The Term “Carbon Pollution” Is Unscientific and Misleading
By James D. Agresti
February 20, 2014
“Language is power,” and “with careful selection of and modification to language,” wrote Evie Loveband in the journal Idiom, any one person “has the power to control the debate and rewrite history.” This truism spurs endless debates over terminology in the political arena: Are we talking about an “unborn child” or a “fetus”? Is he “gay” or “homosexual”? Are we eating “lean finely textured beef” or “pink slime”? Should we “give amnesty to illegal immigrants” or “legalize undocumented workers”?
Ultimately, many language choices are subjective, but some cross the line from preference to deceitfulness. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote about people who use words “in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
Such is the case with purveyors of the term “carbon pollution,” a phrase that conflates carbon dioxide with noxious chemicals like carbon monoxide and black carbon. Carbon dioxide or CO2 is the primary man-made greenhouse gas, but it is also a natural substance that is essential for life. Additionally, it is colorless, odorless, and nontoxic at many times the concentration in earth’s atmosphere. In fact, nature produces considerably more CO2 than man.
Thus, for reasons detailed below, referring to CO2 as “carbon pollution” is highly misleading.
First, the phrase “carbon pollution” is scientifically inaccurate because there are more than ten million different carbon compounds, and the word “carbon” could refer to any of them. Some of the more notorious of these compounds are highly poisonous, such as carbon monoxide (a deadly gas) and black carbon (the primary ingredient of cancerous and mutagenic soot). Using a phrase that does not distinguish between such drastically different substances is a sure way to misinform people.
Second, the term “pollution” conjures up images of smoke pouring from smokestacks and sewage flowing into rivers, which are markedly different from CO2 emissions. Those who use the word “pollution” for CO2 draw no distinction between these scenarios, which again encourages a false impression.
Some of the more prominent users of this verbiage go even further to foster the idea of CO2 as a toxic contaminant. For example, while referring to CO2 as “carbon pollution,” President Obama criticizes “polluters” who “emit the dangerous carbon emissions that contaminate the water we drink and pollute the air that we breathe.” In stark contrast, the academic book Carbon Dioxide Capture for Storage in Deep Geologic Formations explains that:
Carbon dioxide is generally regarded as a safe and non-toxic, inert gas. It is an essential part of the fundamental biological processes of all living things. It does not cause cancer, affect development or suppress the immune system in humans.
Fueling the deceitful impression advanced by Obama and others, major media outlets, such as Politico, NBC News, and the New York Times, publish articles and commentaries that refer to CO2 as “carbon pollution” with pictures of billowing smokestacks, such as these:
The fact is that none of the smoke in these pictures is CO2, because CO2 is invisible except under extreme pressures and temperatures that cause it to transition from a gas to a liquid or solid. Such conditions are far outside the range of anything found in smokestacks.
Some argue that it is acceptable to call CO2 a pollutant because of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that allowed the EPA to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act’s expansive definition of pollution. Such rationale, however, is not a license to use these words in ways that create misleading impressions.
Furthermore, why would anyone who honestly wants to inform people employ an ambiguous and unscientific phrase like “carbon pollution” in favor of a clear and scientifically accurate term like “greenhouse gas”? Only those who simply echo what they hear or those wantonly pushing global warming-related taxes, regulations or similar polices would use such verbiage.
In sum, those who refer to carbon dioxide as “pollution” blur a critical distinction between noxious pollutants and greenhouse gases. Moreover, media outlets that consciously engage in this practice blur a critical distinction between journalism and activism.
FactCheck.org misrepresents the dangers of carbon dioxide
I found the article very insightful. Language is a powerful tool that often affects people’s beliefs without them knowing. I just wanted to point out what I think is a typo. In the third paragraph the article says, “a phrase that conflates carbon dioxide with noxious chemicals like carbon dioxide and black carbon.” I’m guessing the second carbon dioxide was supposed to be carbon monoxide. I hate to see one of your articles be less than perfect. You guys do great work. Keep it up.
Joshua, Thank you for your kind words and for pointing out the typo. It is now fixed.
You are being too kind . It is willful fraud to call the anabolic half of the respiratory cycle of life , much less the element which defines organic life , “pollution” .
It is the criminal teaching of anti-science to a woefully uneducated population .
In truth CFO does nothing more sinister than any other non-oxygen gas would do. If you were slowly to inject higher and higher concentrations of say nitrogen or argon et al you could expect the same results, you will die. However the undertakers job will be harder because you will not have the rosy glow CO allows the body to maintain.
Bravo! I’ve been trying to explain how dangerous and dishonest this ridiculous moniker is since I first heard it. I was a biochem major and studied a lot of carbon chemistry. Your essay is a concise, yet thoroughly informative piece that explains exactly what the EPA and the Climate Change Bully Pulpit are actually doing. In fact, this is such a ridiculous misnaming that it could only be done by some government bureaucracy.
If carbon is a a poison, then I think it’s my duty as a citizen to demand to companies like Zales, Jared, Kay Jewelers, and Warren Buffet’s own Helzbergs and Borsheim’s, that they immediately relinquish all (evidently, because the EPA decried it) deadly poisonous crystal carbon to my new altruistic endeavor, “The Carbon Busters” (unless that’s already trade named and then I’ll get back to you on the name).
It is far too toxic and dangerous for future brides, wives, and others to be exposed to such a deadly substance, it also certainly must be a public health crisis so we’ll have to involve the C.D.C. and W.H.O., and surely the future of the earth depends on me taking such action out of love for future generations. Also, I’ll make the sacrifice for all mankind to personally store all these poisonous crystal carbon substances to protect the entire population.
