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Matt Ridley: Now Here’s The Good News On Global Warming

October 19, 2015



Activists may want to shut down debate, but evidence is growing that high CO2 levels boost crops and nourish the oceans.



France’s leading television weather forecaster, Philippe Verdier, was taken off air last week for writing that there are “positive consequences” of climate change. Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus of mathematical physics and astrophysics at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, declared last week that the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide are “enormously beneficial”. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, said in a lecture last week that we should “celebrate carbon dioxide”.

Are these three prominent but very different people right? Should we at least consider seriously, before we go into a massive international negotiation based on the assumption that carbon dioxide is bad, whether we might be mistaken? Most politicians today consider such a view to be so beyond the pale as to be mad or possibly criminal.

Yet the benefits of carbon dioxide emissions are not even controversial in scientific circles. As Richard Betts of the Met Office tweeted last week, the “CO2 fertilisation effect” — the fact that rising emissions are making plants grow better — is not news and is discussed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The satellite data show that there has been roughly a 14 per cent increase in the amount of green vegetation on the planet since 1982, that this has happened in all ecosystems, but especially in arid tropical areas, and that it is in large part due to man-made carbon dioxide emissions.


Last week also saw the publication of a comprehensive report on “Carbon Dioxide — the Good News” for the Global Warming Policy Foundation by the independent American scientist Indur Goklany, to which Freeman Dyson wrote the foreword. The report was thoroughly peer-reviewed, as was almost all of the voluminous literature it cited. (Full disclosure: I helped edit the report.)

Goklany points out that whereas the benefits of carbon dioxide are huge and here now, the harms are still speculative and almost all in the distant future. There has so far been — as the IPCC confirms — no measurable increase in droughts, floods or storms worldwide, no reversal in the continuing rapid decline in deaths due to insect-borne diseases, and no measurable impacts of the continuing very slow rise in global sea levels. In stark terms, Bangladesh is still gaining land from sedimentation in its rivers’ deltas, has suffered no increase in cyclones, but has benefited from reduced malnourishment to the tune of billions of dollars from higher crop yields as a result of carbon dioxide emissions.

It is worth remembering that commercial greenhouses buy carbon dioxide to enhance the growth of plants, so the growth responses are well known — and it’s not until carbon dioxide reaches five times current concentrations that the benefits level out. As Patrick Moore pointed out, those were normal levels for much of earth’s history.

In addition, hundreds of “free-air concentration experiments” have measured how much increased carbon dioxide levels enhance crop yields in open fields. So it is fairly easy to work out how much carbon dioxide emissions are helping world agriculture: by about $140 billion a year, or $3 trillion in total so far. If reparations are to be paid, perhaps farmers should pay coal producers (full disclosure: I’m both).

Actually, this may be an underestimate: experiments show that crops tend to benefit more than weeds (most crops have a more responsive kind of photosynthetic machinery called C3, while weeds mostly have a less responsive kind called C4). Increased carbon dioxide enhances drought resistance in plants, benefiting dry regions such as the Sahel, which has greened significantly in recent decades. And Goklany calculates that we need 11-17 per cent less land for feeding the world than we would if we had not increased carbon dioxide levels: so emissions have saved — and enhanced the growth of — a lot of rainforest.

Well, all right, but surely the climate harms will one day outweigh the growth benefits? Not necessarily. At the moment, impacts from the modest warming we saw in the 1980s and 1990s are also positive: slightly fewer premature deaths, which peak in cold weather more than in hot weather, slightly longer growing seasons and so on. A paper published last week concludes that if the world does warm significantly, China’s rain systems will shift north, increasing rainfall in the dry north and reducing flooding in the hot south.

Besides, human adaptation means we can capture the benefits and avoid the harms. The IPCC’s forecast warming range includes the possibility that we will still be enjoying net benefits by the end of the century, when the world will (it says) be three to 16 times richer per capita. The fastest way to cut deaths from bad weather today (such as the storm that just battered the Philippines) is to make people richer, not to make weather safer: we have already cut world death rates from droughts, floods and storms by 98 per cent in the past century.

As Goklany demonstrates, the assessments used by policy makers have overestimated warming so far, underestimated the direct benefits of carbon dioxide, overestimated the harms from climate change, and underestimated the human capacity to adapt.

Well, what about the ocean? Here too there’s good news. More carbon dioxide means faster growth rates of photosynthesisers in the sea as well as on land, an effect that is being observed in algae, eelgrasses, corals and especially plankton, such as the abundant creatures known as coccolithophores, whose biomass has increased by 40 per cent in the last two centuries.

