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Carbon Dioxide - Everyone's Favorite Pollutant

Posted on 5 October 2010 by dana1981

Before assessing whether or not CO2 is a pollutant, we must first define the term.

What is an Air Pollutant?

The US Clean Air Act was incorporated into the United States Code of Federal Regulations, Title 42, Chapter 85.  Its Title III, Section 7602(g) defines an air pollutant:

"The term “air pollutant” means any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive (including source material, special nuclear material, and byproduct material) substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air."

Clearly this is a very broad definition.  More importantly, its Title 1, Part A, Section 7408 states that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator must publish a list of certain air pollutants:

"emissions of which, in his judgment, cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare"

In Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (in 2007), the US Supreme Court held that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. Two years after the Supreme Court ruling, in 2009 the EPA issued an endangerment finding concluding that

"greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated both to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare....The major assessments by the U.S. Global Climate Research Program (USGCRP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the National Research Council (NRC) serve as the primary scientific basis supporting the Administrator’s endangerment finding."
Greenhouse gases including CO2 unquestionably fit the Clean Air Act's broad definition of "air pollutants," and must be listed and regulated by the EPA if it can be determined that they endanger public heath and/or welfare.
Alternatively, the definition of "pollution" from Encyclopedia Brittanica is:
"the addition of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or any form of energy (such as heat, sound, or radioactivity) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form."
Thus legally in the USA, CO2 is an air pollutant which must be regulated if it may endanger publich health or welfare.  And according to the encyclopedic definition, CO2 is a pollutant unless our emissions can be stored "harmlessly."

Is Increasing CO2 Dangerous or Harmless?

Humans are Increasing Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations

Humans have increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by 40% over the past 150 years, primarily through the combustion of fossil fuels.


Figure 1: CO2 levels (parts per million) over the past 10,000 years. Blue line from Taylor Dome ice cores (NOAA). Green line from Law Dome ice core (CDIAC). Red line from direct measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii (NOAA).

We know that the increase in atmospheric CO2 is anthropogenic from a number of lines of evidence.  Atmospheric oxygen is decreasing at approximately the same rate as the atmospheric CO2 increase, which tells us that the source of the change is from a release of carbon combining with atmospheric oxygen rather than a natural release of CO2.  We also know that the 30 billion tonnes of CO2 released by human activity must go somewhere, and in fact atmospheric CO2 is only increasing by about 16 billion tonnes per year (the rest is going into the oceans).  CO2 produced from burning fossil fuels or burning forests also has quite a different isotopic composition from CO2 in the atmosphere, because plants have a preference for the lighter isotopes (12C vs. 13C); thus they have lower 13C/12C ratios.  And indeed we've observed this ratio decline in the atmosphere.


Figure 2: Atmospheric 13C ratio as measured at Mauna Loa (CDIAC)

The Increasing CO2 is Causing Global Warming

Thus we know that human emissions are increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, which as a greenhouse gas, in turn increases the greenhouse effect.  This increases the amount of energy (in the form of longwave infrared radiation) reaching the Earth's surface.  We've observed this increase through spectroscopy, which measures changes in the electromagnetic spectrum.  Climate scientists have also quantified the amount of warming we expect to see from the energy imbalance caused by this increased downward radiation, and it matches well with observations.  Given the amount of CO2 humans have added to the atmosphere already, once the planet reaches a new equilibrium state, it will have warmed approximately 1.4°C from pre-industrial levels.  Additionally, we have observed numerous key 'fingerprints' of anthropogenic global warming which confirm that the warming we've experienced is due to an increased greenhouse effect.

How Much Warming is Dangerous?

There are some positive effects of global warming from increased CO2 emissions.  For example, improved agriculture at high latitudes and increased vegetation growth in some circumstances. However, the negatives will far outweigh the positives.  Coast-bound communities are threatened by rising sea levels. Melting glaciers threaten the water supplies of hundreds of millions.  Species are  already becoming extinct at a rate 100 to 1000 times higher than the “background” rate of long spans of geological time, partially due to the effects of global warming and climate change.  

Quantifying exactly at what point global warming will become dangerous is a difficult task.  However, based on the research and recommendations of climate scientists, more than 100 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2°C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts, and damages.  This 2°C warming level is considered the "danger limit". During the last interglacial period when the average global temperature was approximately 2°C hotter than today, sea levels were 6.6 to 9.4 meters higher than current sea levels. Large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melted, with the southern part of Greenland having little or no ice.

