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Go Hug a Tree
Scientists Discover a Good Climate Surprise

Trees are emitting a lot less carbon dioxide as a result of warmer surface temperatures than previously believed, according to new research published in the journal Nature. Though they absorb carbon during photosynthesis, trees also release some carbon back out into the atmosphere in a process called respiration. Climate change was supposed to make that respiration process a much bigger problem, but this new study brings us positive climate news, for once. The New York Times reports:

Until now, most scientists have thought that a warming planet would cause plants to release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which in turn would cause more warming.

But in a study published Wednesday in Nature, scientists showed that plants were able to adapt their respiration to increases in temperature over long periods of time, releasing only 5 percent more carbon dioxide than they did under normal conditions.

Based on measurements of short-term temperature responses in this study and others, the scientists expected that the plants would increase their respiration by nearly five times that much.

The overwhelming majority of climate news can be filed under the “doom and gloom” subheading, so it’s worth noting when we learn of a natural system being more resilient than expected. Prior to this study, scientists anticipated trees would respirate five times as much carbon dioxide than what these researchers found. That’s a big downward revision for an important source of carbon emissions—the NYT points out that plant respiration “contributes six times as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions.”

It also illustrates that our understanding of our planet’s climate, and of the countless systems that contribute to and are affected by changes in that climate, is far from complete. We know that our climate is changing, that greenhouse gases are driving these changes, and that humanity is responsible for many of these emissions. Beyond that, though, climate science is riddled with mysteries. The system researchers are studying is bafflingly complex, replete with variables known and unknown that interact with one another in ways we don’t fully comprehend.

Greens would have you believe we’ve fully diagnosed the problem and can see what’s coming next, but time and again climate models have gotten their predictions wrong. By exaggerating how settled the science is, environmentalists are setting themselves up to look foolish when we find our best understanding wasn’t good enough. They become the leading source of climate denialism.

These models can be useful tools, but not if we place too much faith in them, and not if we don’t continue to fine tune as we discover new truths about the way the world works. This isn’t the first time scientists have been surprised by a component of climate science, and it won’t be the last—but at least this time it comes as heartening news.

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  • ronetc

    Since I’m first, I’ll do the obvious riff: But . . . but, I thought the science, was, well, you know . . . settled.

  • lukelea

    I thought trees breathed in carbon dioxide and breathed out oxygen? More trees would do more of that. And because there will be more CO2 there will be more & bigger trees and other forms of vegetation (including food crops) & hence a greener planet (with a larger temperate zone by the way). The great scientist Freeman Dyson, who has studied this issue for decades, covers these points. You can search him on Google.

    • Jim__L

      So many clever, highly educated people couldn’t possibly be wrong.

      It’s something I’ve seen in the Berkeley grads I know. You have to know more than others to get into Berkeley, therefore the sum total of the knowledge of the Berkeley student population must be infallible.

      I wonder, does the CDC track memes?

    • Blackbeard

      In sunlight trees do absorb CO2 and emit oxygen. At night and when it isn’t sunny trees use oxygen and emit CO2. If they didn’t every green plant would die overnight.

    • thepalescot

      ” because there will be more CO2 there will be more & bigger trees and other forms of vegetation (including food crops) ”

      Depends on the species, the winners are the adapters, also known as weeds. The big winner in the NE is poison ivy and Lyme disease.

      Out in the MW, Corn’s needs cooler night time temps for optimum yields, above 86F, yields plummet. But that’s OK, the weeds like velvetleaf will pick up the slack.

      http://www.fao.org/docrep/w5183e/w5183e08.htm

      or you could google “global warming + agricultural yields” and learn something,

      Curiously, there doesn’t seem to much of the way in denier claptrap concerning agriculture. You could probably make a buck or to by writing something up for Koch Industries.

  • Andrew Allison

    No mention, naturally, of the net carbon exchange, i.e., the ratio of carbon absorbed and carbon expirated. According to http://www.climatecentral.org/news/study-finds-plant-growth-surges-as-co2-levels-rise-16094, plant growth increased 11% between 1982 and 2013. That’s a LOT of carbon.

  • Jim__L

    Let’s put together the evidence from this piece.

    “We know that our climate is changing, that greenhouse gases are driving these changes, and that humanity is responsible for many of these emissions.”

    Yes, but how much is “many”? Is our contribution significant? CO2 is really not that strong a greenhouse gas. The “global warming” models (the whole theory, really) hinge entirely on the idea that fossil fuel emissions, not significant in themselves, would kick off feedback loops that would be noticeable in the overall climate.

    “plant respiration contributes six times as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions.”

    OK, so fossil fuel emissions are a smaller driver here, by most of an order of magnitude.

    “Prior to this study, scientists anticipated trees would respirate five times as much carbon dioxide than what these researchers found.”

    WOW. Couple that with the last statement — that plant respiration made a sixfold larger contribution than fossil fuel emissions — and you see that **the feedback loop scientists imagine is just that — imaginary**!

    To meet the 2 degree level of global warming scientists predict, we would have to pump many times more carbon into the atmosphere than we do.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “The system researchers are studying is bafflingly complex, replete with variables known and unknown that interact with one another in ways we don’t fully comprehend.”

    With such a lack of understanding, why would anyone support the “Global Warming” hypothesis that has been so thoroughly disproven by lack of rising temperatures over the last 19 years? Being a Chicken Little, and claiming “death and destruction” will accompany warming temperatures, when not only isn’t any warming happening, but that periods of time in the past when the Globe was Warmer, weren’t accompanied by death and destruction, is the act of IDIOTS.

  • CaliforniaStark

    “but time and again climate models have gotten their predictions wrong. By exaggerating how settled the science is, environmentalists are setting themselves up to look foolish when we find our best understanding wasn’t good enough. They become the leading source of climate denialism.”

    How does Via Meadia define “climate denialism”? Doesn’t it refer to someone who doubts the validity of the climate models the IPCC and politically correct espouse with almost theological certainty. When the above article states that climate models time and again “have gotten their predictions wrong”, it is engaging in “climate denialism.” Yet the term “climate denialism” is used in the article in almost a pejorative sense.

  • Pait

    I expect the people who say that thousands of climate scientists are all completely wrong and that their evidence is fabricated to jump on this one article and declare it is incontestable truth that supersedes any other facts or arguments.

  • Brian H

    “We know that our climate is changing, that greenhouse gases are driving
    these changes, and that humanity is responsible for many of these
    emissions.” We know no such thing(s). Made-up, like the whole issue.

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