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Life in the Jungle

Plant scientist Bert Drake warns that in Earth’s changing climate, plants are odds-on winners. It doesn’t look so good for us.

If we could replace coal with gas, we’d immediately reduce carbon dioxide emissions by half.

Hailing from Maine, Bert Drake likes cool weather. So you’d expect him to be riled about a world getting warmer. The issue is more than comfort, says the plant physiologist, who retired in 2010 after a 40-year career at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater.
    Like Noah, Drake worries about flooding. And crop failure, which would have been an issue for Noah, too. Drake, however, might top Noah on the anxiety scale, for he’s got drought on his mind as well.
    How did he get so anxious?
    Plants speak to him. Over half a century and much of the nation, he’s been recording plant responses to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, and as it increases, they thrive.
    Except at Drake’s four-acre home in West River. As we met there for a morning conversation, he was mourning the loss of a hillside of newly planted holly and rhododendron. Those plants were done in by deer, which have nothing to do with this story, except to illustrate the point that exceptions run wild through our complex ecosystem — without breaking its rules. Which is why global warming isn’t all about temperature.
    I first heard Bert Drake’s theories at a South County Democratic Club meeting where I’d been lured after a hard day’s work. My brain was tired, but I wanted to learn more — as I imagine you will too …

BAY WEEKLY    What’s your answer to my Earth Day question, Are we doing enough?
BERT DRAKE    Absolutely not. Not even close. We’re diddling around the edges. We have to get much smarter and more aware.


BAY WEEKLY    Climate change is the elephant you say is about to stomp around the room and make us all very uncomfortable.
BERT DRAKE    I used to give a factitious talk called Global Warming: Can It Happen Here? When Shady Side disappears as Wall Street drowns, we’ll know it can happen here. What’s global turns out to be local.


BAY WEEKLY    So you can predict the future?
BERT DRAKE    In the 1980s, scientists called climate change a definite maybe.
    Since then worldwide, every month’s temperature has been higher than average. If you’re under 30, you’ve never lived in a month that’s cooler than that month averaged last century.
    Thirteen of the warmest global temperatures were recorded in the last 14 years. Globally, 2012 was the warmest year ever. Maryland’s warmest year was 2010-2011.
    It’s happening in the water as well as on land: oceans getting warmer, lakes freezing later and thawing earlier.
    Even little things like birds arriving earlier in spring and grapes ripening sooner from Sonoma and Bordeaux. It’s warmer.


BAY WEEKLY    Then why were we so cold last winter?
BERT DRAKE    It’s a matter of extremes. Wet places are getting wetter. Dry places are getting drier. Big storms are getting bigger.


BAY WEEKLY    Weather is changing …
BERT DRAKE    With huge effects. Sea levels rise up to three feet this century with the possibility of six. Running from the sea is possible for the wealthy. Those who aren’t are much more threatened.
    In dry places around the world — California, Texas, Arizona, Australia, all around the Mediterranean, Africa — drought will intensify, with fires and crop failures. Particularly in places where people are living on little and increasing population dramatically, the effect on food supply and price will be catastrophic.


BAY WEEKLY    Sounds like a horror movie.
BERT DRAKE    What should I say? The water’s coming up … maybe?
    Plants love it. They grow faster and use sun and water more efficiently.


BAY WEEKLY    How did we get in such a predicament?
BERT DRAKE    By burning fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide. Burning coal, gas and oil to produce electricity to sustain everything we need to keep our lifestyle going.
    By driving our cars. Your car produces a pound of carbon dioxide a mile. A tank of gas weighs about 100 pounds when you put it in, but when it comes out the tailpipe, freeze it to dry ice and it weighs 300 pounds. If your car were a cart horse, imagine the size poop bag you’d need.
    At home and on the road, an American family of four produces 80 tons of carbon. That’s 20 African elephants per family per year.    
    The amount of carbon dioxide we have to deal with in the world is enormous. In a year, what we produce in the U.S. would fill enough blimps to cover the whole country east of the Mississippi plus Texas and then some.


BAY WEEKLY    Is there an escape?
BERT DRAKE    Getting as much of our energy as possible from non-fossil sources — without reducing the supply of energy. From what we do use, minimize delivery of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.


BAY WEEKLY    I have the feeling this won’t be an easy job.
BERT DRAKE    We have the technology: more wind and solar accompanied by enough additional nuclear to supply needed energy when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
    Remove the carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas and store the captured carbon dioxide underground in old coal mines, oil and gas fields.


BAY WEEKLY    More nuclear power? What about radiation and explosions and nuclear waste?
BERT DRAKE    The nuclear record in production of energy is far better than coal, which kills enormous numbers of people each year because of air pollution and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
    France made a decision to use nuclear power. Their production of carbon dioxide is a quarter or third of ours per person for a lifestyle much the same.
    Solve the nuclear waste and storage problem with new breed reactors.


BAY WEEKLY    Natural gas is America’s new big fuel, in supply and policy. How does it fit into cutting carbon dioxide?
BERT DRAKE    If we could replace coal with gas, we’d immediately reduce carbon dioxide emissions by half.


BAY WEEKLY    These are all big policy moves. But, as you know, Congress has done nothing to address the problem since a climate bill passed the House in 2010 and languished in the Senate. The White House does little more than pay lip service. Well-funded interests continue to either deny that humans are to blame or argue that global warming can be good for us.
BERT DRAKE    I don’t think politicians will do anything until we demand it.


BAY WEEKLY    While we’re making that happen, what can we do, as ordinary people?
BERT DRAKE    Increasing efficiency in our cars will help a lot. A hybrid with battery power to go 100 miles plus a motor, I’d buy in a heartbeat. I’m on the verge of buying a Ford hybrid C-MAX Energy.