‘More carbon dioxide is good’: Latest tool in climate change deniers’ arsenal

By: anurag baruah&
August 14 2023

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‘More carbon dioxide is good’: Latest tool in climate change deniers’ arsenal

Source: Freepik (https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/view-green-forest-trees-with-co2_31481258.htm#query=Carbon&position=0&from_view=search&track=sph)

Global warming has pushed Earth’s temperatures to break all records, so much so that its inhabitants find themselves retreating into bomb shelters. The top officials of the United Nations (UN) have urged for “dramatic, immediate climate action.” Yet, those challenging the science behind climate change and its effects are coming up with novel ways of deflecting the blame.

In fact, if the climate change contrarians had their way, humans should be producing more carbon dioxide or CO2, the primary heat-trapping greenhouse gas that increases Earth’s temperature. They claim more carbon dioxide is good for the planet. 

Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, Reddit — CO2 crusaders are on all these platforms counting the supposed benefits of the greenhouse gas and trolling those who say otherwise. “More CO2 is good. It causes plants to grow better and better,” reads one post on X, “CO2 is plant food, not pollution,” claims another. “CO2 is at precariously low levels,” and the Earth is “currently in a CO2 drought,” the pro-CO2 camp proclaims. 

Social media posts claiming CO2 is plant food and is hence good for Earth. (Source: Altered by Logically Facts)

They even come prepared to engage with educators who can expose young children to the so-called "benefits" of CO2.  CO2 Coalition – a group established for the “purpose of educating thought leaders, policy makers, and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy”– went out distributing a pro-carbon comic book at a teacher’s convention in Atlanta in the U.S. earlier in March this year. Their comic book argued  that CO2 is a ‘miracle molecule’ that ‘fueled life by turning sunlight into food for plants.’ 

Is more CO2 good because it is food for plants? 

While the arguments of those advocating for more CO2 rest mainly on the fact that plants need it to exist and thus a reduction in carbon emissions poses an “existential threat," scientists are worried that the focus on only one aspect misleads people. 

Dr. Daniel Taub, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University, Texas told Logically Facts, "In itself, carbon dioxide increases the growth rate of many plants. These, of course, include weeds and pest species. And carbon dioxide does not increase the growth of all species equally, and thus can presumably influence changes to the composition of plant communities.” "The increased growth of plants with increased CO2 is also associated with decreased plant protein and mineral composition, making plants somewhat poorer food sources,” warned Dr. Taub, who has extensively researched the effect of rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 on plants, 

His assertions are echoed by other research papers as well which conclude that the carbon dioxide-triggered increase in photosynthesis, also known as the carbon fertilization effect, leads to plants taking in more carbon dioxide and less nitrogen, resulting in becoming less nutritious.  A study in 2018 also found that elevated CO2 conditions have a detrimental effect on the quality of rice, making it less nutritious, which is critical in terms of feeding the world’s population. 

Why is more CO2 not good for plants or the climate?

Even as scientists agree that CO2 is crucial for plants as it helps them produce food through the process of photosynthesis, they have maintained that increased levels of the gas not only harm the climate but are dangerous for plant life as well. The fact that CO2 is a plant food becomes irrelevant in this case, they argue. 

Prof Bill McGuire, who teaches Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College, London, told Logically Facts, “The heat and extreme weather (conditions) caused by global heating are already causing massive problems for crops. India has had to ban exports of rice due to the devastation of its harvest, the European cereal crop (production) looks like being down close to 10 percent, and drought may result in a big drop in U.S. and Canadian cereals.” There are also studies that support Prof McGuire’s arguments that temperature increase has led to a reduction in the global yield of various major crops. 

CO2 being a plant food does not absolve it of its role in causing human-induced global warming, cautioned Dr. Partha J Das, senior climate expert and head of the Water, Climate, and Hazard Division at Aaranyak, an India-based organization that works on biodiversity and ecological conservation. 

Explaining the role of CO2 Dr. Das said, “Yes, CO2 helps plants produce their food through the process of photosynthesis. But the same gas, known as the most important greenhouse gas (GHG), also has the property of absorbing the infrared radiation (IR) emitted by the Earth’s surface out of a fraction of the incoming solar radiation (insolation) falling on the Earth in the form of electromagnetic radiation in the thermal and visible range. CO2 absorbs the IR and re-radiates it back to the Earth’s surface and warms it. It is a natural process resulting in the maintenance of an optimum temperature of the lower atmosphere on Earth which is congenial for the survival of plants and organisms on Earth.” 

