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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Is More CO2 Good for Us? Don’t Hold Your Breath.

By Phil Plait

With 2015 a record-setting hot year, and 2016 already off to a roaring start, you have to be in a special kind of denial to try to convince people that more carbon dioxide in the air is a good thing.

In a crowded field of outrageous climate change denial claims, this is the one that is so ridiculous, so in-your-face wrong that it still stands out.

Yet this is where the New York Post finds itself, publishing just such an opinion piece by William Happer and Rod Nichols. Not surprisingly, to make such a claim you have to make a series of other howlers leading up to it.

The article is about the recent Supreme Court decision to put the Clean Air Act on hold while coal companies in several states try to strike it down. Using that as a jumping off point, the op-ed then goes into a series of zombie global warming denial claims that, if you know anything at all about the science, are demonstrably (and laughably) wrong.

For example, they trot out the tired idea that global temperatures have “paused,” and that satellite data of the troposphere show this. They even go as far to say:

Satellite measurements of atmospheric temperatures are the genuine gold standard—and they show negligible warming for the past two decades.

This is utter nonsense. As has been shown, satellite measurements are adjusted more than ground-based temperatures are—which climate change deniers howl constantly about. Worse, the satellites that showed no warming did so erroneously, due to problems calibrating the data. Other satellite records (as well as balloons) do indeed show the troposphere warming along with surface temperatures.

I wonder why the Post article doesn't mention those?

They also say that CO2 is not a “pollutant” because “… all living things are built of carbon that comes from CO2.”

This is a stunning statement. Like most denier talking points, there’s a germ of truth to it—the carbon in living tissue does come in large part from atmospheric CO2—but to say that means it can’t be a pollutant is pretty silly.

For example, our bodies produce formaldehyde naturally; it’s a byproduct of the metabolic process. Yet the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifies it as a pollutant. Why? Because too much of it under the wrong conditions is a bad thing.

As doctors will tell you, dose makes the poison. Something harmless at low abundance can be deadly when you crank it up. Too much CO2 will kill you as surely as any other poison. Doctors even have a term for it: hypercapnia.

Saying CO2 can’t be a pollutant is a typical denier distraction technique, trying to downplay or distract you from what’s really going on.

Here’s the truth: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. As the Sun warms the Earth, CO2 prevents some of that heat from escaping to space, and the planet warms up. A little bit is a good thing, as plants do indeed need it, and it keeps Earth’s average temperature above the freezing point of water.

But in this case too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere changes how much heat the Earth retains. Because the distribution of heat changes how our complex climate works, global warming causes climate change. Worse, we’re adding too much to the atmosphere too quickly for many living things to adapt. If this were happening over millions or even hundreds of thousands of years as it has in the past, the Earth, and humans, could possibly cope. But the changes we are making are incredibly rapid, and that’s their danger; the rate at which we are heating the planet is unprecedented.

That’s the big danger here. The claim that CO2 is plant food and therefore a benefit is dangerously naïve, willful or otherwise. Even if plants do benefit from a slight increase in atmospheric CO2, it’s incidental. If, at the same time, it raises the planet’s temperature so much that those same plants all die from drought in some regions and torrential rain in others, or the climate zones change, then the extra CO2 didn’t turn out so well, did it? And that is exactly what we’re seeing.

That’s why this idea that CO2 is not a pollutant is so ridiculous. It looks at tiny details and ignores huge, overwhelming issues. It’s like being happy the paint job on your car is nice as you drive toward a brick wall at full speed with your eyes closed.

The op-ed has several more such silly claims, including things like denying the increase in extreme weather, denying the accelerating sea level rise, and so on. The question naturally arises: Who would make such outrageous statements?

It turns out the authors are both members of the CO2 Coalition, a group that is dedicated to—and I kid you not—“educating thought leaders, policy makers, and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide and fossil fuels to our lives and the economy.” I also urge you to read more about the authors, Happer (who once said “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler”) and Nichols; that may help put this op-ed in context.

Don’t let the deniers fool you. They cherry-pick, they leave out inconvenient facts, they focus on minutiae, and they steamroll anyone who disagrees.

More carbon dioxide is not a good thing. It’s extremely dangerous. Anyone telling you otherwise is blowing hot air.

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