When Natural Things Are Pollutants

The EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions is nowhere to be found in the Clean Air Act of 1970, the law that established the current regulatory regiment in the area of the environment and the EPA.  At that time, carbon dioxide was not on the radar of the list of air pollutants.  The problem lies in the broad definition of air pollutants in the original Act which then gives the EPA wide latitude to then add substances to the list of air pollutants.  The EPA must first make a determination that human emissions of the substance create a human health hazard and at what levels they become hazards.  Emissions of mercury, for example, are known to cause harm to human health and we can all agree with that determination.  However, small level exposure to mercury does not necessarily cause harm.  Repeated low level exposure or even a single high level exposure can cause harm.  It is up to the scientists at the EPA to determine the appropriate levels based on the best science at the time.  Once a finding is made, they can then regulate the pollutant.

The EPA is required to annually publish a list of air pollutants that they believe cause or contribute to air pollution that may cause damage to public health or welfare.  The first test of whether carbon dioxide fits this criteria was a Supreme Court case- Massachusetts vs. EPA.  Contrary to popular belief, Massachusetts at the time sued the EPA to force them to mandate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.  The Bush EPA had refused to do so.  The Bush administration had argued that they had no authority to do so under a strict interpretation of the Clean Air Act.  The Court ruled that the definition was broad enough that it allowed the EPA to do so, if it so wanted.

There is a common misconception about this case which the environmental Left usually trots out.  They argue that even a conservative Supreme Court has acknowledged the fact that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and could be regulated as such by the EPA.  The Supreme Court ruled no such thing.  This was a case of statutory interpretation- nothing more, nothing less.  The Supreme Court is not some panel of scientific experts to make these decisions.

Even despite losing the case against Massachusetts, the EPA under Bush refused to list carbon dioxide as a pollutant.  This underscores the political nature of climate change.  It was only after a change in administrations that the EPA suddenly had an epiphany- based on the same evidence the Bush EPA had at the time- that carbon dioxide was a pollutant and could be regulated.  All things equal, the only thing that changed was the political party in power.  In 2010 when the GOP won control of the House, several efforts were made legislatively to remove carbon dioxide from the list of pollutants.  Although those efforts passed in the House, they went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

This writer has no problems with naturally occurring substances being classified as pollutants.  Mercury occurs naturally.  Sulfur dioxide occurs naturally.  And no one has any problems with human emissions of these substances being regulated by the EPA.  The problem is the extent to which carbon dioxide increases are caused by humans, whether it is necessarily a risk to public health or welfare, and alternative explanations for alleged atmospheric increases and their predicted effects.

There is ample geological evidence to prove that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been higher in the past absent any human activity.  The now discounted hockey stick graph is based on evidence from tree rings which indicate a rapid increase in carbon dioxide in the past 50 years.  Everyone assumes this is due to rapid post-World War II industrialization and automobile emissions; that is, the increased levels are attributable to human activity.  However, using those very same tree rings, it shows that there was higher carbon dioxide levels way before the Industrial Revolution and, ironically, it predicts that there has been a general cooling of the planet over the past 200 years.  In other words, a spike in global temperatures, but generally a cooling period.  Likewise, ice core samples from a variety of locations have also demonstrated higher carbon dioxide levels in the past than that which exists now without human production of the gas.

We have heard the oft-cited evidence that there has been no warming of the earth in the past 15 years.  Conservative assertions of this nature to deny climate change, however, is akin to the Left’s assertions to the contrary.  Over-reliance on these facts tarnish the overall argument- that the earth regularly heats and cools down and has been happening for millions of years as the geologic record proves.  It also proves that man has significantly NOT been a contributor to this natural phenomena.  The Left claims that earth’s average temperature has increased 2% over the past 50 years.  It has.  However, that is the average surface temperature, not atmospheric temperature and it is the atmosphere that determines weather and climate, although surface temperatures play a role in a complex, misunderstood cycle.  We do not live “in the atmosphere.”

There certainly is evidence that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased over the last 50 years overall, but the question is to what extent those levels are attributable to humans.  We do know that naturally occurring carbon dioxide emissions are reabsorbed at roughly the same rate they have in the historical past.  We also know that about 50% of what humans produce is adequately sucked out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis.  Hence, 75% of all carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere is adequately eliminated by natural phenomena, mainly photosynthesis.  If we want to decrease levels even more, plant more trees!

The fact is that the environmental Left blames human-produced carbon dioxide levels on any evidence of global warming because they lack other explanations.  In the many models they use to prove its existence, for example, they cannot control for atmospheric water vapor levels which are known to have an even greater effect than carbon dioxide levels on climate and weather.  Part of the problem is that we have had the ability to measure atmospheric water vapor levels for only a short period of time.  It is only with the advent of satellites and upper level weather balloons that we have any data and that data is only about 60 years old- a millisecond on the earth’s clock.

Perhaps this is why if you were to look up any article on global climate change, the environmentalist view will always refer you to other environmentalist sites to the exclusion of skeptical sites, or even independent sites.  They will inevitably cite the “consensus” of the IPCC which states with “95% confidence” that increased carbon dioxide levels and all the associated negative effects to be expected are caused by humans.  It is why they then place the finger of blame at the industrialized West to correct what (1) may be naturally-occurring phenomena that (2) may actually have not the predicted dire results.

They conveniently leave out perhaps the most important fact in this whole discussion.  Current carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere average 385 parts per million.  That, according to the scientific geological record, is historically low.  They leave out the fact that the earth’s climate is an extremely complex and chaotic system beyond their ability to fathom other than in computer models with no predictive value.  The earth has been around for billions of years and has regularly gone through climate cycles whether man was present or not.  If anything, the real scientific record shows that the earth is clearly adaptable to these changes with or without the EPA.