That’s not to say coral reefs and fisheries are not in trouble — they are, but because of pollution, overfishing and run-off, not carbon dioxide. The tiny reduction in alkalinity (misleadingly termed “acidification”) caused by dissolved carbon dioxide is potentially negative in the distant future, but has been much exaggerated — as a big review of 372 studies has concluded. One recent experiment with a common Caribbean coral found that rising carbon dioxide levels would have no impact on its ability to build reefs for several centuries, while modest warming would actually help it slightly.

With tens of thousands of activists and bureaucrats heading for a UN conference in Paris next month, there is such vast vested interest now in demonising carbon dioxide that it will be hard to change the world’s mind. Freeman Dyson laments that “scientific colleagues who believe the prevailing dogma about carbon dioxide will not find Goklany’s evidence convincing”, but hopes that a few will try. Amen.

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  1. Knute permalink
    October 19, 2015 4:35 pm

    I’ve already heard the counters. They go along these lines.

    “So you admit that western consumption has recklessly added CO2 to our world. And now, instead of taking responsibility and reducing that imbalance, you are encouraging the world to continue on with this massive experiment. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

    • October 19, 2015 5:43 pm

      The rejoinder to that would be “So far the experiment is a resounding success with no concrete evidence that it will now or in the future be otherwise.”

      • Knute permalink
        October 19, 2015 6:07 pm

        Since “this” is less and less about science (sorry guys) the message masters get tremendous mileage out of using the term “experiment” to scare people. It goes like this …

        “The western world has selfishly experimented with the natural world and now all of us have to wait and see if it’s going to be okay.”

        The above phrase triggers anger in the people who are helplessly being experimented with. It doesn’t matter that they have derived benefit. It’s irrelevant to their emotional sense of being toyed with. It’s how the message masters worm their way into the brain.

        Inadvertently, happy curious scientists who discuss CO2 as something that matters make the message makers stronger.

        :::: so that I don’t get a barrage of nastiness, please understand that I am just offering the debate from inside the craziness ::::

  2. October 19, 2015 4:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Wolsten and commented:
    “The satellite data show that there has been roughly a 14 per cent increase in the amount of green vegetation on the planet since 1982, that this has happened in all ecosystems, but especially in arid tropical areas, and that it is in large part due to man-made carbon dioxide emissions.”

    • 1saveenergy permalink
      October 19, 2015 8:55 pm

      “…and that it is in large part due to man-made carbon dioxide emissions.”

      I don’t think so !! We only provide ~ 4% of CO2 available for plants
      See Professor Murry Salby’s Excellent clear lecture on CO2 .

      2014. 67 mins Starts at 2 mins don’t worry about the equations in the first 25 mins (they are only if you want to run a check on his math’s) listen to the words !!

      • October 19, 2015 9:38 pm

        It is claimed that the extra 120 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is all due to mankind’s use of fossil fuels. Thus what is being claimed here is that because there is now 400+ ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere our planet can be seen to have experienced higher rates of plant growth.

  3. October 19, 2015 6:19 pm

    It’s pretty obviuous that CO2 is the GAS OF LIFE. More CO2 better life

    • Knute permalink
      October 19, 2015 6:30 pm

      And the check receivers clamored …

      “There ya have it. You are experimenting with the world. We didn’t ask for this. You are intentionally putting us at risk. Give us money so we can protect ourselves from your arrogance.”

    • October 26, 2015 12:14 am

      The experiments were done nearly a century ago. Scientific American published an excellent article on it, in 1920.

      CO2 levels elevated to more than ten times the current average ambient outdoor level (400 ppmv) are harmless to humans and animals, and it has long been known that elevated CO2 levels are highly beneficial to plants. That’s why most commercial greenhouses use CO2 generators to keep CO2 at 3x to 4x ambient levels, at significant expense. That’s an increase 8 to 12 times as great as the ~100 ppmv increase which ⅔ century of heavy fossil fuel use has caused in outdoor levels. Greenhouse operators spend the money to keep CO2 levels that high because doing so dramatically improves plant productivity.

      In 1920 it was reported by Scientific American (and re-reported elsewhere) that experiments with carbon dioxide enrichment showed that CO2 from blast furnace exhaust gas could be used to increase various crop yields by from 100% to 300%. Scientific American called CO2 “the precious air fertilizer.” Crops tested included tomatoes, spinach, castor oil plants, potatoes, lupines, and barley.

