Commentary

The ‘Carbon Emissions’ Deception: No, Carbon Dioxide Is Not a Pollutant

By E. Calvin Beisner | June 26, 2019 | 3:03pm EDT
(Photo by Michael Masters/Getty Images)

Falsehoods always go down more smoothly when mixed with truths. And they’re probably the most credible when told by people who don’t know they’re false—the sincerity factor, you know.

Well, the lead paragraph of a recent New York Times article is a model of just that:

“The Trump administration on [June 19] replaced former President Barack Obama’s effort to reduce planet-warming pollution from coal plants with a new rule that would keep plants open longer and undercut progress on reducing carbon emissions.”

I suspect author Lisa Friedman, who “reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington” and is a “former editor at Climatewire,” really believes everything she said there.

It’s true that the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency announced a replacement for the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). It’s true that the new measure, called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, would keep coal-burning electric generating plants open longer.

So what are the falsehoods? They come in two clauses: “effort to reduce planet-warming pollution” and “reducing carbon emissions.”

Friedman doesn’t make two things explicit:

  1. The emissions the CPP sought to reduce were emissions of carbon dioxide (an odorless, colorless, gas non-toxic except at levels over 100 times its concentration in Earth’s atmosphere but essential to photosynthesis and hence to all life) not carbon (a solid that, as black soot in high enough doses prolonged long enough, can cause respiratory diseases).
  2. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.

Pollutant, according to Mirriam-Webster’s, denotes “something that pollutes,” and to pollute is “to make physically impure or unclean” or “to contaminate (an environment) especially with man-made waste.” The Google online dictionary defines pollutant as “a substance that pollutes something, especially water or the atmosphere,” and pollute as to “contaminate (water, air, or a place) with harmful or poisonous substances.”

Carbon dioxide isn’t harmful or poisonous except at concentrations over a hundred times higher than its concentration in Earth’s atmosphere—levels that we’ll never approach by burning fossil fuels.

The real beef about carbon dioxide is that it probably makes Earth’s atmosphere warmer than it otherwise would be. That’s true, but the relevant question is, “How much?”

The answer driven by empirical observation (the essence of science) instead of computer models (which are hypotheses and must be tested by observation) is probably very little, and almost certainly not enough to cause harms (e.g., sea-level rise; more frequent or severe extreme hurricanes, droughts, floods, or other extreme weather events) that exceed benefits (e.g., longer growing seasons and wider growing ranges and hence more food production; diminished deaths from extreme cold, which kills ten times as many people per day as extreme heat).

Perhaps the CPP could be defended, and its demise mourned, if carbon dioxide’s warming effect were much greater, and the emission reductions achieved by it would prevent a good deal of that warming. But the reality is that even assuming a high warming effect from carbon dioxide, full implementation of the CPP, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, would have achieved no significant reduction in global temperature by the end of this century.

And then there’s the other thing carbon dioxide does in the atmosphere: it enables plants to grow. Indeed, the more of it there is, the better plants grow.

For every doubling of carbon dioxide concentration, there’s an average 35 percent increase in plant growth efficiency. They grow better in warmer and colder temperatures and in wetter and drier soils, make better use of soil nutrients, and resist diseases and pests better. Consequently, they expand their ranges, shrinking deserts and spreading into both colder (toward the poles) and warmer (toward the equator) regions. They also improve their fruit-to-fiber ratio. The result is more food for everything that eats plants—or eats something that eats plants.

Some people object that the nutrient density of a few crops declines slightly with higher carbon dioxide concentration. That’s true, but most don’t suffer that, and the higher crop yields make compensating for that affordable, whether by eating a little more of the less-nutrient-dense food or by consuming other food or nutrient supplements.

The greatest benefit from the increased food production goes to the world’s poor. And that’s a good thing.

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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