Carbon Dioxide, the Staff of Life
Jude Wanniski
June 19, 2001


Memo To: Ceci Connally, The Washington Post
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Picking on You

When I e-mailed you yesterday after hearing you expound on global warming on FoxNewsSunday with Tony Snow, it was not to single you out for criticism. It was simply that I finally decided I had to intervene on this topic after watching so many other reporters make the same mistake. I understand that it is very difficult to become an expert on every issue in public discussion when you are asked to offer opinions on these talk shows. It is really almost impossible for political reporters to become expert on public policy issues that are technical in nature. In preparing for the show, after you are told the topic will come up, you read the major papers and rely upon the work of the reporters assigned to that beat. You must assume that if The New York Times assigns a reporter to cover global warming, and the reporter refers to carbon dioxide as a “pollutant,” that he must know what he is talking about. It is not always true. In this case, it is a horrendous mistake for Andrew Revkin to be repeatedly making, to the point where I have privately urged editors at the NYT to assign him to another beat.

As I wrote yesterday, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Ask almost any high school science teacher and they will tell you that life on earth would not be possible without carbon dioxide. The process by which the sun’s rays interact with carbon dioxide produces all the things that grow in the earth, which are then converted by living things into the calories they need to sustain themselves. Do you remember the word “photosynthesis”? What it amounts to, Ceci, is that when you take a breath, you convert oxygen into carbon dioxide, which you exhale into the atmosphere. Plants and trees and grass do not breathe oxygen. The Creator arranged for them to breathe in the carbon dioxide that you exhaled, and convert it to oxygen, which means as long as the cycle continues, you will be able to breathe. And so will all the animals and all the birds and all the reptiles and all the insects and all the fish. Carbon dioxide does you no good, or bad, when you inhale it, although is part of the gaseous mixture you do inhale. Unless there is zero relative humidity, which never happens, you also are breathing in water molecules that contain hydrogen. Your body recognizes the CO2 and expels it along with the new CO2 created when the oxygen you do inhale oxidizes the carbs you have eaten, courtesy of photosynthesis. It is not good to inhale a gaseous mixture containing oxygen, carbon dioxide and tars and nicotine, because as the Surgeon General warns, such a mixture can cause cancer. But the CO2 is definitely not part of that warning.

Now the environmentalists insist that CO2 is causing the earth to warm, and that this occurs not only because of your breath, but also because of the oxidization of petroleum and coal that occurs when we drive our cars and heat our homes and turn bauxite into aluminum. The reason they single out CO2 is that they can blame it on mankind, when that is impossible when it comes to all the other gases that make up the greenhouse mixture in the atmosphere. And do not forget that we need greenhouse gases to insulate the earth. If there were no atmosphere, the sun’s radiation would not be modulated between night and day and Mother Earth would cook and freeze.

If you take the trouble to figure out the various components of the greenhouse gases that insulate Mother Earth, you would find scientists more or less agreeing that the CO2 component is very small. How small? Well, most of the gases are water vapors that hover above the oceans and the clouds that hover over the lands. The political greenies cannot ask that an Act of Congress be passed to eliminate the oceans or the clouds, so they get a pass. The trees and grass that die each year in season also produce carbon dioxide as they are oxidized. That’s another chunk of the greenhouse stuff. There are a zillion termites on earth and these little guys oxidize a great deal of carbon. Methane is yet another source of insulation. This comes to us courtesy of the flatulence of cows, although other animals chip in as well. In terms of producing CO2, remember that 6 billion human beings inhaling and exhaling all around the clock do not even register on the CO2 scale. Insects contribute 10 times as much CO2. They may be teeny, but all the insects on earth weigh ten times as much as all the humans. When you throw in all the lions and tigers and bears and horses and squirrels and birds, the human contribution really is insignificant.

But what about the smokestacks and tailpipes? Well, Ceci, I went to the trouble of adding up all the greenhouse gases, as provided in Gregg Easterbrook’s excellent book, A Moment on the Earth, and then converted the total volume to a linear scale. That’s so you can get a better sense of mankind’s total annual contribution. That is, I wondered if there were one mile of greenhouse gas, how much of that would be the result of all of man’s doing. I found that out of 5,280 feet, mankind contributes five-eighths of an inch. And this is what all the fuss is about at Kyoto. Do you see why I got so worked up yesterday when you made the comment that CO2 is a pollutant, and the United States is the biggest polluter of all?