As discussed above, the CO2 we've already emitted has committed us to about 1.4°C warming above pre-industrial levels.  Given a climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 of 2-4.5°C and the fact that on our current path we're headed for a CO2 doubling by mid-to-late 21st century, we're fast-approaching the danger limit.

How Soon Will we Reach Dangerous Warming?

Meinshausen et al. (2009) found that if we limit cumulative CO2 emissions from 2000-2050 to 1,000 Gt (approximately an 80% cut in global emissions), there is a 25% probability of warming exceeding the 2°C limit, and 1,440 Gt CO2 over that period (an 80% cut in developed country emissions) yields a 50% chance of 2°C warming by the year 2100.  If we maintain current emissions levels, there is an approximately 67% chance that we will exceed 2°C warming by 2100.

Figure 3: Probability of exceeding 2°C warming by 2100 in various emissions scenarios in gigatonnes of carbon (RealClimate)

In short, to avoid the amount of global warming which is considered dangerous based on our understanding of the climate and empirical evidence, we need to achieve major reductions in global CO2 emissions in the next 40 years.   Thus it becomes quite clear that not only is CO2 a pollutant, but it also poses a risk to public health and welfare.

Ocean Acidification

Another impact of increasing atmospheric CO2 emissions is ocean acidification.  When CO2 dissolves in seawater, it increases the hydrogen ion concentration though the chemical reaction CO2 + CO32- + H2O 2HCO3-, thus decreasing the pH of the oceans (NOAA 2008).  Among other impacts, this decreasing oceanic pH has a damaging effect on corals, which form the habitat of approximately 25% of marine species (Karleskint et al. 2009).  A seminal study co-authored by 17 marine scientists (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2007) found:

"Many experimental studies have shown that a doubling of pre-industrial [CO2]atm to 560 ppm decreases coral calcification and growth by up to 40% through the inhibition of aragonite formation (the principal crystalline form of calcium carbonate deposited in coral skeletons) as carbonate-ion concentrations decrease"

Thus not only does anthropogenic CO2 act as a dangerous pollutant due to its impacts on global warming and climate change, but it also has a major effect on marine ecosystems through ocean acidification.

CO2 is a Pollutant

When considering the legal definition of "air pollutants" and body of scientific evidence, it becomes clear that CO2 meets the definition and poses a significant threat to public health and welfare.

This post is the Advanced version (written by Dana Nuccitelli [dana1981]) of the skeptic argument "CO2 is not a pollutant".

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Comments 51 to 100 out of 201:

