For Peat's Sake! World's Largest Carbon Footprint Revealed!

By Vladimir Posted in Comments (23) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »

Promoted from blogs. AGAIN. Sheesh, Vladimir: stop fiddling with it. - Moe Lane

Darned if it doesn't look like a footprint!

The image above is a satellite image of atmospheric aerosols - particulate matter - stemming from fires in the Indonesian peat bogs in 1997-98. El Nino conditions that were active at the time made the peat drier than usual, but peat fires are a recurring (2004, '06) phenomenon in Indonesia.

And not a natural phenomenon, for the most part. Most of the fires are man-made; slash and burn techniques are used to clear forests, and the forest fires in turn ignite the peat, which smolders like a burning cigarette. The Indonesian government has contributed to the problem by trying to drain some of the peat bogs for conversion to agriculture.

But here's the mind-blowing part:

[It is] estimated that during 1997 and 1998 smouldering peat beneath the Borneo forests released between 0.8 and 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. That is equivalent to 13 to 40 per cent of all [global] emissions from burning fossil fuels, and contributed to the CO2 peak in 1998. [emphasis added]

Peat fires are a two edged sword. A natural peat bog is actually a carbon sink, so its destruction not only releases the sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it reduces the earth's capacity to regulate the carbon balance.

Why isn't Al Gore doing something about this?


Maybe it's because there's more political mileage to be gained by promoting feel-good solutions to college students and soccer moms than there is on tackling the thorny issue of international land-use. It's much easier (and politically rewarding) to play on the guilt and self-doubt of bourgeois Americans than it is to get the Indonesian rice farmer (or politician) to put down his machete & listen to reason. Not to mention the potential reward of turning control of the American economy to an AGW Politburo.... reward, that is, if you're a member of that AGW Politburo.

Not to worry; I remain an AGW skeptic. One of things that has always troubled me about the AGW movement has been the scale of their prescriptive measures: the current silliness about restricting one's use of butt-wipe to 1 sq per episode is but the latest example of an effort to mobilize the populace to adopt whatever nutty solution, on the idea that it will make one feel better to do... "something". Most of the suggestions in Time Magazine's
51 Things We Can Do to Save the Environment
are similarly trivial in terms of scale: Green eye shadow? Ditch your necktie? Get real.

Perhaps more troubling are the ideas of a planetary scale, such as Time's #33:

Geoengineering, as the field is called, involves rearranging the environment on a planetary scale. The best-known idea involves the so-called space mirrors. Roger Angel, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, suggests putting trillions of small, ultra-thin lenses into orbit, enough to form a cylindrical cloud with a diameter half the size of the Earth's equator and a length of 60,000 miles. Placed 1.5 million km above the Earth's surface, the massive mirror would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet by about 2%, which Angel believes would be enough to offset a significant amount of warming. Implementing this plan would be no mean feat: the mirrors would collectively weigh 20 million tons and cost trillions of dollars. And to get all those lenses into orbit, we'd have to launch rockets every five minutes for 10 years. [emphasis added]

Uhhh...what if they're wrong? Then what?

The Indonesian peat fires would be a laboratory to test climate models and simulations. Attacking the fires would be an enormous civil engineering project, but it would seem to be something of a scale that might be feasible now instead of decades from now. At a minimum, control of the fires would improve air quality in the region (see image of Kuala Lumpur skyline below), improve the regional economies (damaged to the tune of billions of dollars per year), without taking steps that could jeopardize regional or global ecologies. This seems to me to be a conservative and sensible approach.

The Indonesians have tried to control their fires in the past, but their efforts have been small in scale, undermanned, underequipped and underfunded. Their efforts have been restricted to public lands, and many of the fires are on private land.(see Wikipedia article).

In doing this research, I came across this passage which confirmed my suspicions about the robustness of climate change modeling, and the thoroughness of the scientific community's understanding of the complicated processes in play:

...[T]wo ... independent studies of atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations during that ['97-'98] time period support the conclusion that the fires were a major contributor to atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels. ... [C]omputer climate simulations assume that processes which emit carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere operate smoothly and continuously. Episodic events such as wildfires play havoc with such simulations.

At present, no climate modeler knows exactly how to factor catastrophic events in small areas that release carbon dioxide that has been locked away in peat or other carbon and methane reservoirs into world-scale forecasts of greenhouse-gas levels. Such events can evidently have a huge impact on the global carbon balance...

The AGW crowd must do two things before I will consider them to be sincerely engaged in solving the "problem" for which they express such grave concern: a) eschew the trivial feel-good "solutions" which are of too small a scale to matter; and b) embrace large scale strategies, including but not limited to nuclear energy, which just might have a chance of making a difference.

Indonesian forest fires again cause haze in Malaysia (AP), 8/4/2005
Indonesia Peat Fires May Fuel Global Warming, Experts Say National Geographic, 11/11/2004
Massive peat burn is speeding climate change, 11/6/2004

The Jury is in For Kyoto, Al Gore , and the Greens. The verdict is guilty of Fraud.