Wow! Now that I think about it, this is a real, global game-changer! ISIS? ISIS? Are you kidding me?!? De Beers is obviously a far greater threat to world security! I think it’s clearly obvious (crystal clear, pardon the pun), that everyone related to Cecil Rhodes, especially the scholarship recipients, should immediately disassociate themselves from such an evil and malevolent organization. Sorry Susan Rice, President Clinton, Sen. Booker, Khristof, Stephanopolis, and certainly Rachel (Maddow) and Ronan Farrow. Let’s not forget Gov. Jindal either because it’s painfully evident that this is an emergency of such universal importance that political parties are no longer even relevant. I mean, come on, the EPA is non-partisan, aren’t they? They made this historically momentous revelation, so it’s only right to follow their uniquely neutral and unbiased tradition.
I also think it’s urgent that Congress immediately appropriate funds to hire more bureaucrats to shut down all schools so toxic waste teams can systematically remove all the graphite from pencils, as to insure the safety of our children and the entire planet. Obviously, this is a national security crisis, so it’s only logical that we immediately involve the Department of Education (Pentagon you say? What the hell do they have to do with national security?), so I implore everyone out there with a scintilla of conscience to sign my upcoming petition to convince Arne Duncan to forgo his resignation and stay on as Secretary of Education. I think you’ll all agree that a project of such magnitude and importance depends upon, nay I say DEMANDS, a person with such outstanding credentials as captain of the Harvard basketball team. Who cares if his grammar is often deplorable for an education secretary, he graduated magna cum laude in Sociology – and he can still, almost, dunk a basketball for Pete’s sake!
My fellow golfers and I will be sad to see our graphite shafts go the way of the Dodo Bird, but… wait, we can’t go back to steel shafts! Steel contains carbon… OH MY GOD! Hickory! Hickory is like 50% carbon! Oh, the horror! The shame! My Scottish forefathers probably started all this devastating climate change 400 years before the industrial revolution, when those shepherds, tending their flocks out on the coastal dunes, had the audacity to invent something so devastating to the future of earth, just to pass their time. Those self-serving bastards! They should have had the foresight to know how their greed and selfish sheep herding methods would affect the earth in 600 years! Damn them! Damn them all!
wow. That is an insane response. You were a biochem major? jesus. First, no one called it a poison so I dont know what you are talking about. How can you think this is a ” a concise, yet thoroughly informative piece” when the author doesnt offer a definition of pollution? The rest of your post is just so silly I cant believe you took the time to write it.
Brilliant, absolutely brilliant
The only thing missing is that CO2 cannot become a greenhouse gas because lift is provided by its two oxygen atoms, but ONLY when hot. Carbon is not a gas and will not float, even if white hot. As soon as CO2 cools down the carbon atom will drag the other two down like a soldier coming down with two parachutes. Read benalberts22.com for more
the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects.
If you consider global warming to be a harmful consequence of increased levels of atmospheric CO2, then it is pollution
” the term “carbon pollution,” a phrase that conflates carbon dioxide with noxious chemicals like carbon monoxide and black carbon”
Just because people falsely think pollution must mean noxious ot toxic, doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate to use the word
Further, to deal with the issue, pollution is entirely appropriate terminology:
“that allowed the EPA to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act’s expansive definition of pollution.”
indeed, to deal with this issue in a political and legislative framework, we have to approach it as a pollution mitigation issue – industry is expected to avoid or pay for the mitigation of the release of harmful or unwanted byproducts, and it is more productive to discuss a price on pollution, rather than a “tax”
You say, “Just because people falsely think pollution must mean noxious or toxic, doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate to use the word.”
However, it is deceitful to try to make people believe that something is noxious or toxic when it is not. That is the point of the article, and nothing you wrote addresses that.
For the record, every substance in the world can be a pollutant: http://www.justfacts.com/pollution.asp#introduction
I dont understand. Where does the noxious and toxic come in? How can you write an article about the use of the word pollution and not actually define pollution. Saying what images a word conjures isnt very scientific either.
Most words have different meanings in different contexts, and in the context of the general public’s understanding of environmental issues, the word “pollution” has a clear connotation that is not in keeping with the facts about CO2.
There is a massive difference between noxious pollutants and CO2, and those who use words and images that blur this difference are either shills or parrots.
Are you a scientist? No scientist would ever write “in the context of the general public’s understanding of environmental issues, the word “pollution” has a clear connotation that is not in keeping with the facts about CO2.” You have no idea what the general public’s understanding of environmental issues are. You would need data to support that claim. I can only speak for myself and the people I know but we generally consider “pollution” to be anything with negative effects to the environment. Maybe you think of the industrial revolution, most people dont. These types of arguments are way more dangerous than calling CO2 emissions carbon pollution. Thank you for writing it though. I have sent it to several of my friends that are Environmental Communication scholars and they cant wait to discuss it with their classes.
Numerous Ph.D. scientists have publicly praised and cited our work. In contrast, you don’t even have enough conviction to post your last name. You have no credibility to lecture on what scientists would do.
I also just reread that last sentence and it kind of blew my mind. This article is about why we need to stop calling CO2 a pollutant and then you respond with “For the record, every substance in the world can be a pollutant”. Wow.
You fail to understand the article. It is not about “why we need to stop calling CO2 a pollutant.” It is about why we need to stop calling CO2 “carbon pollution.” Again, unlike carbon, CO2 is colorless, odorless, and nontoxic at many times the concentration in earth’s atmosphere. Referring to CO2 as “carbon” is as absurd as calling H2O “hydrogen.”
I am still confused. You are making the assumption that when talking about “carbon pollution”, we are only talking about CO2. I live in NC and we have had some pretty serious coal ash spills from coal ash ponds created by burning coal at coal power plants that have POLLUTED our streams and lakes. Can I call this carbon pollution?
This is explained in the article. Read it carefully. I’m not going to spoon feed the entire article to you.