  1. @thingadonta: You seem to be behind on the news: Bjorn Lomborg now admits that Global Warming to be one of the world's greatest threats. In the case of Anthropogenic Global Warming (which it seems you believe now), the bad outweighs the good.
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  2. thingadonta ... you may think you agree with Lomborg, but Lomborg has apparently reconsidered, and he no longer agrees with you.
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  3. Argh, beaten by one minute. Congrats, archiesteel.
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  4. @Ned: no problem, we provided two different links, thereby adding weigh to our shared position.
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  5. But there is a danger in giving bureacratic agencies legislation which classifies something as a 'pollutant' which is also necassary for society to function. Like, say, oil in tankers and pipelines. Goodness knows, the petroleum industry willingly did such good a job with self-regulation, the as-usual-vaguely-characterized-government-bureaucracies have been simply dangerous in their overweening regard for keeping oil inside of the various things oil is supposed to be inside of. I tend to agree with Lonborg that money would be better spent on alternative energies and mitigation effects... Sounds like a believer. To get a broader perspective on economics of mitigation, etc. see Real Climate Economics (not related to "RealClimate")
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  6. "greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated both to endanger public health and to endanger public welfare." The public health crowd has something to say here: It is now widely accepted that climate change is occurring as a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere arising from the combustion of fossil fuels. Climate change may affect health through a range of pathways, for example as a result of increased frequency and intensity of heat waves, reduction in cold related deaths, increased floods and droughts, changes in the distribution of vector-borne diseases and effects on the risk of disasters and malnutrition. The overall balance of effects on health is likely to be negative and populations in low income countries are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects. The experience of the 2003 heat wave in Europe shows that high-income countries may also be adversely affected. Sounds unhealthy. A bit like a pollutant, no?
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  7. thingadonta @50, you are creating a bit of a straw man. Calling something a "pollutant" is not the same thing as saying that all sources of the thing must be completely eradicated. We live every day with pollutants, and society must constantly evaluate the costs of those pollutants against the benefits of the activities that generate them. Climate (and other) science is trying to get a handle on the costs of CO2 emissions, not the benefits. Human society as a whole will bear those costs, regardless of anyone's arguments for or against global warming. Without an accurate understanding of the costs, there is no way for society to make rational decisions on cost versus benefits. That is why the people intent on obscuring the truth are doing such a disservice to mankind.
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  8. scaddenp (#40), Yes, I am still having trouble understanding ice ages but there are other threads for that. This thread does not condemn the ludicrous position taken by the EPA with regard to naming CO2 as a "pollutant". It is very disappointing to find the (mostly) sane denizens of this blog going along with what amounts to a denial of 9th grade science.
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  9. Re: gallopingcamel One could also posit the lack of understandings of ice ages as a denial of 9th grade science as well. But that would also be wrong. ;) The Yooper
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  10. Thingadonta: Using the argument that everything that is 'bad' for the envrionment is no good would mean no houses (cuts down habitat), no roads, no mines, no anything. The only people I've ever seen using this argument are "skeptics" who'd rather build strawmen than address their opponents' objections in good faith. C02 obviously is necessay for life, but too much might not be good. But there is a danger in giving bureacratic agencies legislation which classifies something as a 'pollutant' which is also necassary for society to function. I'm sure we're supposed to be frightened by the word "bureaucratic," but the fact is, we routinely put bureaucracies in charge of serious and dangerous things, from epidemic disease to military forces to nuclear weapons. If AGW is half the threat that mainstream, peer-reviewed science says it is, then the legislation you decry is really the only reasonable response to it. To imagine otherwise is childish, IMO. It is not about whther or not something is harmless, but whether the 'harm' outweighs the benefits, in other words, is a certain amount of harm acceptable, or can the hamr be reduced to an acceptable level? Acceptable to whom? Many of the people who will suffer most from the effects of AGW have little or no voice in this debate. Note, also, that to the extent that reducing harm is possible, it'll probably be accomplished by people who've accepted the scope of the problem, instead of sticking their heads in the sand (i.e., by the "greens" and "bureaucrats" who worry you so much).
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  11. @GC: CO2 is a pollutant, because too much of it is harmful to us. That point has been made to you over and over again, and you have yet to offer a convincing counter-argument. This is how debating works, by the way. You can't just restate your original position, or claim that everyone but you would fail 9th grade science, and expect to convince others that you are right.
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  12. It is very disappointing to find the (mostly) sane denizens of this blog going along with what amounts to a denial of 9th grade science. "9th grade science" from which decade? Science does evolve, you know. If you want us to understand why classifying CO2 as a pollutant is "ludicrous," you need to present an actual argument, and back it up with evidence.