The only solution they have proposed is a solution to high standards of living.
"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
-Thomas Paine: The American Crisis, No. 4, 1777

40 years ago, eco-nuts wailed about the ensuing doom caused by "the population bomb". Later, they realized that encouraging liberals to curtail their output would actually do more harm than good to their crusade.

So they now pretend that they no longer care about the menace of "over-population".

Then, 30 years ago, it was DDT. Public-enemy #1: a chemical which would have saved thousands of Africans and South Americans from Malaria if it had not been banned by eco-nuts.

Then, 16 years ago, it was "greenhouse effect" and "that giant hole in the ozone layer". These theories were debunked and replaced with AGW, and then, most recently, that horrible-sounding "climate change" (as if the Earth's climate hasn't been changing for, oh, the last 1 billion years).

So my question is: what will the eco-nuts be screaming about 20 years from now? We know it won't be AGW or climate change. Will it be space junk? Deep sea species depletion? Traumatic brain conditions caused by frequent exposure to roller-coaster rides? Then again, I probably shouldn't give them any ideas.

enough, who is trying to do something is Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard. He's doing it under domestic pressure, and it isn't only peat, but it's something.

The 1998 fires (peat and forest) were very bad, but rather exceptional, as they came during the collapse of the Suharto regime, and governance in Indonesia was very weak. I can tell you this from personal experience - I was there for part of this time. There was little prospect of exerting influence from the West, and the East Timor crisis was also building. On top of that came the SE Asian financial crisis, and the collapse of the rupiah.

To keep the quantities in perspective, the total CO2 from the peat and forest fires was equivalent to a few months human CO2 burning. The hint about conversion to agricultural land is significant; if the land was going to be converted, then the carbon store would be mostly lost, whether by fire or decay. Fire is just more sudden and dramatic.

You're right about the drawbacks of proposed geo-engineering schemes to reduce sunlight - I think the biggest drawback is that we need that light for photosynthesis and agriculture. You need to check too the background to these proposals. There was a reference a while ago to a scheme involving atmospheric particles put forward by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Laureate, which met with some criticism. It turns out that he didn't like the idea either, but was advancing it as an emergency measure in the event of thermal runaway, which he believes is a possibility.

Your link on climate modelling is broken. But I think all they are saying is that no computer modeller can predict these events, which is self-evident. Actually the bigger version of this is that models can't calculate a prediction of any kind of human CO2 production - it's determined by human decisions, not physical processes, and someone's estimate has to be supplied. That is why IPCC predictions have such large uncertainty; scientific issues are a smaller part of it.

'97-'98 may have been the perfect storm, but bog burning appears to be an ongoing strategy. The problem recurred in 2004 and 2006, associated with CO2 spikes each time.

AGW proponents have oversold the science. They simply do not understand the processes well enough, and the scope of the problem is too great to make meaningful models. The IPCC graphs & statisitics that you have posted in these pages have broad disclaimers and error bars on the data that indicate to me that no one truly understands the global carbon balance.

So, naturally many are skeptical about proposals that would hobble and control our economy, while letting these global-scale wildfires rage.

If we're going to do something about AGW, let's make sure it's meaningful and follows the Hippocratic admonition, "First, do no harm". Independent of climate models and U.N. predictions, stopping the fires would have direct, measurable health, economic and environmental benefits.

We're trying to promote the blipping thing. :)

The Fuzzy Puppy of the VRWC.

...yes, I realize the context of his proffering the idea. And I also realize that he's one of the luminaries of the AGW movement -- and believes that we should be reducing carbon emissions, etc.

But it was the criticism that I found so revealing. A number of his fellow travelers excoriated him for putting out such a notion.

And it wasn't at all isolated. James Lovelock, the British chemist (and founder of the "Gaia" movement), has long been both a fierce believer in AGW and a proponent of nuclear energy.

He, too, has been excoriated by others in the movement for embracing nuclear energy -- which, they say, is also too environmentally dangerous...but which I say that they actually oppose because it gives capitalism another way out.

I'm not saying that all adherents of AGW are actually just anti-capitalists who want to find ways to constrain capitalism. But I will say the following:

1) Most, if not all, anti-capitalists are adherents of the AGW movement

2) Their interest in global warming has much less to do with the environment than it does with economics

3) They make up a significant portion of the total AGW movement...and capitalist AGWers would be wise to disown them.

you'll never make it in the MSM with this type of writing.

Specifically, their lucrative Subsistence Farming division.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

There would probably be spotted owls and tree frogs playing in the peat today.

For peat's sake, man. scoffed at and disdained in most quarters of the AGW movement.

There's a lesson in that, if anybody cares to pay attention. Tim Radford, responding critically in the Guardian last August to Nobel Laureate Paul "Ozone Hole" Crutzen's suggestion of blasting sulfur particles into space to combat global warming, wrote the following:

A potent mix of pollutants would scatter the incoming sunlight and bounce more sunbeams back into space. Bingo, you'd lower the rate of global warming, make the planet's current tenants a little bit more secure and give the fossil-fuel industries more reason to push hydrocarbons and fill up the corporate coffers.

