Word war on warming
February 4, 2008
By Tom Harris - 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
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
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
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 (www.nrsp.com).