Dr. Das further said that the increase in CO2 from human activities has led to additional warming, which is now a matter of grave concern. “Additional amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted from anthropogenic activities over the last 200 years have caused additional warming on Earth’s surface because of the same mechanism. The capacity of greenhouse gases to absorb and re-radiate the infrared radiation back to Earth is the cause of anthropogenic global warming,” he added.  

Experts agree that the negative effects of climate change would likely outweigh any gains from elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  “The effects of increased CO2 on climate should generally be far more disruptive to plants, plant communities, and crops than any direct growth stimulation,” said Dr. Taub. He is seconded by Prof. McGuire who said, “The fact that CO2 is a plant food is completely irrelevant to its property as a potent greenhouse. At the scale we are pumping out the gas, this overcomes all and any positive benefits.”

 The pro-carbon camp claims CO2 levels are falling, and we need more of the greenhouse gas. (Source: Altered by Logically Facts)

Is carbon mis/disinformation powered by the fossil fuel industry?

Ignoring conventional scientific wisdom, CO2 crusaders advocate for more carbon emissions as they have “no adverse effects on the planet. Rather they have helped make the planet greener than ever.” This fiery zeal to make carbon the good guy makes it hard not to wonder who benefits the most from the push toward increased carbon emissions. 

In 2022, Melissa Fleming, Under Secretary General, Department of Global Communications (DGC) at the United Nations said, “Climate action is being undermined by bad actors seeking to deflect, distract, and deny efforts to save the planet. Disinformation, spread via social media, is their weapon of choice.”

A post by Steve Milloy, a CO2 advocate and founder of website JunkScience.com — which environmental activist and a columnist for The Guardian described as “the main entrepôt for almost every kind of climate-change denial”—may leave some hints. On July 26, Milloy wrote, “Thanks to fossil fuels, emissions and CO2, the planet is carrying more life than ever.”  It is important to note, that the U.N. has recognized fossil fuel as "by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions." Milloy’s own website had been allegedly funded by ExxonMobil, a multinational oil and gas corporation or, in other words, a key player in the fossil fuel industry. 

Alex Epstein, founder of the for-profit think tank Center for Industrial Progress (CIP) and promoter of the “CO2 is plant food and therefore beneficial” theory, had in 2018 admitted that one of his clients was the president of a U.S.-based coal association. 

The Charles Koch Institute, named after its founder Charles Koch – chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, which has several fossil fuel-related subsidiaries – has allegedly funded climate change denial groups for decades. The Washington Post reported that the Charles Koch Institute donated $33,000 to the CO2 Coalition in 2017. 

Quoting data sourced from tax filings by Koch family foundations, international environmental NGO Greenpeace alleged that between 2014 and 2018, CO2 Coalition had received $175,409 from the institute. However, Gregory R. Wrightstone, the executive director of CO2 Coalition, told Logically Facts that he was unaware of any direct financial support from fossil fuel companies. It is pertinent to note that Wrightstone had himself accepted that “he still occasionally takes work related to the natural gas industry, most recently consulting on a lawsuit against a gas company.” 

Wrightstone also referred to comments made by CO2 Coalition chairman Dr. William Happer and past board member Dr. Richard Lindzen. In their statements, Dr. Happer and Dr. Lindzen have argued that increased levels of carbon dioxide “improved crop harvests and an overall greening of Earth” – a claim debunked by expert opinion and scientific evidence. 

A Greenpeace sting operation in 2015 had claimed that Dr. Happer had received an  $8,000 fee from Peabody Energy, routed through the CO2 Coalition, for a Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide. Dr. Lindzen, a known climate science contrarian who has been fact-checked on multiple occasions, too, had told a U.S. district court in 2018 that he received $30,000 from Peabody Coal in connection with the hearing. 

We have also reached out to Milloy and Epstein and will update this story if and when we receive a  response.

Can we ignore the increasing carbon levels?

To fight the demonization of carbon dioxide, climate change deniers have clamored on all platforms about the supposed low levels of the gas, undermining scientific evidence. 

“The idea that carbon dioxide is dangerously low at present is utter drivel. Carbon dioxide levels are already 50 percent higher than 200 years ago, and atmospheric concentrations of the gas may actually be climbing faster than at any time in our planet's 4.6 billion-year history,” Prof McGuire said.

Agreeing with Prof McGuire, Dr. Das said, “Human-induced activities are pumping in much more CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere compared to the amount that is removed from planetary sinks like forests and oceans through natural processes. The increased concentration of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution is what has caused this unwanted enhanced warming in the near-surface atmosphere.”

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