Radford shows his cards, and his movement's cards, in that last phrase there.

The movement is only tangentially -- if that -- about "stopping global warming." That's a convenient means to an end for them, not an end unto itself. In truth, the movement is just yet another redux of the old struggle between free market capitalism and socialism. And they needed another platform upon which to battle capitalism after that whole Soviet project went up in flames.

A geoengineered remedy to global warming, however plausible or effective, causes a real conundrum for these folks. In fact, it puts them in a box. They can't endorse such a thing -- because, to do so would be to accept the continuance of industrialized, (relatively) unfettered capitalism.

Like you, I'm an AGW skeptic. I question just how much man has contributed to warming. I question how much capability we'd have to reverse it if we wanted to. I question the economic devastation wrought by the adoption of things like Kyoto. I question whether or not it will reverse itself. And I question just how bad the consequences of inaction would truly be.

But I really like the concept of geoengineering and encourage more creativity in ways to combat the problem....not so much because I think we should enact any of them, but because the AGW movement (or, at least, a large part of it represented by the likes of Tim Radford) is bluffing and needs to be called on it.

Although the North Koreans and Pol Pot tried hard, with disastrous effects on their populations. The road from socialism to communism always was alcoholism in its Russian context, hence taxing vodka brought in immense revenues.


When taunted by a Liberal in Parliament that he was going to die "on the gallows or of a vicious social disease," Disraeli replied "That depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."

...because of potential unintended consequences.

An imperfect analogy:

A person isn't taking care of himself and develops diabetes. The doctor prescribes some medicine, but the medicine causes the patient to develop high blood pressure. They add blood pressure medication which causes insomnia, so they add sleeping pills, and so and so on... you end up with a patient that is stable, but not exactly healthy. Wouldn't diet and exercise been a better solution?

to a non man-made problem or a problem the West has no power to stop, like the peat thing, then it's the only answer.

To expand your analogy, screwing up Western economies that are not causing global warming in order to fight GW, (the premise of the post), with all the attendant risks of stagnation, increased poverty, depression and war- well it all doesn't make for a healthy patient either.

BTW, diet and exercise help control Type 2 diabetes, but they don't eliminate it. The patient can get off meds, but still has to test blood sugar regularly and otherwise monitor the symptoms. Type 1 diabetes is hereditary.

and yes I knew I was on thin medical ice with my analogy. I never even had biology in high-school...

There's really not much of a downside to diet and exercise.

There's an enormous downside to taking the measures that most AGW people think we ought to take.

Let's review this again for posterity's sake. The Clinton Administration, of which Al Gore was the #2 man, estimated that adopting the Kyoto Protocol would cost us between 3-5% of our GDP annually. Let's assume they were on the high side and take their 3% number.

Care to guess what 3% of our GDP would've been in 2006? Try $390 billion.

Have you ever wondered why the countries that did become signatory to Kyoto have invariably fallen short of their benchmarks in GHG reduction? It's simple -- they don't like the idea of self-inflicted economic depression. And one can hardly blame them.

AGW people like to talk abstractly about what we need to do. They don't like to talk about the costs of compliance. And, again, one can hardly blame them.

Talk about your unintended consequences. If "acting" to combat global warming was a macroeconomically painless thing, we'd have done it long ago. But it isn't painless, and so we haven't done it -- simply because the urgency isn't there (even if the AGW crowd thinks it should be).

I've been encouraging AGW people for years to go back to their drawing boards and figure out economically plausible ways to combat the problem and to stop coming to the table with or supporting solutions that necessarily slit our economic throats.

Europeans support Kyoto and chastise the US for not supporting it simply because they have lousy economies anyway and they come as close to meeting their Kyoto objectives as they do(though on the whole they are not there and are losing ground every day) by buying carbon offsets..... not by actually doing anything further to undermine energy use.

They want us on an economic footing similar to theirs, and having us essentially cut back radically on energy use would do that. And absent nuclear power inclusion (which we're evidently not going to include in our future energy development plans), meeting Kyoto means just that.... cutting back radically on energy use.

It is no longer a sea, but is now a sterile salty shrinking lake. It used to be fertile and full of great commercial fishing. There is now at most subsistance fishing.
The USSR promised to turn central Asia into a great farm land, but instead made a huge mess.
I am ver dubious of geoengineering projects. One which would likely be work and has little downside risk would be add nutrients to the polar oceans timed to enhance plankton populations. The plankton absorb incredible amounts of CO2,a nd the resulting bloom of sea life would enhance the fisheries and animals that depend on the fisheries.

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."
-Thomas Paine: The American Crisis, No. 4, 1777

....or does al gore(bore) have another carbon hogging mansion in borneo?

Mike Gamecock DeVine @ The Charlotte Observer
Venti Starbucks cups are dangerous, but
"One man with courage makes a majority."-Andrew Jackson

The Vast Majority of Scientists have reached a consensus that "Anthropogenic Global Warming" is the preferred term of art, as it conveys an appropriate level of obfuscatory condescension.

"Man-made" is a little too Anglo-Saxon and, let's face it, understandable.

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