Updating the Science of Global Warming: A Q&A with Marine Biologist Katherine Richardson

A lot of the current debate seems to center around cost. So what will it cost?

A lot of people go around saying this isn't going to cost us anything. This is cheap. It's not.

We just are going to have to stop thinking of investment in the environment and climate change as being opposed to economic growth. [For] economic growth in the future, a prerequisite is that we stop treating the planet like a subprime loan. In that sense, the economic crisis we have at the moment is useful in terms of analyzing what's going on with the planet.

We don't take into account the resources that we are moving around. One of the things that will be argued is that solar is more important as a long-term fix than many have argued. I think the figure is the sun bathes the Earth in 120,000 terawatt-hours of energy and the global community only uses 12 to 15 terawatt-hours. And all the renewable energies are derived from the sun in some way. [A terawatt equals one trillion watts.]

The plants [collect] energy from the sun [that] is the equivalent of 32,000 hydrogen bombs. It's amazing the amount of energy they suck out of the sun.

So what more do we know now?

This 2-degree [Celsius, or 3.6-degree Fahrenheit] change that everybody talks about [as a limit on warming], which is probably unattainable, has some serious ramifications for oceans. It's not just two degrees and we all take off a sweater. Changes that are occurring may accelerate [carbon dioxide] coming out of the ocean.

I have two abstracts myself: One of them is that we know a lot about the ocean as a sink. It takes up half the extra CO2 that we put out. It takes it up by biological and physical processes, like the material gets caught in plants and then sinks to the bottom when they die. Bacteria break this material down much more quickly when it is warmer and less of it falls. We are measuring the effect of temperature on this breakdown and it's quite substantial. So this much of a temperature increase will mean that the oceans will take up this much less and that provokes the problem even more. You can make much better models out of this of what's going to happen than you've gotten out of the IPCC.

Is it too late?

I'm not at all depressed. This is an exciting time in Earth's history. Twelve thousand years ago our ancestors discovered agriculture. When they did that they broke the rules about the number of people the Earth could hold. And now that there are even more people, there have to be some rules.

Over the last 50 years, we've thought the oceans and atmosphere are big enough that we don't need any rules. But we're smarter now, we do need some rules.

We've been regulating on the basis of the different subcomponents of Earth: land, air, water. But the doctor doesn't give you medicine for your head if he knows it will hurt your feet. You need to treat the body as a body and we need to treat the Earth as an Earth. We have to manage not by segment but by the planet as a whole.

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