Is Carbon Dioxide a Pollutant?

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.

"Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life!" That's the slogan of two 60-second TV ads airing in 14 U.S. cities May 14-28. The ads are being run by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). According to their web site, CEI is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government. They tout a Wall Street Journal article which calls CEI "the best environmental think tank in the country".

Who funds the Competitive Enterprise Institute?

A variety of businesses fund CEI, but the fossil-fuel industry is one of their main contributors. Exxon documents (PDF File) show that the company gave $270,000 to CEI in 2004 alone. $180,000 of that was earmarked for "global climate change and global climate change outreach." Exxon has contributed over $1.6 million to CEI since 1998. Other oil companies, such as Amoco and Texaco, also contribute to CEI, through the American Petroleum Institute. So, it is safe to mentally replace the "paid for by the Competitive Enterprise Institute" tag on the ads with, "paid for by the fossil fuel industry." I speculated in an April blog that the Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Dr. Richard Lindzen of MIT (and other op-eds that appeared nationwide about the same time) were funded as part of an orchestrated public relations campaign by the fossil fuel industry. The appearance of the new TV ads are also likely part of the same PR campaign. The ads use language similar to the April op-ed pieces, using the word "alarmist" or its variations to describe those who warn that climate change presents a danger. The ads were timed to launch just before the opening of Al Gore's new film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth", due out today in New York City.

What do the ads say?

Here is the full transcript of the narration for the second ad, titled "Glaciers":

You've seen those headlines about global warming. The glaciers are melting, we're doomed. That's what several studies supposedly found.

But other scientific studies found exactly the opposite. Greenland's glaciers are growing, not melting. The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner.

Did you see any big headlines about that? Why are they trying to scare us?

Global warming alarmists claim the glaciers are melting because of carbon dioxide from the fuels we use. Let's force people to cut back, they say. But we depend on those fuels, to grow our food, move our children, light up our lives.

And as for carbon dioxide, it isn't smog or smoke, it's what we breathe out and plants breathe in. Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.

What is the validity of the scientific results quoted in the ads?

When the narrator says "Greenland's glaciers are growing, not melting", the screen image is of a 2005 paper that appeared in Science magazine, "Recent Ice-Sheet Growth in the Interior of Greenland". A glowing halo appears around the word "Growth". If you go to the trouble to read the article, you'll discover that it discusses satellite measurements which show that the interior of Greenland's ice sheet has thickened by about 6 cm/year since 1999. This thickening is attributed to increased precipitation, primarily due to natural cycles. However, 25% of the increase is attributed to increased atmospheric water vapor from heightened evaporation caused by global warming. The paper also notes that the glaciers at the edge of Greenland have thinned by about 2 cm/year since 1999, and conclude that their measurements cannot be used to tell if the glaciers of Greenland are showing a net gain or loss in recent years. So, the claim that "Greenland's glaciers are growing, not melting" is a half truth. Ice in Greenland's interior is getting thicker, but the the glaciers at the edges are getting thinner. As I discussed in a blog on Greenland's Greenhouse, this is a very complicated system with many unknowns! Making a simple statement that Greenland's glaciers are not melting--or are melting--hides the very high scientific uncertainty about what is going on there. Also left out from the ads is that most of Greenland's glaciers have shown a marked increase in flow rate in recent years.

Is the Antarctic ice sheet getting thicker?

When the CEI ad claims, "The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner", an image of another 2005 Science paper appears, Snowfall-Driven Growth in East Antarctic Ice Sheet Mitigates Recent Sea-Level Rise. Another halo of light appears around the word "Growth". Again, we are being subjected to a partial truth. Antarctica is divided into two ice sheets, and East and West Antarctic ice sheets, and this paper is only talking about one of the ice sheets. As I discussed in my March 7 blog, Antarctica Melting?, the question of whether Antarctica is undergoing a significant net melting or mass gain is not known--this is another very complicated system that we do not understand very well. In the words of the lead author of the paper, Professor Curt H. Davis, Director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri:

"Our result is only for East Antarctica. Moreover, we make it clear that our results are for the interior and it is well known that the edges are losing mass." In a University of Missouri press release issued May 19, Dr. Davis states: "These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate. They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims. They are not telling the entire story to the public."

Is Carbon Dioxide a pollutant?

The fossil fuel industry points out in their ads that carbon dioxide it essential for both plant life and human life. Is it wrong, then, to label carbon dioxide as a pollutant? The definition of pollution in Webster's dictionary is "to make physically impure or unclean: Befoul, dirty." By that definition, carbon dioxide is not pollution. However, Webster's also has the definition: "to contaminate (an environment) esp. with man-made waste." Carbon dioxide is a waste gas produced by fossil fuel combustion, so can be classified as man-made waste. One can also make the case that carbon dioxide is contaminating the environment, since increased CO2 from burning fossil fuels has already harmed sea life. Carbon dioxide, when dissolved in sea water, is deadly to shell-building microorganisms that form an important part of the food chain in some cold ocean regions. The extra CO2 lowers the pH and make the water too acidic for these organisms to build their shells. As I reported in my blog on Acidifying the Oceans, the observed increase in acidity of 0.1 pH units during the past century due to fossil fuel burning, and expected continued acidification in the coming decades, could cause a massive die off of marine life and collapse of the food chain in these ocean areas. Based on these arguments, the fossil fuel industry's slogan, "Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life!" could just as truthfully be phrased, "Carbon dioxide. We call it pollution, and we call it death." One need only look at our sister planet, Venus, to see that too much "life" can be a bad thing. There, an atmosphere of 96% carbon dioxide has created a hellish greenhouse effect. The temperatures of 860 F at the surface are hot enough to melt lead. There's not too much life there!

Crediting fossil fuels for our economic prosperity

The fossil fuel industry ads point out that the burning of fossil fuels has brought dramatic increases in wealth and prosperity to the world. This is a good point, and we should not seriously damage the basis of the world economy through reckless efforts to cut CO2 emissions. We can credit a good portion of the marvels of modern civilization to the availability of cheap fossil fuels to power our technological revolution. However, we shouldn't get all misty-eyed about the wondrous things we've accomplished by using this ready source of energy left for us by the fossilized plants of Earth's past. Any technology can bring about terrible suffering if used unwisely. Consider that fossil fuels have also made possible the horrors of modern warfare. The tanks of Hitler's blitzkrieg--and the aircraft that have dropped the bombs that have killed millions of innocent people this past century--were all powered by fossil fuels. Air pollution from fossil fuel burning has killed millions as well. We need to be honest about both the importance of fossil fuels, and the dangers they pose if used unwisely. The threat of climate change due to burning fossil fuels needs to be addressed truthfully, so that we can make wise decisions about the future of our energy technology. The untruthful new ad campaign by the fossil fuel industry is harmful to this end.

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