Thursday, March 18, 2010

Culture: I Am Not a Carbon Sink

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On his radio show last Sunday, Dr. Joe Schwarcz showcased the idea that people on a weight-loss diet may be contributing to global warming. The idea was that the weight people were losing was being partially returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Schwarcz cited a study estimating that if all obese North Americans lost 40 pounds that it would increase global carbon dioxide emissions for the year by about 0.1% percent. While noting that this was a relatively small amount, Schwarcz noted that it was measurable, and therefore was worth discussing.

Then, on Tuesday, CBC Radio One's The Current spent its last half-hour exploring the idea of whales as a carbon sink. It was noted that dead whales sink in the ocean and therefore decay quite slowly. It takes a long time for the carbon that is part of the whale to be converted into carbon dioxide, and then that carbon dioxide has to rise toward the surface and enter equilibrium with the atmosphere before it adds to the greenhouse effect. Thus, not only are whales a carbon sink in the sense of having a large mass, but they are a much better carbon sink than a land mammal that would be as large because a land mammal would return its carbon to the atmosphere more quickly.

This kind of thinking has gotten out of control. I am not a carbon sink. Neither are you, no matter how much you weigh. Neither is your dog, an elephant at the zoo, or a whale. We are all living beings that should be trying to live our lives in a productive manner. If that means we should lose weight to remain healthy, then we should do that. A minuscule contribution to climate change should not be a factor in our decision. To me, the entire carbon sink concept--whether involving a living being or not--is a distraction from the core problem that needs to be solved, that of emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

I view all of these topics as a matter of balance. If we're putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes mitigate--which pretty much all scientific analysis indicates, whether people want to believe it or not--then we're emitting too much carbon dioxide and need to cut back, whether it leads to climate change or not. If we're killing more whales than are being born each year, then our whaling is out of balance and needs to be cut back, whether it's affecting the carbon mass in the ocean or not. If we're eating more calories than we are metabolizing, then we are out of internal balance and need to modify our diets, whether that makes us less of a carbon sink or not.

It amazes me that most people in the United States simply have no understanding of the concept of balance and how it applies to everything from their bodies to macroeconomics to global climate. It's one of the most basic concepts in the world, and Native populations were masters of it. Do we need classes in it?

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