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  13. GC, you're typically a pretty articulate fellow. I've got to say, there's a wide gulf of understanding here based on your remark that the EPA is behaving ludicrously by taking up C02 as a pollutant; a single adjective doesn't begin to explain your perspective. The trouble is, "ludicrous" is what's on offer, versus this: Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under the Clean Air Act (PDF) (52 pp, 308K) Technical Support Document for the Findings (PDF) (210 pp, 2.5MB) Beyond its immediate findings, EPA bent over backwards to entertain a vast number of comments and criticisms. I'm willing to bet the word "ludicrous" may be found in the compilation of this interaction but more to the point, lots of people devoted more effort than launching a single adjective to attacking the regulation of C02 by EPA, only to be found less than compelling. There are 11 volumes of comments and responses in all, but the key discussions from the perspective of vistors to this site are probably mostly to be found here: Volume 1: General Approach to the Science and Other Technical Issues Volume 2: Validity of Observed and Measured Data Volume 3: Attribution of Observed Climate Change Volume 4: Validity of Future Projections Volume 9: Endangerment Finding The thing is, after all of the disparagement about vague and nonspecific bureaucrats is brushed away as silly irrelevancy, we're left with the fact that EPA actually has a track record of successfully dealing with a range of pollution issues at various scales from relatively miniscule to quite huge. EPA's got a huge reservoir of expertise to tap into, they've been mobilized to look at this C02 challenge and you can see the results above. Against that, a single adjective?
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  14. GC - well I am not going to comment on an US political matter. As to ice ages, perhaps comment on CO2 lags temperature (after reviewing argument)?
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  15. Thingadonta @#50: There are several interrelated sets of issues regarding climate change that tend to become muddled in the skeptical debate, in particular: 1) Is the climate changing, and at what rate?, 2) What is causing this change?, 3) How might climate continue to change in the future, particularly if nothing is done to limit human impact? 4) What is the likely impact of [anthropogenic] climate change on human civilization as well as on natural ecosystems?, and finally 5) What can or should we do, if anything, to reduce the impact of anthropogenic climate change? The first four questions fall ostensibly within the realm of science, while the last (#5) falls within the realm of values, priorities, and politics--perhaps even religion. Unfortunately, I believe that a lot of "skeptics" allow their opinions regarding #5 to influence their judgment regarding #'s 1 through 4... and that pertains both to those who would wish to reduce human impact to as close to zero as possible, and those who, like Rhett Butler in regards to Scarlett O'Hara, frankly don't .....er... care. The U.S. Supreme Court, which CORRECTLY (beyond question) identified CO2 as a pollutant, merely gave the EPA the authority to regulate its discharge into the atmosphere. The Court did not indicate what should be done to limit CO2 emissions... but only that it falls under the EPA's authority. Trade-offs need to be weighed in any such circumstances. We face a lot of serious questions regarding our priorities for the future. Although I'm by no means sure what can or should be done regarding CO2, there is one thing I do feel sure of... that 7+ billion of us can't all simultaneously do whatever the hell we want, and not affect everyone else. We need to consider the consequences of our actions--or inaction, as the case may be--as opposed to denying that such consequences are real. In the meantime, libertarians should give serious consideration to finding another planet to live on.
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  16. Here are a couple of very good examples of how something that is good in very small quantities is actually *harmful* in larger quantities. Digitalis is a toxin which, in very small quantities, can prevent heart-attacks yet, in higher concentrations, can lead to a very swift death. Similarly Botulinus Toxin (aka Botox) can be used to reduce the visible signs of aging but-in large enough quantities-can lead to extreme illness & even death. I see CO2 & the like in a very similar light. Its worth noting though that, even if CO2 were considered utterly benign-at all quantities-the other by-products of burning fossil fuels are sufficiently toxic to warrant that we use far less of them. Burning petrol generates particulate emissions & benzene-both extremely hazardous to health, & burning coal generates particulate emissions, cadmium & mercury (amongst a host of other toxic by-products). Not exactly good for our health!
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  17. For those arguing that the benefits of increased CO2 will outweigh the negatives, or that the negatives aren't significant, or what have you, I recommend actually reading the 'How Much Warming is Dangerous?' section of the article and the links it references.
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  18. CoalGeologist #65 "The U.S. Supreme Court, which CORRECTLY (beyond question) identified CO2 as a pollutant,..." Just a few articles back, "Does breathing contribute to CO2 in the atmosphere?", it was being said that it was OK to breathe, (and I might add, if this is, it should be OK to burn wood as well). Meanwhile, the US Constitution guarantees the right to life, (i.e., "nor shall any State deprive any person of life...")... yet you go on to say that the Supreme Court... "merely gave the EPA the authority to regulate its discharge " Considering the possibilities, (and the level of misinformation going around), "merely" sounds like a gross understatement. And perhaps the real problem stems from a need to use a different word. Pollution is the wrong word. "Surplus" might be better.
