Nonsense By Any
Calling Carbon Dioxide A Pollutant Doesn't Make It
by Gerald Marsh
It is becoming increasingly fashionable
to maintain that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, one that should
be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Seven Northeastern states
have even announced their intention to sue the administration
for its failure to regulate power plant emissions of carbon dioxide
under the Act.
They claim to be doing this because fossil-fueled electric power
plants are the source of nearly forty percent of the carbon dioxide
emitted in the U.S. To underline the importance of doing something
to reduce carbon dioxide emissions-like ratifying the Kyoto Protocol,
the treaty on climate change which mandates reducing carbon dioxide
emissions-they and others have repeatedly stated that carbon
dioxide is the main global warming gas.
These claims are not only wrong, they are irresponsible.
That is why the Clean Air Act does not regulate the emission
of carbon dioxide.
However, the lawsuit that the seven Northeastern
states intend to bring maintains that had the Environmental Protection
Agency performed the required reviews of standards governing
power plant emissions they would have added carbon dioxide to
the list of emissions requiring regulation.
This is nonsense.
Carbon dioxide is a minor greenhouse gas that occurs naturally
in the atmosphere and helps to maintain the earth at a temperature
suitable for life. Carbon dioxide is essential to the growth
of all plants. Without it, plants could not grow and all animal
life would consequently die. In no way is this gas a pollutant.
To call it one is badly misleading.
The principal greenhouse gas is water vapor.
Europeans tend to be strong supporters of the Kyoto Protocol,
and many think it shameful that the U.S. has not ratified it.
But we have not done so because it is by no means clear that
human emissions of carbon dioxide are responsible for the small
Why, then, do European governments support the Protocol? To quote
Margot Wallstrom, the European Union's commissioner for the environment,
global warming "is not a simple environmental issue where
you can say it is an issue where scientists are not unanimous.
This is about international relations, this is about economy,
about trying to create a level playing field for big businesses
throughout the world. You have to understand what is at stake
and that is why it is serious." In other words, the European
objective is to put the United States at a competitive disadvantage.
It costs Europe nothing to meet the requirements of the Kyoto
Protocol, since they did so when they switched from high-sulfur
coal to North Sea natural gas, and Germany shut down many highly
polluting East German factories. But it would cost the U.S. a
So much for the European moral high ground.
The issue is not whether there is a small global warming trend;
it is whether or not the burning of fossil fuels is responsible
for this warming, or whether the warming is of natural origin.
The Bush administration made the determination that the science
behind the Kyoto Protocol did not justify the economic impact
on the United States-although this could change in the future.
That was the right decision.
Despite claims to the contrary, the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not show that human activities
are responsible for global warming. Its conclusions were based
on computer models of the earth's climate. However, the problem
is so complex that the art of constructing such models is still
in its infancy. The uncertainties are so great that the claim
by the IPCC that "most of the observed warming over the
last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse
gas concentrations" is "likely" to be unfounded.
The Earth has been warming erratically for 10,000 years (since
the last ice age). That has been good, up to now, because it's
what made the non-equatorial latitudes habitable. We can expect
that warming trend to continue, no matter what we do about carbon
The latest IPCC report is far more comprehensive than earlier
ones, and shows that some fine research is being done. Nevertheless,
we don't yet understand the earth's climate well enough to be
able to assess the long-term effect of the carbon dioxide that
comes from burning fossil fuels.
So it is important to ask, do the Northeastern states seek the
same competitive advantage as the Europeans, or simply some political
advantage here at home.
Nonsense by any other name is still nonsense.
# # #
Gerald Marsh is a physicist
who has managed the implementation of an important weather forecasting
program for the U.S. Air Force. Comments about this piece can
be sent to him at [email protected].