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Public Misled About Carbon Pollution

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The Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have recently produced a television ad that depicts children suffering from asthma while attributing their plight to “air pollutants like carbon, mercury, and soot.” Politico reported yesterday that these groups are running the ad in swing states and spending seven figures to do so.

Similarly, the American Lung Association is touting a new poll regarding the Obama administration’s soon-to-be released “clean air standards for carbon pollution emitted by power plants.” The poll shows that 72% of voters support these standards.

The advertisement and poll concern noxious air pollutants. Yet, these organizations (and many like them) use the very same terminology to refer to carbon dioxide (CO2), which academic texts clearly describe as a “relatively nonreactive and nontoxic” gas that is “vital to life” and “does not cause cancer, affect development or suppress the immune system in humans.”

Activists often lump CO2 with highly toxic pollutants (like carbon monoxide and black carbon) by using the catch-all phrase, “carbon pollution.” Media heavyweights, including the New York Times, Associated Press, Washington Post, Reuters, and ABC News have also referred to CO2 using such verbiage.

Furthermore, natural emissions of CO2 outweigh man-made emissions by a factor of twenty to one, and CO2 is a welcome output of automotive catalytic converters, which the EPA describes as an “anti-pollution device” that converts “exhaust pollutants … to normal atmospheric gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water.”The word “pollution” conjures up images of smokestacks emitting plumes of soot, a black-colored carbon-based substance that can cause cancer. In contrast, carbon dioxide is generally colorless, odorless, and again, nontoxic; hardly the type of substance that springs to mind when hearing the word “pollution.”

Regardless of these facts, from an advocacy standpoint, it is more effective to lobby against “carbon pollution” rather than “carbon dioxide.” Also, by interchangeably using the term “carbon pollution” for generally nontoxic and also highly toxic substances, references to these substances are inevitably conflated by the average voter.

A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists has argued that it is appropriate to refer to carbon dioxide as a pollutant because the Supreme Court ruled (in 2007, by a 5-4 margin) that the EPA could regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act’s expansive definition of pollution. This, however, is not a license to use these words in ways that create misleading impressions.

There are more than ten million different carbon compounds, and grouping highly dissimilar carbon compounds under the term “carbon pollution” is as misleading as grouping a highly explosive gas like hydrogen (H2) with water (H2O) under the term “hydrogen pollution.” For those who might object that water could never be considered a pollutant under any reasonable interpretation of the term, it is worth noting that water vapor contributes multiplicatively more to the earth’s greenhouse effect than CO2.

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