Roger Revelle was the founder of the modern “greenhouse science.”  Before his death in 1991, he cautioned  against supporting any measures to prevent global warming because there were too many gaps in our understanding of how the climate systems work. 


The recent discovery of a marine microbe that has a profound effect on climate  illustrates the wisdom of Revelle’s caution. It was only 15 years ago that two oceanographers, Sallie W. Chisholm and Robert J. Olsen, first discovered the existence of these tiny microbes as they sampled sea water using a flow cytometer with a laser beam. Sallie Chisholm named them prochlorococcus [pro-chloro-coccus]. The significance of this discovery is just beginning to sink in to the scientific community. Says a recent issue of the Scientific American,


 Prochlorococcus has a major impact on climate because of its sheer abundance, up to 20,000 cells per drop of sea water.” “The microbe’s dominance of the seas shocked the oceanographic community. ‘It is hard to believe we overlooked something so important for so long,’ says Richard T. Barber of the Duke University Marine Laboratory.” (November 2003).


The December issue of the Scientific American calls them “the ocean’s invisible forest,” “exerting an influence on this planet every bit as profound as the forests on land.” “They are the smallest and most numerous photosynthetic organism known and arguably the most plentiful species on earth.”


The performance of this newly discovered organism is nothing short of staggering.

It is now estimated that the oceans produce 80% of the world’s oxygen, and 50% of this oxygen is produced by prochlorococcus. That adds up to 40% of the world’s oxygen!


Prochlorococcus absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert the carbon into an organic form to feed the tiny planktonic life of the oceans. In this process they sequest as much carbon from the atmosphere as all the vegetation on earth.


 Here is one obvious reason why the predicted build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not happened. And why all the global warming predictions, based on computer modelling, have had to be revised downward again and again. Despite all the fossil fuel that is being converted into carbon dioxide by human activity, the prochloroccus are at work to neutralize these human impacts on the earth.  They are not the only microbes doing this. It is now estimated that microbic life in the soil and in the oceans make up two thirds of the Earth’s biomass. And all of it works to keep the carbon cycle in balance.


Creating carbon sinks by planting more trees may make us feel good about doing our bit to control global warming, but in comparison with the prodigious contribution of all this microbic life, our bit – including the Kyoto Protocol – may be compared to a mere breaking of wind in a thunderstorm.


The Kyoto Protocol binds the signatory nations to wind back carbon dioxide emissions to pre-determined levels. More and more scientists, especially climatologists, are saying that Kyoto will make no significant impact on global warming.


For example, Dr. Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (USA), found that if the Kyoto Protocol were fully implemented by all signatories, it would reduce temperatures by a mere 0.07 degrees Celsius by 2050, and O.13 degrees by 2l00.  Such an amount is so small that ground-based thermometers cannot reliably measure it.


Even the apologists for Kyoto do not dispute that that these figures are correct. Yet the implementation of the Protocol will cost the developed world $ trillions. The push to do so little for so much cost demands a further explanation – which I shall do in a later discussion.


Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist) is opposed to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that the same amount of money spent in the developing world would give every child clean water to drink (saving  more than 3 million lives a year), enough food to eat and a basic education. On humanitarian grounds alone, it is hard to answer Lomborg’s argument, especially when it cannot be shown that Kyoto will save even one human life.