Images of purple mountains’ majesty, verdant meadows, and noshing elk and bison slide across my TV screen, as an announcer with a grandfatherly voice assures me that CO2 is not pollution. “In fact,” he says, “higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the Earth’s ecosystems and support more plant and animal life.”
This is an ad sponsored by a group called CO2 Is Green (it’s actually a colorless gas, but I trust they were going for symbolism). Their goal is to stop regulation or legislation that would attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. The fact that CO2 Is Green is a project of retired oil industry executive H. Leighton Steward and current coal executive Corbin J. Robertson Jr. is no doubt purely coincidental. I’m sure their real passion is photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis, as you may recall from fourth-grade science, is the genuinely wonderful process by which plants take water and carbon dioxide (produced by animal respiration, some bacteria, fungi, and Hyundais, among other sources) and transform them into leaves, shoots, prize-winning giant pumpkins, and, that sentimental favorite of many living things, oxygen.
So, according to some people—many of whom have ties to fossil fuel industries—more CO2 means more photosynthesis. By this logic, more coal-burning power plants equal more trees (except when the trees are on a mountaintop being removed to mine coal). As for global warming, if CO2 makes the earth hotter—great! Who wants ice anyway, except hockey players and bartenders?
Now CO2, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Not only does it help your garden grow, it also puts the fizz in your cola, the rise in your bread, and the pop in your Pop Rocks. However, many worthy substances become a disaster when proportions or placement are off. Water, which is also vital for life, is less than felicitous if it is pouring into your lungs or floating your dining room table and golden retriever to the next county.
Likewise, too much CO2 can damage or destroy life by giving climate change a turbo boost. As an open letter from 18 leading scientific organizations last October put it:
Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment.
Unfortunately, some people are being distracted from the overwhelming scientific consensus by shiny, clattering junk science (which polishes up right nicely with enough industry money and elbow grease).
Others in the “don’t give a hoot, let us pollute” contingent claim that cutting greenhouse gas emissions will hurt the poor, diverting from other needs in developing countries. This ignores the perspective of aid and development groups, including Oxfam International, World Vision, CARE, Mercy Corps, and Heifer International. All of these organizations, which work on the ground with the poorest of the poor, testify that climate change is already baking crops, threatening to wash away coastal communities, and otherwise adding more misery to the lives of those who were already well-supplied with suffering.
Other institutions that take seriously the risk resulting from climate change: The World Bank and the U.S. Department of Defense.
If you meet someone who is playing the home edition of the climate-denial game, what should you do? One resource for having respectful, factual conversations about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions is A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, by scientist Katharine Hayhoe and pastor Andrew Farley.
Addressing climate change won’t be easy—which makes it all the more important to not allow falsehoods and distortions to cloud our vision. Carbon dioxide has no ulterior motives; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for some of its proponents.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.