Activists and Journalists Mislead the Public About Carbon Pollution

Agresti, J. D. (2012, March 22). Activists and Journalists Mislead the Public About Carbon Pollution. Retrieved from
Agresti, James D. “Activists and Journalists Mislead the Public About Carbon Pollution.” Just Facts. 22 March 2012. Web. 20 May 2024.<>.
Chicago (for footnotes)
James D. Agresti, “Activists and Journalists Mislead the Public About Carbon Pollution.” Just Facts. March 22, 2012.
Chicago (for bibliographies)
Agresti, James D. “Activists and Journalists Mislead the Public About Carbon Pollution.” Just Facts. March 22, 2012.

By James D. Agresti
March 22, 2012

The Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have recently produced a television ad that depicts children suffering from asthma while attributing their plight to “air pollutants like carbon, mercury, and soot.” Politico has reported that these groups are running the ad in swing states and spending seven figures to do so.

Similarly, the American Lung Association is touting a new poll regarding the Obama administration’s soon-to-be released “clean air standards for carbon pollution emitted by power plants.” The poll shows that 72% of voters support these standards.

The advertisement and poll concern noxious air pollutants. Yet, these organizations (and many like them) use the very same terminology to refer to carbon dioxide (CO2), which academic texts describe as a “relatively nonreactive and nontoxic” gas that is “vital to life” and “does not cause cancer, affect development or suppress the immune system in humans.”

Activists often lump CO2 with highly toxic pollutants (like carbon monoxide and black carbon) by using the catch-all phrase, “carbon pollution.” Media heavyweights, including the New York Times, Associated Press, Washington Post, Reuters, and ABC News have also referred to CO2 using such verbiage.

The word “pollution” conjures up images of smokestacks emitting plumes of soot, a black-colored carbon-based substance that can cause cancer. In contrast, carbon dioxide is generally colorless, odorless, and again, nontoxic; hardly the type of substance that springs to mind when hearing the word “pollution.”

Furthermore, natural emissions of CO2 outweigh man-made emissions by a factor of twenty to one, and CO2 is a welcome output of automotive catalytic converters, which the EPA describes as an “anti-pollution device” that converts “exhaust pollutants … to normal atmospheric gases such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water.”

Regardless of these facts, from an advocacy standpoint, it is more effective to lobby against “carbon pollution” rather than “carbon dioxide.” Also, by interchangeably using the term “carbon pollution” for generally nontoxic and also highly toxic substances, references to these substances are inevitably conflated by the average voter.

A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists has argued that it is appropriate to refer to carbon dioxide as a pollutant because the Supreme Court ruled (by a 5-4 margin in 2007) that the EPA could regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act’s expansive definition of pollution. This, however, is not a license to use these words in ways that create misleading impressions.

There are more than ten million different carbon compounds, and grouping highly dissimilar carbon compounds under the term “carbon pollution” is as misleading as grouping a highly explosive gas like hydrogen (H2) with water (H2O) under the term “hydrogen pollution.” For those who might object that water could never be considered a pollutant under any reasonable interpretation of the term, it is worth noting that water vapor contributes multiplicatively more to the earth’s greenhouse effect than CO2.

  • April 24, 2012 at 1:00 PM

    Carbon is 84% of petroleum and makes 80% of all our energy.All life on Earth is carbon based.

    The UN will soon declare CO2 a poison.

    The control and taxing of carbon will give the elected/unelected ruling castes more power than anything since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 AD.

    It is just that simple.

  • July 31, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    As presentation reporting becomes the norm and the standards for education decrease; our basic freedoms will diminish. It is difficult finding who is credible these days but the onus is on the reader to question and speak out against subjective journalism.
    I am appaled by the ever increasing number of yellow journalists and applaud JUSTTHEFACTS in their efforts to uphold the mostly forgotten tenet of reporting that the conclusion should be left to the reader!

  • July 31, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Troubling is the advent of UN meddling in US policy such as the small arms treaty and carbon emission. What the readed should be aware of is that CO2 IS A GREENHOUSE GAS. Global warming is a speculated endpoint to the concept of global climate change. Regardless of natural or unnatural etiology for CARBON DIOXIDE, some climate change is considered realistic resulting from increasing atmosperic burden from greenhouse gases. Studies to this effect go back to the early 60’s when much of the pollution studies commenced. Be wary of any single source for a definitive result but some curb on carbon emissions ( simplified but misleading moniker for co2) as a tipping point between heat retention and heat emissionwill result in climate destabilization

  • July 31, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    Science 28 august 1981: vol 213 no. 4511 pp957-966 doi: 10.1126/science.213.4511.957
    This article predates any politicized efforts on reporting for global.warming or climate change. Modeling heat retention for any IR absorbing gas is straigth forward. Predictions based on this work appear to have occured.


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