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  19. RSVP #68: You really can't do this math? Seriously? Prior article: Breathing does not increase atmospheric CO2 levels because all carbon exhaled into the atmosphere came FROM the atmosphere in the first place. Basically, the human body recycles CO2. Current article: Something becomes a pollutant when the level of it in the environment increases to the point where it becomes harmful. Ergo... breathing is not causing CO2 to become a pollutant and there is no reason to regulate it... despite obnoxious fear mongering, on the level of 'death panels', nonsense to the contrary.
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  20. CBDunkerson #69: You really can't do this math? Seriously? Petrolium has placed the carbon equilibrium as sequestered in all living things (including man) beyond its "natural" origin. Breathing does increase CO2 levels in direct proportion to the increase in population.
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  21. As the level of CO2 is planetary, this issue at any rate can only be dealt with seriously via international accords.
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  22. Breathing does increase CO2 in direct proportion to the population. And every mammal sequesters some carbon in the carbon-based life form tissues. It's a circular argument. Either we eat carbon containing life forms and release CO2 rather than allowing them just to die, decay and release CO2. Or parts of some plants sequester more CO2 in their structures because we don't harvest them as an alternative to us eating some plant parts and sequestering carbon in our bodies.
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  23. Exactly, RSVP, it's a global problem, eyes are on the U.S. to show a serious willingness to get a grip on this problem, a hurdle for international accord. Our current batch of Senators for various reasons found themselves unable to follow the lead of the President and House and actually finish a specific response to C02 as a unique policy challenge. Happily, a little over 35 years ago a different President and Congress promulgated legislation that addresses the issue, as the EPA has proposed and the Supreme Court has affirmed. The EPA reflects durable wisdom and foresight encapsulated in law. It all has quite a bit to do with politics. We're not supposed to talk about politics here, but this particular thread of discussion is about policy, and policy in the United States is the sausage emerging from legislative politics. By the way, without having read the EPA's justification for tackling C02 there's no way anybody's going to produce usefully informed specific comment on this. Insightful generalities about the boundaries of the term "pollution," maybe, productive criticism of the EPA, no.
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  24. RSVP #70: "Breathing does increase CO2 levels in direct proportion to the increase in population." An increase in human population increases the amount of carbon cycling through humans... but not the total amount of carbon in active circulation. It can't. There is no possible way that we could exhale more carbon than we take in... unless you are arguing that human beings spontaneously generate carbon atoms. Indeed, since our bodies are partially composed of carbon and most humans bury their dead, living humans are a carbon sink on the decadal scale and dead humans a carbon sink on the millenial scale. So far as our bodies alone are concerned humans are a net carbon sink. Thus, no... the fact that excessive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere (and thus carbonic acid in the oceans) constitute pollution (i.e. are harmful to the environment) does not mean that the EPA is going to be able to order executions. Setting aside the sheer insanity of the claim... it simply wouldn't accomplish anything. It is human industry which is causing rising atmospheric CO2 levels... digging up carbon which has been stored away in fossil fuels for millions of years and reintroducing it to active circulation.
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  25. I detect a small problem in turning to the US Supreme Court as an arbiter on these issues. The Court has a chequered record: See the Dredd Scott decision, which had momentous consequences. Courts deal with the law but don't do a very good job of science and morality.
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  26. Chris in this case we're not looking at an issue freighted with mutating, evolving attitudes to race relations, etc., deep questions of ethics or morality. The Supreme Court was confronted with facts of science posed against facts of existing law and regulation; the Court was asked to determine if the matter of C02 was within the purview of the Clean Air Act. It was a pretty mundane decision compared to Brown vs. Board of Education etc. Regarding the sometimes spotty record of the Supreme Court, perfect it isn't but there's no substitute, it's the destination for questions turning on what folks see as fine points of law. We can expect for those unhappy with the disposition of facts to mount an effort to change those facts by changing the law. They may well be able to change the facts of the law, the real trouble is they cannot legislate physics.
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  27. Doug, the Court in Dredd Scott looked at what seemed equally mundane questions to many at the time in question - did it have the requisite jurisdiction, could citizens be deprived of their property, and the like. I agree with you 100% that a Court can't legislate on the laws of physics. I'm sure you're every bit as unhappy as I am about Cuccinelli's efforts. However, you seem to be happy to involve the Courts when you happen to agree with a specific outcome. I could think of far better substitutes for the Supreme Court. Robust and honest debate conducted in a spirit of mutual respect. Practical actions such as not stuffing my mail box each day with a mass of advertising which goes straight into recycling thus saving a few forests - good carbon sinks. Walking or cycling to and from work. I'm sure you could come up with a lengthy list of other useful interventions which carry minimal cost but which if everyone did them would have substantial impacts.
