# 458
 

March 2003


Nonsense By Any Other Name:
Calling Carbon Dioxide A Pollutant Doesn't Make It A Pollutant

 

by Gerald Marsh

 

It is becoming increasingly fashionable to maintain that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, one that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Seven Northeastern states have even announced their intention to sue the administration for its failure to regulate power plant emissions of carbon dioxide under the Act.

They claim to be doing this because fossil-fueled electric power plants are the source of nearly forty percent of the carbon dioxide emitted in the U.S. To underline the importance of doing something to reduce carbon dioxide emissions-like ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty on climate change which mandates reducing carbon dioxide emissions-they and others have repeatedly stated that carbon dioxide is the main global warming gas.

These claims are not only wrong, they are irresponsible.

That is why the Clean Air Act does not regulate the emission of carbon dioxide.

However, the lawsuit that the seven Northeastern states intend to bring maintains that had the Environmental Protection Agency performed the required reviews of standards governing power plant emissions they would have added carbon dioxide to the list of emissions requiring regulation.

This is nonsense.

Carbon dioxide is a minor greenhouse gas that occurs naturally in the atmosphere and helps to maintain the earth at a temperature suitable for life. Carbon dioxide is essential to the growth of all plants. Without it, plants could not grow and all animal life would consequently die. In no way is this gas a pollutant. To call it one is badly misleading.

The principal greenhouse gas is water vapor.

Europeans tend to be strong supporters of the Kyoto Protocol, and many think it shameful that the U.S. has not ratified it. But we have not done so because it is by no means clear that human emissions of carbon dioxide are responsible for the small observed warming.

Why, then, do European governments support the Protocol? To quote Margot Wallstrom, the European Union's commissioner for the environment, global warming "is not a simple environmental issue where you can say it is an issue where scientists are not unanimous. This is about international relations, this is about economy, about trying to create a level playing field for big businesses throughout the world. You have to understand what is at stake and that is why it is serious." In other words, the European objective is to put the United States at a competitive disadvantage. It costs Europe nothing to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, since they did so when they switched from high-sulfur coal to North Sea natural gas, and Germany shut down many highly polluting East German factories. But it would cost the U.S. a great deal.

So much for the European moral high ground.

The issue is not whether there is a small global warming trend; it is whether or not the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for this warming, or whether the warming is of natural origin. The Bush administration made the determination that the science behind the Kyoto Protocol did not justify the economic impact on the United States-although this could change in the future.
That was the right decision.

Despite claims to the contrary, the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not show that human activities are responsible for global warming. Its conclusions were based on computer models of the earth's climate. However, the problem is so complex that the art of constructing such models is still in its infancy. The uncertainties are so great that the claim by the IPCC that "most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations" is "likely" to be unfounded.

The Earth has been warming erratically for 10,000 years (since the last ice age). That has been good, up to now, because it's what made the non-equatorial latitudes habitable. We can expect that warming trend to continue, no matter what we do about carbon dioxide.

The latest IPCC report is far more comprehensive than earlier ones, and shows that some fine research is being done. Nevertheless, we don't yet understand the earth's climate well enough to be able to assess the long-term effect of the carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels.

So it is important to ask, do the Northeastern states seek the same competitive advantage as the Europeans, or simply some political advantage here at home.

Nonsense by any other name is still nonsense.

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Gerald Marsh is a physicist who has managed the implementation of an important weather forecasting program for the U.S. Air Force. Comments about this piece can be sent to him at [email protected].

 


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