change continues, mainly due to its position in the Eurasian heartland, which will see the most severe warming on the planet-far greater than in coastal areas. Siberia, the world's largest area of permafrost, will thaw, and with it vast deposits of peat and other carbonized vegetable tissues. Siberian peat bogs will emit tremendous amounts of previously trapped carbon dioxide.

The permafrost will thaw not only on the surface, but deep down, where huge amounts of carbon-rich gas hydrates lie hidden as ice crystals. These will pass straight from solid to gas, surging to the surface to saturate the air with methane and carbon dioxide. As the earth warms up, Siberian forest fires will also be much more frequent, releasing yet more carbon dioxide. In such a vast, unpopulated area, with no roads to speak of, effective fire fighting is impossible.

Western Europe has no such natural emitters of carbon dioxide, so the Kyoto Protocol will bring it tremendous gains even if the entirety of Russian industry comes to a standstill.

Professor Nikolai Tkachenko estimates that over the past 100 years man has been responsible for the loss of at least 1013 tons of atmospheric oxygen-mainly through heating and corrosion. In that time the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere has fallen by 1%, to around 20% - worryingly close to the healthy minimum of 18%. Stifling air exacerbates disease and damages general health.

But here the geography that could be Russia's curse is also its blessing. Russia possesses precious oxygen-producing environmental systems-forests and permafrost marshland, where decay is extremely slow. They are the world's principal sources of oxygen; so Russian air is the richest in oxygen.

Humanity is focusing environmental efforts on the bogeyman of global warming. Why not shift the emphasis to protecting the oxygen-producing environment? My country, with its unique conditions, can make an honorable contribution.

Sergei Golubchikov, an environmental expert, is vice president of Russia's National Geocryological Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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