Again, before I begin, a word about the ground rules. There are two that apply to the treatment of misperceptions. The first is that I am not going to name names or try to document who said what. My purpose is not to criticize anyone else but simply generate a little clarity. Second, as with the whirlwind tour of climate science, I’m not interested in precision or scholarly heft. The question I want to pose is simply, how should we think about this problem? That sets a lower bar on how detailed I need to be.
The first misconception is in some ways the deepest and most interesting of all of them. When we think of environmental problems, we think of pollution. The mental framework we invoke is that there is some specific environmental resource—the air, the water, the soil, our own bodies—that is being harmed by an overload of substances that have polluted it. Air pollution is caused by chemicals going up smokestacks or out of tailpipes. Water pollution can be traced to industrial discharges, agricultural runoff and other sources. People watched with morbid curiosity as the radioactive emissions from Fukushima first contaminated parts of Japan, then spilled into its coastal waters and now (in much lighter concentrations) disperse through air and ocean currents. Pollution is about harmful substances moving from point A (where they were confined or under control) to point B (the resource that is damaged by them). For every instance of pollution there is an identifiable polluter, the individual, business or government that is responsible for causing this substance to go where it shouldn’t.
The pollution template has become so familiar that we apply it to new forms of environmental harm without giving it a second thought. Loud people or machinery cause noise pollution; urban lighting causes light pollution. Ignorant or dishonest thought pollutes our communications and very consciousness. Pollution began as an act, developed into a metaphor and now structures how we think about wide swaths of modern life, wherever something we value is at risk of being destroyed or degraded.
It’s entirely natural that we would come to think about climate change as a pollution problem—natural but wrong. The difference is the carbon cycle. Here’s an example: suppose you cut down a tree and burn it. In doing this, you’ve instigated a flow of carbon from biomass to atmosphere, and the atmosphere is where carbon operates as a greenhouse gas. That makes you a carbon polluter, right? Well, not exactly. If a new tree grows to replace the one you cut down, it will cause a reverse carbon flux from the atmosphere back to the biota (living organisms). The flows will be different in quantity and timing, but it’s simply wrong to isolate a single action within the carbon cycle, like cutting down a tree, from the complete operation of the cycle itself. The pollution model, with its simple assumption that the impact of an act can be determined from a one-time transportation of a pollutant from location A to location B, doesn’t apply.
This also means that the people whose actions move carbon into the atmosphere are not necessarily “polluters”. We’ll see this later when we look at electric cars. The fact that carbon goes out my tailpipe but not yours doesn’t mean that I am a carbon polluter when I drive and you’re not. As you can imagine, this misunderstanding plays havoc with the industry that calls itself carbon accounting. I’ll go after that one later in the series.
As the earlier discussion of carbon and earth history should make clear, there is an action that is directly responsible for exacerbating climate change: bringing previously sequestered carbon out of the earth. When that happens, the carbon reenters the global carbon cycle and will lead to an increase, sooner or later, in greenhouse gases. Of course, the likely entry channel will be combustion, but if you make road paving material out of it or simply allow it to spill somewhere, the carbon will find a path.
Now if you’re so inclined, you can make loopholes, qualifications and intricate verbal distinctions that allow you to squeeze carbon into a pollution framework. I’m not saying you can’t. But invoking the pollution template in this context is an invitation to sloppy thinking. The problem is not, how do we keep carbon out of the atmosphere, but how do we keep carbon down in the ground and out of the carbon cycle altogether?
If you’re hungry for specifics, stay tuned: several forthcoming misconceptions flow naturally from the initial mistake of thinking about climate change as a pollution problem.
Addendum: The cartoon version of the argument
Saying that the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should not be thought of as a pollution problem rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Isn’t this statement just crazy? To make the point as clear as possible, let’s look at it in pictures.
Version A: Cow farts according to the pollution model
Version B: Cow farts according to the carbon cycle model
Now, truth be told, Bessie is still a problem: her farts (and burps) effectively convert a less damaging greenhouse gas, CO2, into a more powerful one, CH4. Her net effect, however, is less than this, because one has to take account of her entire place in the carbon cycle. This net effect would be close to zero if we could light a match near Bessie’s butt and flare off her discharge, which would convert the methane back to good old CO2. Of course, the rest of the corn-Bessie carbon cycle is complex, with questions related to land use alternatives, energy inputs into farming and corn processing, and so on. But the point is that the entire carbon cycle has to be considered when passing judgment on Bessie, not just her direct emissions into the atmosphere, as the pollution model would have it. If you think the whole world understands this, try googling “cow farts global warming”.