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  28. #70:"Breathing does increase CO2 levels in direct proportion to the increase in population. " That is provably false. US population increased in 2009, yet CO2 emissions decreased. See the breathing thread for a reference.
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  29. CBDunkerson #74 "An increase in human population increases the amount of carbon cycling through humans... but not the total amount of carbon in active circulation." This is correct. Therefore, had alterative non-combustion forms of energy been harnessed for the entire Industrial Revolution (if this were even possible), and if the population somehow still grew as it did, then there would be less CO2 in the atmosphere since it would have been sequestered by the growth pattern, and I assume the world would be cooler according to AGW. With a cooling world, farming would be hampered some and therefore less prone to growth. Again, its very hard to imagine how heavy industries could have emerged historically without fossil fuels (nearly impossible even with current technologies, which of course did not exist). At any rate, my point was that fossil fuels have primed the system, and the carbon is out there. Not only "out there", but as hard as it may be to accept, and quite ironic, our own bodies contain this "anthropogenic" carbon.
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    Moderator Response: Please discuss the role of human metabolism in Earth's climate at the "Does breathing contribute to CO2 buildup in the atmosphere?" thread.
  30. chriscanaris tries to find fault with the US Supreme Court's decision that yes, the US EPA has the authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. While I normally find his comments enlightening and thought-provoking, this one seems to be a bit of an exception. Suggesting that the Court's clearly objectionable 1857 Dredd Scott decision somehow casts doubt on its judgment in the current case would seem to be the perfect example of argumentum ad hominem. In fact, it's even worse than the normal employment of ad hominem insofar as the individuals on the current USSC had nothing to do with the Dredd Scott decision. It's also worth considering that, if you look at US history, the constituency whose interests Taney et al. were promoting (conservative southern whites) is the same core constituency that the opponents of emissions regulation are serving. A map of opposition to government meddling in slavery in 1857 would look a lot like a map of opposition to regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 (I'm not trying to suggest that "AGW skeptics" are somehow equivalent to plantation owners, merely pointing out how spectacularly poor chriscanaris's analogy is.)
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  31. Oops, I'm in nearly complete disagreement with you, Chris, in particular with your speculation on my comfort with and commitment to our system of government. Presumably you're upset with my employment of the word "happily." It sounds as though you've misconstrued my happiness, or I communicated it poorly. Serves me right for daring to use such an emotional adjective, eh? Also, you don't agree with me that courts can't legislate physics. I didn't say that, and in any case courts don't legislate. As you've volunteered to speculate on my personality, I'll offer in return that your writing is better when it does not sound so eager. Getting back to the matter at hand, your reply was arranged around abstract politics largely to the exclusion of the facts being discussed in this thread. If you want to continue down that path here I won't be able to follow you. Have at it if you must.
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  32. chriscanaris wrote : "I could think of far better substitutes for the Supreme Court. Robust and honest debate conducted in a spirit of mutual respect. Practical actions such as not stuffing my mail box each day with a mass of advertising which goes straight into recycling thus saving a few forests - good carbon sinks. Walking or cycling to and from work." Where would such a debate take place ? Why should firms suffer the loss of income gained from that advertising ? Where are they going to get the replacement income from ? How many people actually recycle that advertising ? What is a "good carbon sink" and where might they be put ? What about those who can't walk or cycle to work ?
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  33. "Supreme" Court. Does this word tell you something, chriscanaris?
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    Moderator Response: Please, everybody, no more on the Supreme Court.
  34. Ned: Ad hominem? No. I assume most people make the decisions they do in good faith. They sometimes get things wrong as no doubt you believe I have today. Unfortunately, as one who's had a fair bit to do with courts as an expert witness, I have a somewhat jaundiced view of our Anglo-Saxon adversarial court system even when judges do the best they can. However, judges are also constrained by the evidence placed before them. In this instance, I have no quarrel whatsoever with the Supreme Court's rulings - I think they had sound reasons for viewing anthropogenic CO2 as a pollutant. Doug: You used the word 'legislate.' Technically you're right - elected legislators legislate or make law while courts interpret legislation. In interpreting legislation, however, Courts create legal precedents (effectively clarifying law and in some instances giving it novel expression) which can only be overturned by specific legislation. Doug: I'm not speculating on your personality. Again, I always assume you are contributing here in good faith and with good will. However, I thought you were being inconsistent which all of us, myself included, inevitably sometimes are. I may be wrong, of course. JMurphy: I think this site is a superb