Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Clams and Red Herrings

I wrote earlier about why we find it so easy to deny what our emissions are doing to the planet. Climate Denial and Extreme CSR. But I just found another reason - red herrings. Read this brief report from Liz Gross of Living On Earth (a site that I otherwise much respect).

"Laughing gas can make a dental patient happy as a clam. But scientists were not so happy to find clams belching out this powerful greenhouse gas. A recent study by Danish and German biologists analyzed digestion in a number of aquatic bottom feeders, including mollusks and insect larvae. The belly gas of these invertebrates contained levels of laughing gas - or nitrous oxide - that surprised the scientists. Nitrous oxide is the fourth largest contributor to global warming. Pound for pound, this gas traps 310 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. While burning fossil fuels is the most common source of nitrous oxide emissions, worms living in nitrogen-rich soil also release the gas. The recent study though was the first to measure the emissions from animals living in rivers, streams and oceans.

But the researchers found it's not the clams themselves that release the gas - it's their lunch. These animals feed on sediment full of nitrogen-hungry bacteria. And thanks to runoff from fields treated with chemical fertilizer, there are plenty of nitrates out there. Usually, the bacteria don't break down these nitrates. But in environments with no oxygen, like the belly of a clam or a snail, they do - releasing laughing gas in the process.

With demand for nitrogen fertilizer increasing, and global greenhouse gas emissions going up, nitrous oxide in mollusk burps is no laughing matter. That's this week's note on emerging science." So why bring this clam thing up? Why link clams to greenhouse gas production? Is this to absolve us of our own nitrous production? (See my post on the Tangled Web of Carbon Emissions for a sense of how great that problem is, and the surprising single industry that produces most of it.) Clams have been producing nitrous for eons. Should we include exterminating clams as part of our response to climate change?

Well, first of all, nitrous oxide produced by clams is part of the current cycling of materials in the ecosphere. It is not like hauling up fossil carbon from the depths and spraying it into the atmosphere. Not only can we NOT stop what clams are doing, but it would probably be destructive to do so. Also, burning fossil fuels is not the most common source.

"Well," Liz might say to me, "I never advocated the extermination of clams." That is certainly true. And yet that is the laughable, unspoken, and absurdist conclusion to a piece such as this. We all want to laugh, so we all conclude it. And in the process we trivialize emissions and climate change.

This is a small thing, but climate skeptics LOVE reading these kinds of articles, articles that point out the "natural course' that the Earth is taking, articles that let us laugh at a trivialized catastrophe. We all need a sense of humor here, but really. It's hard enough forcing change through the political system without these kinds of postings. Let's be judicious in our presentation of topics.

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