By John Englander, Rising Seas Institute
“What do you believe about the science of climate change? And what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”
Moderator Chris Wallace directed that question to President Donald Trump in the recent Presidential debate. The President replied:
“I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air. We have now the lowest carbon, if you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally.”
The President may have done that as a deflection, but it’s also very possible that he’s confused between climate change and clean air. To be fair, former Vice President Joe Biden could have used his turn to point out the President’s confusion, but did not. From my work, I know that a large portion of the public confuses the two issues.
Before I proceed, I should advise readers that I avoid taking sides politically in my writing about sea-level rise and climate change. While that frustrates some, I have held that non-partisan policy since I began this blog post in 2010 and started to write my book, “High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.”
I chose political neutrality so I can have as wide an audience as possible.
Back to the issue of what are we going to do about climate change?
Climate change is being primarily driven by the increase of “greenhouse gases” that act as insulation and warm the planet. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the greenhouse gas of greatest concern for human impact. It’s the by-product of burning fossil fuels and now 40% higher than in millions of years.
Carbon dioxide is 100% clear. It’s the “fizz” in carbonated beverages. The clear molecular compound combines one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.
In contrast, carbon is normally pure black, seen in dark smoke, soot, graphite and the primary component of black coal. Carbon is a significant part of visible air “pollution.” Since the dawn of the industrial era, we have produced dark smoke, that can cause respiratory illness.
There are many contributors to air pollution besides carbon, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, etc. Under the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970, great efforts were made to clear the air of those forms of harmful pollution, with considerable success.
In the late 1980s when climate change became a widely understood concern, efforts began to measure and reduce the clear carbon dioxide. Rather than push through new legislation dealing with the new threat of carbon dioxide, for expediency, it was designated as a “pollutant” and therefore subject to the existing Clean Air Act and the EPA.
That legal concept was challenged by the fossil fuel industry and allies, becoming a battle that went to the Supreme Court. The court held that because CO2 was now harmful to the world, it could be considered a pollutant, despite the fact it was a natural part of the plant and animal kingdoms.
It was that mingling of dirty air that was obviously a pollutant, with the warming effect of clear carbon dioxide also referred to as a pollutant that set the stage for the confusion that continues today.
Then the confusion was made even worse because the environmental and scientific communities started using “carbon” as a shorthand for carbon dioxide.
“Carbon footprints” and taking the carbon out of the air became the jargon to show that one knew about carbon dioxide. In terms of communication with the public, it was a terrible move. All of that brings us to the current situation, where many people are confused by the intersection of clean air and climate change, as demonstrated last week.
If we are going to support effective policies and elect leaders who share our priorities, we need to communicate and have the same agenda. We need clean air, and we need to reduce the invisible greenhouse gases.
To deal with the crisis of climate change or global warming, we need to apply the right solutions to the right problem. The first requirement is the right terminology to keep the discussion on topic.
Clean air and climate change are separate issues. Carbon is not carbon dioxide. For those wanting a little deeper explanation distinguishing these issues, my blog post from 2018, carbon-carbon dioxide-ozone may help clear the air.
Remember to let political candidates know your priorities — and, remember to vote!
John Englander is an oceanographer and author of “High Tide On Main Street.” He is also President of the Rising Seas Institute, a new nonprofit think tank and policy center. This piece was adapted from his blog, John’s Blog.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.