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Or you can just eat it

08 Jun 2022 | OP ED Watch

Among the less revolting things the people living high off the hog at Davos want the rest of us to consume is seaweed. Sorry, “sea vegetable”. And sure, it beats bugs. But over at the Atlantic’s “Planet”, a feature that seems devoted exclusively to climate change, Robinson Meyer’s latest inspiration is that we deep-six it instead, creating kelp buoys to absorb CO2, sink and obligingly stay sunk and not rot. It makes you wonder if these people have any idea how big the planet is when they tell us the whole thing is boiling over and then suggest a tiny fiddly fix of this sort.

Meyer doesn’t exactly rise to poetry in describing the plan. But

“Last month, somewhere off the coast of Maine, a small group of researchers and engineers released a series of tiny, floating objects into the water. The team called them ‘buoys,’ but they looked more like a packet of uncooked ramen noodles glued to a green party streamer than anything of the navigational or weather-observing variety. These odd jellyfish had one role in life: to go away and never be seen again. With any luck, their successors would soon be released into the open ocean, where they would float away, absorb a small amount of carbon from the atmosphere, then sink to the bottom of the seafloor, where their residue would remain for thousands of years.”

And then um decompose and release it all?

Still, “Running Tide is one of a series of carbon-removal companies that have burst onto the market over the past few years with the hope of whisking heat-trapping pollution out of the atmosphere and locking it away for centuries.” Which isn’t even thousands of years. But “Kelp grows as fast as two feet a day, which means it absorbs a huge amount of carbon through photosynthesis. That kelp could then be harvested, disposed of, or allowed to naturally drift to the bottom of the ocean.”

Harvested? And caused to decompose? Bummer. As for “disposed of”, where? Mars? He does concede that

“It has seemed like the perfect natural tool to sop up carbon from the ocean and atmosphere. But that has made me suspicious. The idea that humanity will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing kelp smacks of the same naivete in the idea that we can solve climate change by growing trees or living in harmony with nature.”

But he found that “Far from having a hippie-dippie-ish enthusiasm about kelp” the visionaries at Running Tide “spoke like engineers, aware of the immense scale of carbon removal that stands before them.”

OK. Let’s talk about scale. Because if you really want to send tons, megatons, even gigatons of carbon to Davey Jones and keep it there, nature beat you to it. As Greenpeace co-founder turned ecological dissident Patrick Moore is fond of pointing out, the development of calcareous sea creatures, aka ocean beasties with hard shells, has been sequestering carbon as calcium carbonate for hundreds of millions of years. In such quantities, he maintains, that it explains the precipitous drop in atmospheric CO2 during the Cenozoic down to levels that, at the Last Glacial Maximum, were around 180 ppm, perilously close to the 150 ppm at which a real, global mass extinction of C3 plants and all that depends on them would occur.

It’s just a theory. But something odd has been happening to atmospheric CO2 for a very long time. And it’s worth considering the number of gastropods, molluscs and foraminifera out there locking up carbon and dumping it on the seabed, and asking what proportion of their consumption man-made buoys could possibly hope to match. With implications that are not benign but ominous even if carbon does heat the planet and much more so if in fact it does not, but lets plants grow.

Trying to beat an ocean full of critters is a bit like trying to fix a global sand shortage by crushing up old bottles. Which someone is, with the obligatory addendum that while it is construction that is voraciously consuming sand, “Rising sea levels caused by climate change also contribute to the shortage”.

If you’re ready to start chewing the ocean here, “Seaweed pancakes, seaweed tartare and even chocolate seaweed mousse should be on the menu in homes and restaurants, according to Vincent Doumeizel. He recommended drying seaweed and sprinkling it on meals, saying: ‘Start like this and get used to the taste. You don’t need a lot of seaweed to get all the healthy benefits.’” And as the late Jackie Mason memorably observed, if you’re told you need to work on appreciating some supposedly sophisticated food, you know it tastes bad.

In fact seaweed might well be healthy and a desirable addition to our diets in modest amounts. But you also know what happens when someone becomes a zealot: their eyes bulge, they seize your lapel, and yell “Over thousands of generations, we had a lot of seaweed. That’s why our brains grew so big, because these fatty acids were present in seaweed and fish oil.” And when we stopped eating it, we got so dumb we thought politicians could change the weather, one is tempted to retort, before he raves on that “we lost the intimate connection with the ocean 1,000 years ago when we learned to be efficient at cultivation on land…. the only place in the world where we kept this close link between food and seaweed is the only place in the world that was not colonised by Europeans in the 19th century, which is north Asia” plus feeding 100 grams of it to every cow would reduce methane so much that “the impact on climate change would be equivalent to stopping each and every car and truck on the planet”. Although we have trouble conjuring up pastoral images of herds of cows surging from the rollers then diving gracefully down to scoop up kelp.

Bottom line? Changing the weather by sinking seaweed is not a plan. Indeed, with respect to Earl Bassett, it’s not even what you do when your plan fails. It’s just as silly as it sounds. Much better to eat the stuff and hope it improves your intelligence back to Medieval levels.

2 comments on “Or you can just eat it”

  1. Its a great business plan! think of the carbon credits and green subsidies you could harvest - never mind the kelp!

  2. Great article John. There are some whacky ideas out there alright.
    Over here in good old NZ , our farmers will be hit with a carbon a carbon tax soon. No matter how much those with the scientific, including pastoral experience , try to convince the Government otherwise , it's green light all the way. Our dear leader , Jacinda Ardhern , whilst on her recent trip to the USA to meet good old Joe Biden and others, presented them with some carbon free beef ... have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous. So on and on it goes with billions of dollars set aside to combat climate change etc ,yet other sectors like Health and the Police and Schools get a minimal top up. Love your articles. Some just can't see the wood for the trees.

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