Carbon Dioxide Is Not Our Enemy

November 26, 2015 shows a foggy forest on the Spanish canary island of Tenerife. The fog c
Desiree Martin/AFP/Getty Images

Beneath all the furious arguments and billion-dollar politics of the climate change debate lies a core assertion: human industry is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is raising the temperature of the Earth, in a way that will harm all living things.  

The CO2 Coalition has questions about the second part of that assertion, and a serious argument with the third.

The Coalition’s new white paper, Carbon Dioxide Benefits the World: See for Yourself, reviews the current state of climate science with particular attention to its biological impact. It is undeniably true that global temperature increases have been far, far less than doomsday computer models predicted – about three times smaller, and there are good reasons to suspect the increases from further human CO2 emissions would be smaller still, without imposing draconian regulations. Not only has this warming been small, but there is no real reason to think it’s harmful.  

On the contrary, while alarmist claims of increased catastrophic weather phenomenon are easily debunked, and their warnings of rising sea levels remain highly speculative, it’s hard to argue with the verifiable increase in plant life across much of the world. The white paper includes several measurements of increased plant life, including a striking map that shows the “greening of the Earth” from 1982 to 2006.  

“As CO2 levels continue to rise, the Earth will grow greener and agricultural yields will continue to increase, with additional contributions from better varieties, improved cropping practices, more efficient use of fertilizer, and other factors,” the paper predicts.

I had a chance to speak with Dr. William Happer and Rod Nichols of the CO2 Coalition about their work, and mentioned my youthful memories of the great deforestation crisis of the Eighties, when it was feared all the world would soon become a giant parking lot. The greening described in their paper was not at all what young people were taught to expect.

“Deforestation is a little tricky, because, for example, in the eastern U.S. there’s been tremendous regrowth of forests,” said Dr. Happer. “That’s not because of CO2, it’s just because it’s not worth farming the land any more. So at least in the eastern U.S., it’s not due to CO2, it’s because of economic factors. But along the southern Sahara, as you can see in the lab figures in the report, or in western Australia, or western India – that’s all CO2, almost certainly.”

This is characteristic of the approach taken in the CO2 Coalition’s paper, whose subtitle “See for Yourself” is meant to be taken seriously. Climate alarmists want a simple narrative about demon carbon dioxide – not coincidentally, the one nearly universal industrial byproduct that can’t be eliminated without crushing regulations and staggering expense, produced by the energy of life itself. In truth, as Nichols pointed out, environmental issues have many variables.

When one of those variables is an abundance of plant life that reduces hunger by producing enormous crop yields, it seems foolish to ignore it… and perhaps dangerous to pursue solutions that use a great deal of land or consume vitally-needed agricultural products, as wind, solar, and biofuel energy do.  

Happer noted that requiring less land to feed a given population is a great boon for any society. Increasing the amount of land required to generate energy for that population, or reducing the amount of energy they have available, is a burden. That burden weighs especially heavily on the developing world, where the CO2 Coalition paper observes that inexpensive and reliable energy is desperately needed to lift people out of poverty.

Carbon Dioxide Benefits the World: See for Yourself is meant to be a conversation-starter. Happer and Nichols stressed that they wanted to take a non-confrontational approach with copious footnotes and supporting sources, inviting readers to perform their own research and gain a fuller understanding of CO2 and its benefits. They worried that the “extreme solutions or nothing” approach of climate alarmists could drive people away from the debate, or make them suspicious of perfectly sound proposals because they fear everything leads into the trillion-dollar climate-change juggernaut.

“It’s the old story about the boy who cried wolf,” said Happer. “If you cry about imaginary threats when there’s a real threat, nobody comes to your aid.”  

He lamented the vicious treatment given to scientists who showed even modest skepticism toward the link between CO2 and climate change… even when the skeptics were early proponents of such theories who wished to adjust their models based on decades of accumulated data.  

“For example, my friend Steve Koonin, who’s written some nice op-eds for both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, is getting tremendous blowback from his former friends – you know, ‘How dare you cast any doubt on the message that we’re trying to project!’ He says, ‘I’m only trying to tell the truth.’ Well, you shouldn’t tell the truth, because it will encourage the deniers. That’s the attitude – it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it’s our message, our dogma, and don’t encourage our opponents,” said Happer. (One example of a Koonin op-ed that enraged climate alarmists can be found here.)

“According to the alarmists, if you don’t take really extreme measures, you’ve done nothing,” added Nichols. “It does kind of elbow out consideration of anything else, not only the facts of the matter, but other solutions.”

What if those extreme measures are not only wasteful of resources, but damage the quality of human life? The greening process described by the CO2 Coalition has been significant in alleviating hunger, and moderately warmer global temperatures are friendly to the human condition as well. Indeed, as their paper argues, the Earth has experienced a “relative CO2 famine for many millennia” – in other words, most of human history – while before that, carbon dioxide levels were much higher than they are today.  

The biosphere is a powerful, complex engine that may not respond well to tinkering by well-meaning amateurs. Happer and Nichols found it remarkable how easily climate alarmists dismiss hunger and energy shortages in the developing world as acceptable collateral damage for their agenda.

Only an adversarial process is likely to account for all variables, and provide adequate protection against simple errors. Happer and Nichols cited the example of using competing defense research laboratories to check each other’s work, and suggested the creation of competing climate advisory boards to replace the current politicized-science monolith. This is especially important when so much of the raw climate data is kept secret by government agencies (it has even proven resistant to congressional subpoenas!) and the public is left trying to decide which group of analysts they should trust.  

“We desperately need a ‘Team B’ that is supported by the government,” said Happer. “One problem now is that when Rod and I argue, we’re arguing as volunteers – we’re working for nothing to push back against this. We have a few colleagues who long ago worked for Exxon – Roger Cohen, for example, Bruce Everett – so the reaction we get is, ‘You guys are tainted, you’re not lily-pure government scientists. Nobody’s going to believe anything you say.’ One way to fix that is to have the government itself set up some respected scientists to look at the other side.”

No one interested in scientific truth should ever be afraid to look at the other side. In the case of carbon dioxide and its allegedly apocalyptic effect on the Earth’s atmosphere, the other side is leafy, green, and edible.


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