Carbon Dioxide Facts Versus Alternative Facts

The reaction of hard core environmentalists and their allies in Congress, and the main stream media to the President’s statement that the US “will continue to be cleanest and most environmental friendly country on Earth” demonstrates the lengths they will go to mislead and distort in pursuing their agenda.  An Associated Press article claims that “the US is among the dirtiest countries when it comes to … carbon pollution.”  That statement is a clear example of fake news and alternative facts.

Why is this the case?

Most important, CO2 is not a pollutant.  It is a nutrient that is essential for the growth of plants, crops, and trees.  According to a NASA study, “From a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands has shown significant greening over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  And, the notion that current CO2 levels in the atmosphere constitute a health risk is countered by the fact that the US Navy allows up to 5000 ppm in submarines, more than an order of magnitude higher than current atmospheric levels.

The classification of CO2 as a pollutant is the result of a poorly reasoned Supreme Court decision in 2007 that relied on the “Chevron doctrine” that gives deference to regulatory agencies in cases of legislative ambiguity.  However, the Court ignored the fact that in passing the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress explicitly denied EPA the authority to regulate CO2.  There was no ambiguity.

Contrary to the impression created by the climate establishment, CO2 is not the dominant or primary atmospheric greenhouse gas.  The atmosphere is comprised primarily of nitrogen and oxygen—99%.  Argon is 0.9%, CO2 is 0.03%, and water vapor which varies from 0.0 to 4.0% is the more potent greenhouse gas. According to the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization, “Water vapor accounts for 60-70% of the greenhouse effect while CO2 accounts for 25%.

Climate advocates have created the image of ever increasing levels of CO2 leading to ever increasing global temperatures.  That implies that there is a linear relationship between atmospheric levels and increases in temperature.  In fact, the warming potential of CO2 is non-linear.  This means that the warming caused by the next increment of CO2 is less than the increment that preceded it.  There is reason to believe that the world is on the flat end of the curve.

Although advocates point out the increase in CO2 levels and temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, they conveniently omit the fact that in the earth’s history, CO2 levels have been significantly higher.  Geologists estimate that 200 million years ago, average CO2 concentrations were about 1800 ppm, almost 5 times greater than today’s level. The highest concentrations of CO2 are estimated to have reached nearly 7000 ppm.  And earlier, over 400 million years ago, earth experienced an ice age with CO2 concentrations at 4400 ppm. The original “hockey stick” graph in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance was revealing when plotted objectively and not to prove a point.  It showed over a 160,000 year time period that there were times when CO2 preceded warming, followed warming, and coincided with warming.

Today’s global temperatures are not unprecedented.  Within the past millennium, temperature was warmer during the Medieval Warming period (800-1400) and during the Little Ice Age (1400–1850), it was colder.  Tracing modern warming from the end of the Little Ice Age creates an erroneous picture of warming.

The effect of CO2 concentrations on warming is a function of climate sensitivity—the temperature effect from doubling CO2.  Absent positive feedback, a doubling of CO2 is estimated by most scientists to be 1 degree C.  The IPCC in its most recent report estimates that climate sensitivity ranges from 1.5C to 4.5C.  In 1985, UNEP put out a statement on greenhouse gases and climate.  It estimated that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a temperature increase of 1.5C to 4.5C.  Since research is intended to expand knowledge and reduce uncertainty it is telling that in spite of spending well over $100 billion, we seem to know no more about the effect of CO2 on warming than we did over 30 years ago.  Curious indeed.

EPA has set standards for air quality and records over the past 40 years show that there has been steady and continuing improvement. Between 1980 and 2010, major pollutants defined by EPA were reduced between 27% and 82%.  Ozone and particulates had the smallest reductions but their reductions continue as new technology is developed.  It is grossly misleading to challenge the global leadership in US air quality by focusing on an emission that is not a pollutant and not a major component of the air we breathe.

The fact that the scary predictions made over the past 30 years have not come true along with the advancement of knowledge should lead thoughtful people to realize that we do not face a climate catastrophe.  Pretending to know more than we really do and pretending that we can control a complex system by controlling one variable is what Frederich Hayek termed the fatal conceit.



Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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