Carbon dioxide is a pollutant, and don't let the deniers tell you otherwise, says Slate writer Phil Plait.
A recent New York Post op-ed by physicists William Happer and Rod Nichols praised the Supreme Court for delaying the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which would create the country's first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Happer and Nichols' main argument: burning fossil fuels brings more good than harm, because carbon dioxide (CO2) is "emphatically NOT a 'pollutant,'" and in fact we need much more of it to help plants and agriculture.
In a February 18 column, Plait ripped into this "ridiculous," "in-your-face wrong" claim as a "typical denier distraction technique, trying to downplay or distract you from what's really going on." He noted that while some carbon dioxide is necessary for plant life, burning fossil fuels and thus releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is warming up the globe "too quickly for many living things to adapt." Carbon pollution is causing rapid changes to the Earth's climate, and, as Plait explained, that speed is the "danger; the rate at which we are heating the planet is unprecedented."
Yet conservative media pundits and science deniers commonly glorify carbon dioxide. Post op-ed co-author Happer has previously praised carbon in The Wall Street Journal and on CNBC, where he compared the "demonization" of carbon dioxide to the "demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler."
And this talking point is actually becoming more common among fossil fuel industry front groups. A 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that organizations that have received corporate funding -- as Happer's organization, the CO2 Coalition, has -- have become more likely in recent years to publish "contrarian texts" touting "the positive benefits of CO2":
As Plait noted, the "dangerously naïve" claim that carbon dioxide is beneficial "ignores huge, overwhelming issues" associated with global warming, such as severe drought and deadly storms. He likened making this claim to "being happy the paint job on your car is nice as you drive toward a brick wall at full speed with your eyes closed." He concluded (emphasis original):
Don't let the deniers fool you. They cherry-pick, they leave out inconvenient facts, they focus on minutiae, and they steamroll anyone who disagrees.
More carbon dioxide is not a good thing. It's extremely dangerous. Anyone telling you otherwise is blowing hot air.