The term ‘carbon pollution’ is unscientific and misleading
By James D. Agresti
“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.