CO2: The “pollutant” that life requires

In the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby responds to Al Gore’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, where he continued his warnings of “unimaginable calamity” if we don’t take drastic steps to reduce human-based sources of “global-warming pollution.” (Gore himself happens to have invested enormously in carbon-offset schemes and other “green” ventures that are likely to thrive only with the kinds of government mandates he promotes.)

By “global-warming pollution,’’ Gore means carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a “pollutant’’ in roughly the way oxygen and water are pollutants: Human existence would be impossible without them. CO2 is essential to photosynthesis, the process that sustains plant life and generates the oxygen that human beings and animals inhale. Far from polluting the world, carbon dioxide enriches it. Higher levels of CO2 are associated with larger crop yields, increased forest growth, and longer growing seasons – in short, with a greener planet.

Of course carbon dioxide also contributes to the greenhouse effect that keeps the earth warm. But the vast majority of atmospheric CO2 occurs naturally, and it is far from clear that the carbon dioxide contributed by human industry has a significant impact on the world’s climate.

On the other hand, it is quite clear that the economic and agricultural activity responsible for that anthropogenic CO2 has been enormously beneficial to myriads of men, women, and children. In just the last two decades, life expectancy in developing nations has climbed appreciably and infant mortality has fallen. Hundreds of millions of Indian and Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty. Whatever else might be said about carbon dioxide, it has helped make possible a dramatic increase in the quality of many human lives.