The Demonization of CO2

Since 1989, we have been told that climate change was an impending apocalypse. As a result, CO2 has been labeled an environmental criminal. Zealots have repeatedly asserted that CO2 emissions are primarily responsible for increases in global temperatures and unless they are reduced there will be unprecedented climate events–hurricanes, droughts, species extinction, and flooding caused by rising sea levels. Current atmospheric levels of CO2 are about 400 ppm. Over geologic history, the average has been much higher2,000 ppm–and life flourished on land and sea.

The media and most politicians have uncritically accepted this demonization that has been used to advance a political agenda–a war against fossil energy. Even though air quality has continuously improved since the 1970s, environmentalists still pursue an anti-fossil energy strategy against coal, gasoline, and diesel.

The late historian Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image described how we “create the demand for the illusions with which to deceive ourselves.” He describes how “Americans are less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed… where almost anything can be true, the socially rewarded art is that of making things seem true.” Policy by illusion characterizes the environmental demonization of fossil energy and its by-product, CO2.

Beginning with the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, there has been a campaign to convince us that the world was on an unsustainable course because of economic and population growth, and environmental degradation. The use of fossil energy to achieve economic growth, an improved standard of living, and increased social mobility is alleged to cause serious environmental damage even though environmental metrics point to improvement.

After two back-to-back hot summers in the late 1980s, many Americans were willing to believe claims by Al Gore and others that global warming, caused by the use of fossil energy, was taking place and its consequences would be catastrophic if corrective actions were not taken to reduce CO2 emissions. Few took the time to take a hard-headed, dispassionate look at the justification for those claims. According to Gore and others who subscribe to the climate orthodoxy, CO2 emissions from burning fossil energy to run our factories, heat, cool, and light our homes, provide electricity to commercial facilities, and  provide transportation was the culprit. Global CO2 emissions continue to increase while the warming that concerns them stopped about 1998.

Climate advocates try to muddle CO2 with real air pollution from fossil energy–smog, oxides from sulfur and nitrogen, etc.–that have been controlled and largely eliminated in the United States. Because real pollutants can be controlled, they focus on CO2, which cannot be eliminated from combustion. They also use pictures of plumes comprised of water vapor to suggest uncontrolled pollution.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas that represents about 0.03 percent of our atmosphere. Nitrogen and oxygen make up over 98 percent of the atmosphere. While CO2 does have a warming effect, doubling it would only lead to about a 1.1 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, absent some mechanism to cause a larger increase. Beyond the reality that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, almost everything else represents synthetic or pseudo facts–facts that are embellished for the purpose of persuading people to accept a particular point of view.

CO2 is a nutrient that some refer to as the elixir of life. It is essential for plant growth and agricultural production, water conservation by plants, and the greening of the planet, all of which represents a social benefit, not a cost. The Obama administration has recently published information on the “social cost of carbon,”–a document that has been roundly criticized as a case of cooking the books. If a serious analysis of carbon dioxide is to be undertaken, it should look at benefits as well as costs.

An objective analysis of CO2 would demonstrate that the alleged relationship between emissions and temperature increases is false. Although CO2 does produce a warming effect, that effect is logarithmic not linear. Hence, as more CO2 enters the atmosphere, the incremental warming effect decreases. Although Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance attempted to show that increases in CO2 emissions in the post-World War II period had caused a dramatic increase in temperature, the graphic displayed was clearly a case of how to lie with statistics. When data, covering more than 100,000 years, was plotted on an unbiased scale it was obvious that there was no correlation. Over these many millennia, there were periods where temperature increases preceded CO2 increases, periods where CO2 increases preceded temperature increases, periods where both increased together, and periods when CO2 levels were much higher than today. The lack of a causal relationship is demonstrated by a warming pause/halt over the period since 1998.

To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, the whole air of environmental politics is to keep the public alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of which are imaginary. Pursuing an anti-CO2 agenda is pursuing a hobgoblin that will cause vast economic and environmental harm.

This article appeared on the Manhattan Institute’s E21 website at http://www.economics21.org/commentary/demonization-co2#.U7_rL7HF6-V

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