Monday, February 4, 2008

While speaking in support of his wife’s presidential bid in Denver on Wednesday, Bill Clinton advocated “a post carbon energy future,” because “everyone knows that global warming is real.” This echoes Hillary Clinton’s plans to reduce “carbon pollution,” “to move from a carbon based economy” so Americans can “shrink their carbon footprint.”

This is a common theme among most of the remaining candidates. As cosponsor of the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, Barack Obama wants to “reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.” John McCain advocates “a mandatory cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions” and wants utilities to “capture carbon” and store it underground.

What on Earth is all that about? ‘Carbon’ is a solid, naturally occurring, nontoxic element found in all living things. Carbon forms thousands of compounds, much more than any other element. Everything from medicines to trees to oil to our own bodies are made of carbon compounds.

However, pure carbon occurs in nature mainly in only two forms: graphite and diamonds.

So, are Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain and the Clintons proposing that we trade in our high-graphite pencils for lower-graphite ones? Or do they want us to bury diamond jewelry because, as ex-President Clinton implored his audience, “We’ve got to save the planet for our grandchildren?” Perhaps they are speaking about soot emissions reduction since ‘amorphous carbon’ (i.e. carbon without structure) is the main ingredient in soot, certainly a pollutant worth reducing.

What is really being addressed is one specific compound of carbon, namely carbon dioxide (CO2). It should be “CO2 emissions,” “CO2 storage” (which has yet to be demonstrated on a large scale and poses significant risks), “CO2 emissions trading,” etc.

Ignoring the oxygen atoms and calling CO2 merely “carbon” makes about as much sense as ignoring the oxygen in water (H2O) and calling it “hydrogen.” That might be an effective PR tool for anti-hydro power campaigners but most people would regard such a communications trick as ridiculous. Equating carbon dioxide to “carbon” is no less flawed.

This is not merely an academic point but is part of how language has been distorted to bolster concerns about human-caused climate change. Calling the gas “carbon” encourages people to think of it as “pollution” or something “dirty,” like graphite or soot. Calling CO2 by its proper name would help people remember that, regardless of its role in climate change (a point of intense debate in the climate science community), carbon dioxide is really an invisible gas essential to plant photosynthesis and so all life.

University of Florida Linguist M.J. Hardman tells us (“Language and War,” 2002) that “Language is the instrument with which we form thought and feeling, mood, aspiration, will and act[ion], the instrument by whose means we influence and are influenced.”

It is not surprising then that language has become so important in today’s war of words over global warming. Like the “carbon” misnomer, phrases such as “Global warming is real,” “global warming pollution,” “we must stop climate change,” are used to frighten the public into supporting multibillion-dollar greenhouse gas reduction schemes. Global warming (and cooling) has been “real” for billions of years — so has sunrise and gravity, but that doesn’t mean humans are causing them.

And carbon dioxide, the ‘infrared absorbing gas’ blamed by climate campaigners for most of the last century’s modest warming, is no more a pollutant than is water vapor, the major “greenhouse gas” in the atmosphere. Even the “greenhouse effect” is misleading since the Earth’s atmosphere does not behave like a greenhouse. Greenhouses use a solid barrier (the glass roof) to prevent heat loss by convection yet, lacking such a barrier, convection accounts for about half the heat loss from Earth’s surface.

Language distortions like these are now so entrenched that even those who oppose fashionable beliefs about climate change use them without thinking. No wonder they are losing the debate.

Tom Harris is an Ottawa-based mechanical engineer and executive director of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project (

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