Too Much of a Good Thing

The sheer amount of misinformation on the science of climate change is stunning.  It’s no wonder that the public is confused (see our FAQ for some clarity).  The latest argument is easily dismissible, or at least it would be if it weren’t being repeated so much in the press (like this story in last Friday’s Washington Post, along with a series of ads for a new group pushing the idea).  You may have heard a politician or two talking about the “benefits” of carbon dioxide—it goes something like this: plants breathe in CO2, so more of it is good for them.  Nothing to worry about, they say, let’s go on burning fossil fuels as we always have.  A group even has a new website dedicated to spreading the lie that more CO2 is good for the planet.

Most science journalists have finally gotten beyond the “he-said, she-said” articles that falsely portray a balance of views where no controversy exists among experts.  Simply put, no experts in climate change are arguing that because plants use CO2, it’s ok for us to emit as much as we want.  That’s because they understand that humanity has released so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it’s beginning to affect the planet.  Without aggressive reductions in emissions, we are facing (among other impacts) rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather, changes in precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification—oceans absorb CO2, threatening fisheries and marine ecosystems. The world’s scientific community has assessed the science of climate change and concluded that “warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.” (See this report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program or the comprehensive assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

As your mother probably taught you, too much of a good thing can lead to trouble.  In the case of CO2, the burning of fossil fuels is throwing the chemistry of the atmosphere out of balance.  This balance is critical for life on Earth—natural species and human society have evolved in response to a climate that has been relatively stable for the last few thousand years.  Human activity is disrupting this balance, with potentially damaging, even catastrophic, implications.

So, while CO2 is certainly taken up by plants, more of it only helps up to a point—plant growth is ultimately limited by other factors, particularly extreme heat, but also soil nutrient content and precipitation. If you want to cut through all the noise, listen to the experts on the science, rather than the vested interests who are spending tons of money deliberately trying to confuse the public about the science.

Jeremy Richardson is a Senior Fellow for Science Policy