Plants Bad for the Environment? Celebrities Causing Frogs to Croak?

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Published January 12, 2006

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Could it be that celebrities are planting the forests that are causing the global warming that is growing the bacteria that are wiping out the frogs?

Global warming alarmists may be compelled to consider that chain of causation this week thanks to two new studies just published in the Jan. 12 issue of the journal Nature .

In the first study, Max Planck Institute researchers reported their discovery that living plants emit into the atmosphere methane (natural gas), the third most important greenhouse gas behind water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Until this discovery, scientists thought the methane in the atmosphere was largely produced by bacterial processes not involving oxygen. But the Max Planck researchers report that living plants -- two-thirds of which are in tropical rainforest regions -- produce 10 to 30 percent of annual global methane production.

The implications of this study are stunning. Previously, it was thought that the net effect of growing plants was to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, therefore, to reduce global warming. But in the words of New Zealand climate researcher David Lowe, “We now have the specter that new forests might increase greenhouse warming through methane emissions rather than decrease it by being sinks for carbon dioxide.”

The discovery also implies that deforestation -- that is, cutting down trees -- slows methane accumulation in the atmosphere and, as a consequence, reduces global warming.

This is all bad news for the movie and rock stars -- including Leonardo DiCaprio, the Foo Fighters, Dido, and Simply Red to name a few -- who have decided to plant “All Celebrity Forests” in hopes of offsetting their personal carbon dioxide emissions in order to avoid contributing to global warming.

And the news seems to get worse for these so-called “carbon neutral” celebrities.

The other Nature study reported that global warming is promoting the growth of the chytrid fungus in parts of Central and South America that, as Reuters headlined on Jan. 11, is “wiping out frogs.”

Since we now know that living plants emit lots of methane – which global warming alarmists maintain contributes to global warming – one could reason that all those celebrity-planted forests may be taking their toll in frog casualties.

Ironically, an analysis of the Nature frog study published in World Climate Report (WCR) -- a long-time nemesis of the global warming alarmist crowd -- would seem to let the stars off the hook.

First, WCR points out that while humans may be to blame for the chytrid fungus thriving in areas where the alleged frog extinctions occurred, it’s quite likely that the human activity in question is eco-tourism and field research, according to a 1999 study published in the journal Emerging and Infectious Diseases -- not the burning of fossil fuels.

But regardless of how the fungus got there, are man-made emissions of greenhouse gases promoting its growth so as to cause frog extinctions?

To date, efforts to attribute the prevalence of the fungus to global warming have been stymied by the simple fact that higher temperatures are known to inhibit fungus growth -- it’s a conundrum called the “climate-chytrid” paradox.

The researchers claim to have solved the paradox by speculating that increasing cloud cover moderates the warming effects of nearby temperate ocean water to produce conditions suitable for the fungus to thrive.

Unfortunately for this theory, as WCR points out, cloud cover is negatively correlated with temperature, according to satellite records maintained by the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project. The ISCCP data also indicate that no change in cloud cover occurred in the region of the alleged frog extinctions during the time period in question.

In addition to the climate-chytrid paradox not being resolved by the cloud cover hypothesis, it’s not at all clear to what extent, if any, human activity has affected climactic conditions in the region of the frog extinctions. Therefore, it is inappropriate to jump to the conclusion that human activity is killing frogs.

Even allowing the researchers the benefit of the doubt that changing climactic conditions have promoted chytrid growth, WCR estimates that only about 12 percent more of the regional frog populations would have been at risk as a result of the change in local climate – an estimate not squaring with the researchers’ allegation that the fungus has wiped out two-thirds of the frog species.

Finally, Cynthia Carey, a University of Colorado amphibian disease expert, told the New York Times in a Jan. 11 story that the Nature paper failed to offer anything beyond circumstantial evidence of links between warming and fungal illness.

“It is difficult to prove cause and effect on the ground where multiple factors interact in complex ways,” Dr. Carey told the Times.

Still, while the frog study is easily debunked and dismissed, the methane study’s significant ramifications remain intact.

If we are just discovering that plants are a significant greenhouse gas source -- something you might think we should have learned long ago -- it would appear that our understanding of global climate system is woefully insufficient to support the rush-to-judgment advocated by celebrity-backed global warming alarmists.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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