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Whale the saves

20 Nov 2019 | Science Notes

The fundamental unseriousness of discussions of climate change is revealed by a story saying “whales may be able to store nine tons of carbon in their body by eating phytoplankton, their main food source. A single whale… could capture the same amount of carbon dioxide as 30,000 trees.” Well, perhaps, and it’s nice to think of getting more whales. But with humans pumping out literally billions of tonnes of carbon a year it wouldn’t be a practical plan even if whales, like trees, didn’t do this weird organic thing where after being alive they die and decompose and it all bubbles right back out.

The news story seems to be serious. And so do people not known for their prankish levity such as, in this case, the IMF. According to the National Post version of the story, “Economist Ralph Chami, assistant director at the International Monetary Fund’s Institute for Capacity Development, used the market price for the right to emit CO2 and found that a living whale is worth US $2 million. Chami says the IMF has asked him to present his findings.”

There’s something fishy about alarmist orthodoxy that says all natural CO2 is absorbed but only half (or in this version only 40%) of the human kind. However that may be, the sort of people who think pricing carbon offsets is rational agree that humans put out only a small proportion of the total but our small proportion is very large in absolute terms; the militantly non-skeptical blog Skeptical Science estimates 29 gigatonnes per year. OK. That’s 29 billion tonnes, right? So if each whale absorbs nine tonnes, to restore the balance we’d need to add (29 billion divided by 9) whales to the ecosystem each year which, alas, is more than 3 billion whales.

We’re in favour of whales and would like to see thousands more ply the seas. And humans need to change many of their ways from plastic pollution to ocean shipping to help these graceful giants recover. But billions? Each year? The idea that we could deliberately soak up the carbon in this manner is preposterous as well as mechanistic. And might well wipe out the phytoplankton on which they feed causing their population to crash. Reengineering the planet is just not a good plan. And you’d think the IMF could do basic math, and would.

Speaking of math, if one whale is worth $2 million and we’d need three billion a year to absorb all our current CO2, you find by multiplying the numbers together that we’d have to spend $6 quadrillion dollars a year to save the planet. Which surely seems like a lot even to the IMF, whose “Special Drawing Rights” amount to roughly $283 billion or one twenty-one-thousandth of that sum.

P.S. Since it takes 30,000 trees to absorb as much carbon as one whale, if Chami is correct, we’d need to add 90 billion trees a year. Which would also make for very pretty forests and might actually be more doable especially with all the extra CO2 around helping green the planet. But unless we plant immortal trees it has the same fundamental flaw.

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