More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good for plants.
This argument is asserted in various forms by individuals and groups seeking to diminish the negative impacts of climate change and to push back against any current (or proposed) regulations to mitigate its impact.
She has a lengthy track record of defending fossil fuels and dismissing claims that rising CO2 levels are harmful, as an Oct. 13 report in The Washington Post detailed.
Hartnett White is distinguished fellow and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
She is also affiliated with the CO2 Coalition, according to a Chicago Tribune report – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed in 2015 “for the purpose of educating thought leaders, policy makers and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy.”
The organization’s website emphasizes the positive benefits of CO2 through fact sheets, white papers and videos. For example:
- A recent tweet linking to their site stated, “Life on Earth will be improved by increases in CO2, whether from natural sources or anthropogenic.”
- A fact page on the site asserts, “More carbon dioxide levels will help everyone, including future generations of our families. CO2 is the essential food for land-based plants. … Future CO2 increases will boost farm productivity, improve drought resistance, bolster food security and help create a greener, lusher planet.”
- A YouTube video embedded on the site, titled “NASA Rising CO2 Levels Greening Earth Photosynthesis,” states, “Earth is getting greener. … The change is mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
I don’t want to give too much visibility to such groups. Yet, it seems important for goodwill people of faith to know Hartnett White’s views on these matters since, pending approval, she’ll have significant influence on U.S. environmental policies and regulations.
I care deeply about the biblical imperative to be good stewards of creation, and I am managing editor of an organization with a lengthy track record emphasizing this calling.
So here is where I would like to insert an unqualified statement declaring how woefully inaccurate the assertions of Hartnett White, the CO2 Coalition and anyone who believes and propagates these ideas are.
But their statements are not wholly inaccurate – they contain grains of truth that are connected to faulty conclusions.
Plants subjected in controlled tests (known as Free-air CO2 Enrichment, or FACE) to higher CO2 levels grow more quickly and to greater heights than those receiving current atmospheric CO2 levels.
Yet, unqualified praise of increasing global CO2 levels based on such findings is misguided and dangerous if they influence or inform public policy because it doesn’t account for longer-term impacts.
This is particularly true with an Oct. 30 U.N. report noting that CO2 levels increased at “record-breaking speeds” in 2016, rising 3.3 parts per million to a CO2 concentration of “145 percent of pre-industrial levels.”
The logic used by the CO2 Coalition and others holding similar views is analogous to a farmer who doesn’t rotate crops or leave fields fallow – greater harvest yields will occur initially but ever-diminishing returns (and sometimes irreversible damages) will follow.
Four studies published in recent years reveal the negative consequences of increased CO2 levels:
1. Research on the impact of higher CO2 levels on field-grown wheat in Arizona was published in April 2014.
The authors concluded that while plants will grow larger as a result of higher CO2 levels, it also diminishes the quality of the plants.
2. In November 2014, findings from a five-year study concluded that higher CO2 levels produce greater growth only under specific conditions.
Larger growth is possible only when nitrogen and water are available at higher levels, and they cannot keep pace with ever-increasing CO2 levels.
3. In May 2015, a report was released by Montana State University scientists based on data analysis of grasslands in the northern Rocky Mountains from 1969 to 2012.
It found a steady decline in grassland production due to increasing aridity and drought conditions that occurred because increasing CO2 levels stressed the environment by requiring increasing amounts of other nutrients.
Higher CO2 levels stimulated plant growth, which caused demand for more water and nutrients, which led to aridity and drought, which resulted in long-term decline in plant growth and production.
4. In September 2016, findings were published from a 16-year study conducted by Stanford University researchers looking at how increased temperatures and CO2 levels would impact California grasslands.
“They found that carbon dioxide at higher levels than today (400 ppm) did not significantly change plant growth, while higher temperatures had a negative effect,” a report in The Guardian explained. “The evidence thus suggests we’re at or near the point where rising atmospheric CO2 levels will no longer benefit overall plant growth, while the rising heat that comes along with that carbon [is] generally detrimental to plant productivity.”
The assertion that higher CO2 levels are an unqualified good for the world reminds me of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-25; it appears fruitful from afar but proves empty upon closer examination.
The stakes are too high, and the biblical imperative to wisely steward the earth too central, to rely on half-truths and conclusions not supported by facts.