forum for debate which is consistently stimulating and thought provoking. We could do with more such spaces. As for revenue suffered by firms from loss of advertising, I can count on my fingers the number of times I have purchased items based on unsolicited mail. The sheer inefficiency and waste for so little revenue with such substantial environmental impacts does upset me. Cutting down trees to turn them into pulp for advertising is certainly not my idea of a carbon sink. Using energy for unnecessary production of paper is not a good carbon sink. What's worse, you're probably right - much of that paper never goes into recycling but ends up in landfill. As for those who can't walk or cycle, Sydney has been crying out for thirty years for a better public transport system - no government of any stripe seems willing or able to take defective action. It'd be great to see fewer cars on our roads. Not no cars - just fewer cars and more efficient cars.
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  35. Sorry Moderator, I didn't see your comment while I was posting.
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  36. Here's a graph showing CO2 levels over the past 800,000 years, compared to the current concentration (around 390 ppm) and the range of projected concentrations in 2100 based on the various IPCC scenarios: CO2 concentrations in the Dome C, Vostok, and Law Dome ice cores, for the past 800,000 years (purple line). Atmospheric concentrations 1959-present shown in orange line at right, with current (2010) value of 390 ppm indicated by dashed line. Red circles indicate range of projected CO2 concentrations in 2100. This might provide some context for the importance of regulating CO2 emissions. Failure to limit emissions would shift the chemistry of the atmosphere to a condition certainly not seen in the past 800,000 years and probably not for quite a long time before that.
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  37. Ned (#86), Great graph! I am sick of all those graphs that exaggerate effects by suppressing the zero. doug_bostrom (#63), I have to admit that you do your home work. The EPA probably imagines it has covered its vulnerable extremities with all that verbiage. I bet there is even more documentation to justify the mandatory addition of ethanol to our gasoline. EPA initiatives intended to improve the environment are often wrong headed and costly. The EPA's reputation will soon be on the level of the Department of Education. Come to think of it.....that is a good thing.
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  38. chriscanaris, unlike CO2 in the atmosphere, which mainly causes problems and so needs to be regulated, junk mail mainly leads to profits and jobs, and is already regulated : Direct marketing generates £205 billion in annual sales for UK Plc
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  39. GC, the majority of the EPA's "verbiage" as you describe it is an exhaustive recap of the myriad scientific details justifying policy. In other words, EPA is demonstrating a compelling case. What's really ironic and kind of funny in light of your word choice is that many more pages of what many of us think of when we use the term "verbiage" were donated by "skeptics," forcing the EPA to explain again the science behind the policy. The comments portion is an exhaustive encyclopedia of wrong thinking about climate science and science in general. I'm guessing you made that blunder because your odd attitude to government did not permit you to actually visit and read any of that information. Your other remark about EPA is just vacuous. I know you can do better; I've seen it.
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  40. gallopingcamel writes: Ned (#86), Great graph! I am sick of all those graphs that exaggerate effects by suppressing the zero. Thank you. There is no definitive rule for what's appropriate in scaling graph axes. In some cases, extending the axis to 0 is appropriate. In other cases, it merely serves to obscure information that could be presented more clearly by a different choice. In this case, the Y axis needs to cover the range from below 180 to around 1000 ppm. Given that range, there's no particular cost to extending the Y axis down to 0. In general, humans are often able to extract the most information about the shape of a graph when it is scaled such that the absolute values of line segments are centered around 45 degrees (W.S. Cleveland, The Elements of Graphing Data [1994]; discussed in E. Tufte, Envisioning Information [1997], p. 25).
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  41. GC #87 EPA initiatives intended to improve the environment are often wrong headed and costly. I've asked it before, and I'll ask it again. What is it with "skeptics" and argument by assertion? If you want to make this case, you need to demonstrate -- not just announce -- that the EPA's policies are "often" wrong and costly. It'd also be helpful to provide hard evidence that EPA policies routinely lead to worse outcomes than doing nothing. None of that would demonstrate that they're wrong on CO2, of course, any more than Dred Scott demonstrates that the SCOTUS is wrong on CO2. But at least your argument would have a little bit of substance, as opposed to none.
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  42. Also, Doug hits the ball out of the park in this comment: What's really ironic and kind of funny in light of your word choice is that many more pages of what many of us think of when we use the term "verbiage" were donated by "skeptics," forcing the EPA to explain again the science behind the policy. The comments portion is an exhaustive encyclopedia of wrong thinking about climate science and science in general. Exactly. The reason the EPA's document is so lengthy is that they made their scientists sit down and write patient, careful responses to every single objection or criticism, no matter how ill-founded. The end result is actually rather reminiscent of Skeptical Science itself, as has been pointed out previously.
