One of the more roundly mocked (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, here, here) strategies to fight the regulation of greenhouse gases and CO2 in particular, was the Competitive Enterprise Institute‘s push to revive the Greening Earth Society meme that far from being a pollutant, CO2 is in fact a necessary component of life. This talking point has been around for quite some time, and exists in several incarnations. The message remains the same, however: “no matter what those crazy environmental wackos say, CO2 is Grrrrreat!”
Would this little girl lie to you? No, but apparently CEI will.
The effectiveness of this talking point is its superficial appeal to “logic”- CO2 is necessary for plants, plants are necessary for our survival, ergo more CO2 must be good. Of course this is a non-sequitur. Water, likewise, is necessary for both plant and human survival, but as is demonstrated on a sadly routine basis, when too much is consumed the consequences can become severely negative.
The idea that unchecked CO2 increases can have no negative consequences is demonstrably false even before warming and climate change are taken into consideration. While it is true that plants need CO2, they are also acclimated to “normal” concentrations. When CO2 concentrations exceed these levels substantially, plants can be smothered as their root systems are prevented from intaking enough oxygen- such as when CO2 saturates the soil due to geological activity.
And while CO2 is a normal component of the air we breathe every day, in high enough concentrations it can become an invisible, odorless killer. In 1986 Lake Nyos in Cameroon “belched” enough CO2 to kill 1,700 people as well as animals and vegetation.
Cow asphyxiated by CO2 near Lake Nyos.
Of course, this is not to say that anthropogenic emissions are expected to drive CO2 concentrations to such heights, but merely to debunk the notion that “more CO2=good no matter what” and to illustrate that the idea that just because something is naturally occurring it cannot be a pollutant is simply absurd.
Whether or not something is considered a pollutant is a matter of governmental discretion, and while the Bush Administration claimed that CO2 was not a pollutant to be regulated under current law, it has been rebuffed not only by the United States Supreme Court, but by its own reports.
The claim that CO2 should not be regulated because it is “Life”, natural, not a pollutant, etc. is clearly specious. But what of the related and more plausible claim? Are current increases in CO2 so moderate as to be beneficial to the planet? Not really, it turns out. While there will undoubtedly be some plants that will initially benefit from increased CO2 concentrations, a number of other factors complicate the issue. I will address these in a separate post.
[UPDATE: Part II is here.]