- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fueled by doomsday climate-change predictions, Democratic lawmakers want to slap strict limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, the Obama administration has designated the gas a pollutant and President Obama boasted to the United Nations that “we know what needs to be done” in curtailing CO2 pollution.

But geologist H. Leighton Steward says they got it all wrong: Carbon dioxide is good for planet Earth. Forget capping CO2 emissions, he says, and forget the consensus of the mainstream scientific establishment — just keep pumping more of it into the atmosphere, and the world’s plants and trees will blossom and multiply.

The contrarian Mr. Steward, an award-winning environmentalist and former energy industry executive who also authored the best-selling “Sugar Busters” diet book, met privately with various lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week to make his case with charts, graphs and the evidence from thousands of scientific studies.

“People think I’m crazy,” he said as he prepared for a sit-down with a top House Republican. “But after I’m finished, they come around pretty well because I’m just talking about the evidence, the science of it.”

Scientific critics say Mr. Steward has taken a small truth and expanded it into a major misconception.

Arvydas P. Grybauskas, associate professor of plant science at the University of Maryland at College Park, said allowing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase unabated may benefit plant life in the short run but could pose risks, not the least of which would be catastrophic global warming.

“Yes, plants need CO2. It is the basic building block of photosynthesis,” he said. “However, it is only part of the picture. It is not a smart thing to do in and of itself just because plants will respond a little better.”

Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council dismissed Mr. Steward’s theories about carbon dioxide and climate change. “This debate has been settled and scored,” he said.

“I think questioning the official line is a hallowed American tradition that we should all celebrate. But there is a point where you are basically denying the facts that are before our very eyes,” Mr. Deans said, noting the massive loss of Arctic ice and the increased prevalence of drought, severe weather and wildfires, which are all blamed on climate change.

Such skepticism doesn’t faze Mr. Steward.

He also breaks with most in the scientific community by arguing in his recent book “Fire, Ice and Paradise” that carbon dioxide is not a major factor contributing to climate change. He says that not only would efforts to cut CO2 emissions be bad for plant life, it would not stop the current warming trend on Earth.

If all that sounds like so much spin from the smokestack lobby, Mr. Steward insists the foundation he represents, PlantsNeedCO2.org, is financed by a “group of individuals” and not his former colleagues in the oil and gas industry.

Mr. Steward acknowledged that he serves as an “honorary director” of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby, and is on the board of directors of EOG Resources, an offshoot of the defunct Enron Oil and Gas Co.

He earned more than $617,000 from EOG Resources in 2008, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch Web site. Mr. Steward said he did not receive a salary from the company last year and the earnings likely were an increase in his company stock.

“I’m not getting a penny for doing this,” he said. “I just think we are getting ready to waste a couple of trillion dollars trying to lower CO2 content and it is not going to have any effect on temperature.”

At the core of Mr. Steward’s pro-CO2 theory is a lesson most people learned in grade school science class. Plants consume carbon dioxide in the photosynthesis process by which they grow. In other words, carbon dioxide is the food plants eat.

Carbon dioxide is a natural component of the Earth’s atmosphere. Human beings exhale CO2 with every breath, Mr. Steward noted.

He cited research that showed increasing the amount of this “plant food” in the atmosphere — say, by burning more fossil fuels — causes a significant increase in plant growth.

For instance, the grains barley, rice and wheat experienced a mean increase in growth of 36.3 percent with an additional 300 part-per-million (PPM) of CO2 in the atmosphere — about twice as much as current levels. That additional CO2 also resulted in a 70 percent increase in growth for cottonwood, maple, oak and pine trees, according to PlantsNeedCO2.org.

Mr. Steward’s data indicated that since the Industrial Revolution began about 1860 — as the dark plumes from smokestacks and tailpipes helped boost the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by about 150 PPM to the current level of about 380 PPM — plant growth increased by 12 percent and tree growth by 18 percent.

“That’s one reason that when people look at the satellite [images], they say, ‘Gee golly, Earth is still as green as it ever was even though we are chopping down all these forests in the Amazon and we are chopping down and clear-cutting and burning,” Mr. Steward said.

Eben Burnham-Snyder, spokesman for the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said Mr. Steward is barking up the wrong tree.

“The tenor of the conversation on Capitol Hill is not about the science of global warming. It is not about whether CO2 is good or not. It is about how are we going to address controlling carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and most people know that this is a problem,” Mr. Burnham-Snyder said.

There is a clear majority in the scientific climatological community who say that human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, is behind the rapid increase in global average temperatures over the past several decades.

Mr. Steward argues that the majority is simply wrong, as do many respected scientists.

“CO2 is a greenhouse gas. It is being increased in the atmosphere,” he said. “The Earth has continued to warm some, and ‘continued’ is a very strong and pertinent statement there, because the globe has been warming for 300 years, not just the last 25 or 30 years. … I don’t see a carbon fingerprint there.”

He points to analysis of ice core samples from Antarctica that show that increases in CO2 levels in the atmosphere follow temperature changes, evidence that he says refutes arguments for a cause-effect relationship between carbon dioxide and climate change.

Other studies show that the ability of CO2 to trap additional heat declines very rapidly as the amount of carbon dioxide increases. If CO2 were allowed to build up, he said, its effect on climate change would steadily diminish.

But Mr. Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council countered that “there is no doubt that global temperatures are increasing,.”

“The towering edifice of research data, knowledge [and] hundreds if not thousands of reports has correlated the connection between that and the rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels,” he said.

Mr. Steward said he wasn’t lobbying senators and congressmen in a bid to thwart climate-change legislation. Not really.

“I’m just saying, ‘You don’t need to do it.’ And then I told them, ‘Actually, if we allow the carbon dioxide level to build up, we will be doing the plant kingdom, the food thing, the ecosystems, the thing for the animals, we’ll be letting all that really take off.’”

Mr. Steward said he knew the odds for him to win the climate-change debate were not very good.

“But I’m going to give it a shot,” he said. “I’m not working for anybody. I don’t report to anybody. I don’t have a job at risk. I’m just calling it the way I see it.”

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