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  43. I'm finding that as I learn more I have less to say. Most of what I would say has already been said, in particular the comments relating to how something can be a pollutant merely by being out balance with what the current biological systems have adapted to, and the mind-numbing verbiage that are the critiques and responses to every comment the EPA received. GCamel, I suggest you read them before guessing what they might say. Then, if you are feeling industrious, find an independent, reliable source like a university science web site or physics and/or chemistry textbook to find confirming or controverting evidence. I'm trying to think of an analogy to CO2 being a pollutant that hasn't been used before, that would also strike home for the average person. Digoxin was pretty close, but while I happen to know what it is, not everyone does. It is a insidious because it is present naturally and its harmful effects are indirect. Like good old sodium chloride (table salt), it's required for life, but if someone were dumping some on my yard I be a bit peeved. But that doesn't work well because CO2 levels have to be very high before they become directly toxic. CFCs are relatively close because the harmful effects are indirect, but CFCs don't really occur naturally, at least in any quantity that I'm aware of. So, I'm still searching.
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  44. Note that I also made a point of listing the EPA's references for their responses to the skeptic 'verbiage' (USGCRP, IPCC, and NRC) in anticipiation that certain individuals would dismiss their findings offhand, as gallopingcamel did.
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  45. ChrisG, the mental trick being exploited by opponents of regulation of CO2 as a pollutant is that of getting people to think of toxicity, when the threat is physical and has nothing to do with our own metabolisms. Even the ocean acidification issue is mostly not metabolic per se, more a matter of unfavorable physical chemistry. The pollution issue w/CO2 analogizes reasonably well to that of chlorofluorocarbons and stratospheric ozone. The pollution threat in both cases is not toxicity but physical effects. Ozone and CO2 are both just trace gases; seemingly small concentrations of both gases produce notable physical effects if they're changed much. If the ozone at typical concentrations from top to bottom of the atmosphere was concentrated at the bottom of the atmosphere we'd have a wee layer of ozone 3mm thick. That little 3mm turned out to be a big deal; maintaining a ridiculously small but vital amount of gas caused quite an upheaval but was absolutely necessary. Do the exercise with C02 and we get something like 1000 times the thickness, around 3m. Thinking of 3m of C02 and what it does to keep things warm, it's easier to understand why increasing that thickness to 4 or 6 meters is actually quite a change. Denying that increasing the thickness of C02 in the atmosphere by 50 or 100% will produce a change means you have to either take the simple-minded perspective that CO2 produces little or no greenhouse effect, or you need to invoke CO2 is saturated magic. Fossil fuels are dangerously defective when considered from the perspective of the physical threat posed by their emissions. We've dealt with a similar situation before, on a global scale.
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  46. Thanks Doug, that's just about exactly where I was going, only with more detail than I could summon out of my brain. Except, as I understand it, the metabolic processes of forams are pretty much physical chemistry. Ocean acidification is in the process of severely stressing ecosystems that are already under extreme duress through over-fishing, destruction of habitat, and other pollutants. The decline in every major fishery in the world is already a problem. As the oceans turn from an environment well suited for forams to one perhaps more suited to jellyfish, it's not clear what the hundreds of millions of people, who are currently dependent on the ocean as their major food source, will be eating.
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  47. Chris G (at 03:03 AM on 6 October, 2010) Would a suitable comparison be the use of lead in plumbing. The human body can tolerate some very low of lead but will suffer increasingly bad symptoms if continually exposed to lead levels . The use of lead in plumbing bought many benefits for many centuries but in the long run we've come to realise it was a bad idea to release large quantities into our atmosphere and water supply.
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  48. I think the best comparison would be to ozone. It's life-supporting as the ozone layer; screening out UV. But high levels of ozone at low altitude are part of smog, and are pollution. So both level and location of ozone make the difference between life-supporting loveliness and nasty pollutant - for the same gas.
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  49. Another analogy to CO2 as a pollutant is excessive phosphorus loading from fertilizer applications in agricultural landscapes. Phosphorus (and nitrogen, and other nutrients) are necessary for plant growth. But excess nutrients in the soil will be mobilized and find their way into rivers and lakes, leading to harmful algae blooms and long-term declines in water quality. Many agricultural soils in the US Midwest have a century or more's worth of excess phosphorus, thanks to years of over-application.
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  50. Yeah, ChrisG, I suppose it's not really possible to establish a p-chem border between the outside of the smaller marine critters and plants and their insides. I'm actually a little behind the curve on integrating the dismal story of the ocean food farm/mine into my picture. As you suggest the direct pressure of takings is already a bad scene. If we're not only attacking the upper part of the foodchain but also the bottom, it's hard to see a good end. Still, I think that struggling to model toxicity against C02 for us air-breathers is a hard row to hoe. Knock-on effects of accepted physics seem to be the main issue up here in our part of the terrarium.
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