      Hundreds of more recent studies confirm that elevated CO2 levels are highly beneficial to almost all plants, and experimental evidence suggests that many of those studies underestimate the benefit. Freeman Dyson, America’s most illustrious living physicist (who took over Albert Einstein’s old job at Princeton), says, “It’s certainly true that carbon dioxide is good for vegetation. About 15 percent of agricultural yields are due to CO2 we put in the atmosphere. From that point of view, it’s a real plus to burn coal and oil.”

      Here’s a photo from the 1920 Scientific American article, illustrating the effect of anthropogenic CO2 on potatoes:

  4. October 19, 2015 7:09 pm

    Thanks, Paul.
    I think Matt Ridley is correct; There are more good news than bad on global warming. The planet Earth is doing well, much better than it would be doing under global cooling.
    It seems like during the so called “pause” hurricanes have not increased in energy, there’s still plenty of ice in the north pole and the south keeps on growing (with no sign of a temperature increase).
    But, what is more important for CO2-based life, we have more food.

    • October 19, 2015 9:39 pm

      Is there any bad news/negative effects caused by extra CO2 that can be confirmed?

      • AndyG55 permalink
        October 20, 2015 2:19 am

        nope !!

  5. emmaliza permalink
    October 19, 2015 9:56 pm

    The elites of the US and Europe have long proposed a reduction in population. I remember when I was very young hearing Prince Phillip of England saying that if he were reincarnated, he’d come back as a killer virus to destroy the overpopulation. The Peace Corps was required to convince 3rd worlder’s to control their birthrates.. (I knew people who had been a part of it.) You have to be totally lacking in historical knowledge to fall for this great scam, as the modern age built on fossil fuels benefited the non-elites, ending the need for human labor which had always been furnished with serfs or slaves. The elites have responded since 1840 with various schemes of controlling/limiting the non-elites. Communism was actually first proposed by a Clinton Roosevelt in 1841, aimed at totalitarianism by elites. Marx was paid to plagiarize a French writer to get poor people to serve as cannon fodder for the elites’ new world order. Clinton Roosevelt was a distant cousin of Teddy and FDR, and the book is now available on Amazon, “The Science of Government”…’Marxism’ is still after 100+ years taught at the elite schools.
    They won a lot of their battles (abortion on demand which has caused Europe and the US birthrates to drop below replacement levels, plus banning DDT), but are now including at the rest of the world, the non-European countries that still believe in families. Let’s hope China, India, Latin America and Russia speak out for the rest of us who have no voice. Otherwise, the world will return to short, brutal lives amid starvation…

    • Knute permalink
      October 19, 2015 11:19 pm


      Add Hoffer, The True Believers to your reading list. I started rereading it and can’t put it down. Well written. Clear, not flowery.

      Paraphrasing …

      The true believer needs a mass movement in order to fill the void in their lives. Find a mass movement that replaces the current one and they will follow that instead.

      • Chris Riley permalink
        October 20, 2015 5:40 am

        Great advice!

        ““Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

        Eric Hoffer The Temper of Our Time

  6. Chris Riley permalink
    October 20, 2015 5:33 am

    “If reparations are to be paid, perhaps farmers should pay coal producers (full disclosure: I’m both)”

    There is no “perhaps” about it. The symmetry of the arithmetic is clear and simple.

    If it were shown that Carbon emissions had a net negative external effect on general welfare, societal welfare would be increased with a cap and trade scheme or a Pigouvian carbon tax. If the net externality is positive, in other words if value of the agriculture stimulation outweighs the cost of slightly higher temperatures or if slightly higher temperatures are a good thing, then imposition of a carbon tax or cap and trade scheme would have net-negative social benefit and would constitute an act of societal vandalism.

    If the externality of CO2 emissions is net-positive the socially optimal policy is a negative carbon tax, (subsidy for emitting) a “burn and earn”, rather than a “cap and trade” program. (full disclosure I drive a 1973 Chevy Blazer with nearly double the stock HP that gets a little more than 10 MPG)

  7. 3x2 permalink
    October 20, 2015 6:05 pm

    If there were just one element of the ‘Global Warming debate’ that led me to question what was going on then it would have to be the glaring lack of any positive news.

    CO2 is the base of the entire planetary food chain and warmer is generally better yet there was nothing, back then, in the constant barrage of doom that was even remotely positive.

    One might have thought that at least a few scientists might have examined the positives but no. That had to have been an alarm bell for anyone paying attention.

  8. meto permalink
    October 22, 2015 4:35 am

    Thanks, Paul. And, indeed, gentlemen…as I have said and say…follow the money.

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