The Snickers Effect: Addressing a Conservative’s Doubts About the Human Contribution to Climate Change

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After seeing my most recent update on LinkedIn, my conservative friend Michael Perullo responded to express some doubts about Pure Cap-and-Dividend, my proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions.  Mike wrote:

“We must dramatically reduce OUR greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change? No matter the incentives, how could man ever MATERIALLY impact atmospheric CO2? There is no proportionality in the discourse. Man (not just 320 million of us, but all 7 billion humans) releases 22 billion tons of CO2 each year. Decaying biomatter and the ocean release an additional 781 billion tons. Then plants and oceans re-absorb 788 billion tons adding to their 139 trillion ton reserve. Congress should FORCE businesses to buy credits so as to collect money to REDISTRIBUTE it to us as a dividend? Command to control is simply not part and parcel to the new birth of freedom the American idea promises”

I want to thank Michael for commenting (and for agreeing it makes sense for me to respond here on my blog).  In one short paragraph he raises several important issues.  This post will focus on Michael’s concerns regarding whether the United States should act alone and whether humans are contributing significantly to climate change.  A later post will focus on his doubts about Pure Cap-and-Dividend as a remedy.

International Action Needed

The first point Michael makes is that the 320 million people in the United States cannot solve the climate crisis (assuming there is one) for all 7 billion people on the planet.  I agree completely.  Ultimately, we need a binding international agreement if we are going to address the climate crisis effectively.  Other nations, including China and Russia, must commit to meaningful action and be held accountable.  Nevertheless, the United States can still adopt a Pure Cap-and-Dividend policy prior to entering into an international treaty.  Our greenhouse gas emission reductions may be more modest prior to progress on the international level, but they can still be meaningful.  Taking such action will demonstrate to the international community that the United States is ready (finally) to lead on this issue.

The Snickers Effect

Second, Mike argues that the carbon emissions caused by human activity pale in comparison to the carbon emitted and reabsorbed as part of the natural carbon cycle, implying that actions we take to cut emissions will have little effect.  It certainly is the case that anthropogenic (human caused) carbon emissions are small relative to the natural carbon cycle.  Nonetheless, the human element is significant enough to throw things off balance.  Michael’s figures show that we end up with a net of 15 billion tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere extra year.

You can find a good discussion of the anthropogenic emissions in the context of the full carbon cycle on the Woods Hole Research Center site.  The Woods Hole figures are for carbon instead of carbon dioxide.  A pentagram is a billion metric tons and there is about one pentagram of carbon per 3.67 pentagrams of carbon dioxide.  Once you convert, you’ll see that the Woods Hole figures are in the same ballpark as those Michael presents.  It is also worth noting that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions contribute to higher carbon dioxide uptake by natural systems than would otherwise take place.  The ocean accounts for a large part of the added carbon dioxide absorption, leading to ocean acidification, a related environmental disaster.

Over time, adding 15 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the atmosphere adds up.  It results in an annual increase of over 2 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Since the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from about 280 ppm to about 400 ppm today.  And the number keeps climbing.  The story is much the same for concentrations of other greenhouse gases.  As noted in the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

“The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.”

The result of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the extreme weather already appearing and more severe climate driven hardship in the not too distant future.  All this, caused by what does indeed seem to be a relatively small human contribution to the carbon cycle.

We can call this the Snicker’s Effect.  Here’s why: Consider the effect of adding one Snickers to your diet each week without making any other adjustment to your diet or exercise routine.  Suppose that before you make this change, you are generally maintaining a consistent weight, eating and burning an average of around 2,000 calories a day, 14,000 calories a week.  With the Snickers, you’ve added 240 calories to your diet a week, increasing your weekly calorie intake by about 1.8%.  (The human impact on the carbon cycle – adding about 15 billion metric tons to about 781 billion metric tons – is bigger than this on a percentage basis.)  In one year, you will have added about 12,480 net calories to your diet, and will have gained about 3 ½ pounds.  Keep at it for twenty years and you will be up 70 pounds.  And the extra weight threatens to bring a host of health problems with it.  Now, we all know that Snickers are delicious, but you had better add a longer workout into your routine if you are going to eat them regularly.

In an upcoming post, I’ll turn to Michael’s view that Pure Cap-and-Dividend is the wrong way to deal with the climate crisis.  In the meantime, perhaps I’ll grab a Snickers.