Sunday, June 8, 2014

Anyone who calls carbon dioxide "carbon pollution" is trying to fool you. Part I.

People who use the term "carbon pollution" are dishonest, and deserve your contempt, just as anyone who is trying to deceive you earns your contempt. Ordinary people know what carbon pollution is. It is soot, the black stuff in smoke, or the exhaust of an old diesel engine. It is dirty, and full of cancer-causing polyaromatic hydrocarbons. Responsible producers of energy work hard to minimize the emission of pollution. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act, enormous progress has been made in doing so. Carbon dioxide is none of those things. It is clean, invisible, and essential for life.

Carbon dioxide is the gas we exhale in exchange for oxygen. It is what all plants need to grow. Carbon dioxide is the main raw material that living things use to produce all of our food, our clothing, and even homes, if they are made of wood (cellulose) or cement (limestone). The fact that plants can breathe this trace gas, and use it to grow, despite it being only 0.03 - 0.04% of our atmosphere is nothing short of a miracle. To accomplish this miracle, plants use the energy of the sun to separate the carbon from the oxygen, and build large molecules with it, like cellulose and oils. Animals harvest this energy by recombining the carbon in these large molecules with oxygen to make carbon dioxide.

Fossil fuel is the fossilized remains of plants. So, in a sense, it is fossilized solar energy. When we burn fossil fuels, we release that energy, and return the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If we are responsible, we do our best to minimize the dirty parts of burning fuel, like soot, and sulphates, and release mostly clean, odorless, colorless carbon dioxide.

You are by necessity very familiar with the feedback mechanism that keeps the right amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in your body. It is called breathing. If you breathe too slowly, or hold your breath, dissolved carbon dioxide builds up in your body. That creates the urge to breathe. Breathing blows out carbon dioxide. If you intentionally hyperventilate, then your body loses too much carbon dioxide, the pH of your blood gets too high, your urge to breathe decreases, you feel numbness and tingly around your lips, hands, and feet, lightheaded, and you might even pass out. The speed of your breathing is constantly regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in your body, through negative feedback, so that it stays close to the right amount, not too much, not too little. To stay healthy, you need about 1,400 times as much carbon dioxide dissolved in your body as there is in the same volume of air around you. Even though oxygen is the main thing we need to get from the air, it is little more than a bystander in the process of regulating our breathing under ordinary conditions.

The fact that we need a fair amount of carbon dioxide in our bodies to survive is a clue that it is not pollution, any more than water is pollution. Sure, you can have too much of it, just as you can drown in too much water, but it can't be called pollution.

Yet, the political newspeak of our time has adopted the term "carbon pollution" to refer to carbon dioxide. This debasement of language is intended to muddy your understanding of carbon dioxide, and make you think of it as something dirty. As readers of George Orwell's 1984 know, it is the job of politics to debase the language. That's how the people get fooled, and harmful policies that benefit only a select few get passed. If language loses its meaning, we lose our ability to communicate and evaluate ideas. It is your job to see through that debasement, and push back.

They want you to believe that a global catastrophe will result from carbon dioxide rising much beyond its current level. When you ask them why, they talk about climate models. When you ask them how well the climate models have done prospectively modeling the climate, they will tell you, not very well, but since we are very unsure of the future, we should be cautious and not raise carbon dioxide much above recent levels. The term "carbon pollution" is also a kind of social signaling among those who would like to force a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. It is one of their gang signs.
Since the beginning of the industrial age, the burning of fossil fuels, and to a lesser extent the outgassing of warming seas recovering from the Little Ice Age, have caused carbon dioxide to be returned to the atmosphere faster than it is absorbed from it.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about the effects of rising carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The best and most well known record of atmospheric carbon dioxide comes from the observatory at Mauna Loa, called the Keeling curve, after the late Prof. Charles David Keeling, of UCSD, who supervised the initial work of the observatory in 1958. In March 1958, the level was 316 ppm, and in March 2014 it was 400 ppm, a 26.6% increase. That is a significant amount, and potentially a cause for concern. People with a sincere interest in addressing this concern do not debase the meaning of words, because that undermines the clarity needed for serious investigation.

(to be continued in Part II)


  1. 1400 times as much CO2 dissolved in your body as is in the air around you?

    350ppm X 1400 = 490000ppm

    what am I missing?

    1. My complete statement was "about 1,400 times as much carbon dioxide dissolved in your body as there is in the same volume of air around you." You are missing the per unit volume part, and the body is much denser than air. For comparison, Coca Cola has about 2 grams of CO2 dissolved in 350mL. 350mL of air has, using the ideal gas approximation at 0C, 44g/mol * (400parts/1,000,000) * 0.350L/22.4L/mol = 0.275mg or about 7,300 times less than the Coke. We are about 19% as carbonated per volume as soda.