Wall Street Journal's Idiocracy: CO2 Is What Plants Crave


The Wall Street Journal once again published an op-ed disputing climate science by authors with no peer-reviewed papers on the topic and ties to groups funded by the oil industry. The op-ed argues that we should be "clamoring for more" carbon dioxide because it is a "boon to plant life," ignoring scientific research establishing that our excessive carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly changing the climate, which will have significant negative impacts for plants and humans.

WSJ Conceals Negative Impacts Of CO2 For Plants And Humans

WSJ Op-Ed Suggests We Should Be "Clamoring For More" CO2 As It Is A "Boon To Plant Life." In an op-ed titled "In Defense of Carbon Dioxide," former astronaut and Republican Senator Harrison Schmitt and physics professor William Happer write that the "demonized chemical compound is a boon to plant life" and thus "increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit the increasing population on the planet." They add, "[t]here isn't the slightest evidence that more carbon dioxide has caused more extreme weather" and conclude that "in an age of rising population and scarcities of food and water in some regions, it's a wonder that humanitarians aren't clamoring for more atmospheric carbon dioxide. Instead, some are denouncing it." [Wall Street Journal, 5/8/13]

Skeptical Science: This Argument Relies On The Fallacy Of Exclusion. Skeptical Science explains that while carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, our excessive emissions are changing precipitation patterns in ways that can hurt plant growth:

A quick look at the science behind this argument demonstrates its inherent weaknesses. In closed, controlled environments, like greenhouses and plant nurseries, an increase in CO2 does indeed spur plant growth. However, the globe is not a controlled environment, and its incredible sensitivity to a variety of factors is something that is often taken for granted when such narrow arguments are proffered. A rise in CO2 levels is not the only consequence of climate change, and it is these other effects that have had and will have more abiding adverse effects on plant growth around the world.

While CO2 is an important element that stimulates plant growth, the planet's flora requires a cocktail of elements to maintain its health. Arguably the most important of these elements is water. With the global increase in temperature caused by the various factors affecting our climate's balance, increased evaporation means decreased soil moisture. Another effect of global climate change is erratic precipitation patterns. This causes extreme weather in certain geographic locations only sporadically, with overall, balanced rainfall drastically reduced.


[A]t its most basic level, the CO2 plant food argument rests on a simple logical fallacy--the fallacy of exclusion, which focuses on one cause-and-effect (in this case, more CO2 means more plants) to the exclusion of all other cause-and-effect chains. [Skeptical Science, 7/1/2010]

IPCC: Rising Temps. Put About "20-30% Of Plant And Animal Species" At "Increased Risk Of Extinction." The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 4th Assessment Report concludes:

Approximately 20-30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5-2.5°C.

For increase in global average temperature exceeding 1.5-2.5°C and in concomitant atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species; ecological interactions, and species; geographical ranges, with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity, and ecosystem goods and services e.g., water and food supply. [IPCC 4th Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers, 2007]

Research Indicates Climate Change Will Lead To More Floods And Droughts, Hurting Agriculture. A recent NASA study added to evidence that climate change will increase the risk of extreme rainfall and drought, according to a NASA press release:

A NASA-led modeling study provides new evidence that global warming may increase the risk for extreme rainfall and drought.

The study shows for the first time how rising carbon dioxide concentrations could affect the entire range of rainfall types on Earth.

Analysis of computer simulations from 14 climate models indicates wet regions of the world, such as the equatorial Pacific Ocean and Asian monsoon regions, will see increases in heavy precipitation because of warming resulting from projected increases in carbon dioxide levels. Arid land areas outside the tropics and many regions with moderate rainfall could become drier. [NASA, 5/3/13]

The World Bank notes that these changes may lead to "severe crop yield reductions" unless there are "strong adaptation measures":

Climate change will affect agriculture through higher temperatures, greater crop water demand, more variable rainfall and extreme climate events such as heat waves, floods and droughts. Many impact studies point to severe crop yield reductions in the next decades without strong adaptation measures--particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These are areas where rural households are highly dependent on agriculture and farming systems are highly sensitive to volatile climate. One assessment, estimates that by the 2080s world agricultural productivity will decline by 3-16 percent. The loss in Africa could be 17-28 percent (Cline 2007). [World Bank, accessed 5/9/13]

National Research Council: Effects Of Climate Change "Pose Significant Risks To Both Human And Ecological Systems." From a 2010 report by the National Research Council:

Scientific evidence that the Earth is warming is now overwhelming. There is also a multitude of evidence that this warming results primarily from human activities, especially burning fossil fuels and other activities that release heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Projections of future climate change indicate that Earth will continue to warm unless significant and sustained actions are taken to limit emissions of GHGs. Increasing temperatures and GHG concentrations are driving a multitude of related and interacting changes in the Earth system, including decreases in the amounts of ice stored in mountain glaciers and polar regions, increases in sea level, changes in ocean chemistry, and changes in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, precipitation events, and droughts. These changes in turn pose significant risks to both human and ecological systems. Although the details of how the future impacts of climate change will unfold are not as well understood as the basic causes and mechanisms of climate change, we can reasonably expect that the consequences of climate change will be more severe if actions are not taken to limit its magnitude and adapt to its impacts. [National Research Council, 2010]

WSJ Portrays Highest CO2 Levels In Human History As "Low"

WSJ Op-Ed: Current CO2 Levels "Are Low By The Standards Of Geological And Plant Evolutionary History." The op-ed claims that carbon dioxide levels have "little correlation" with temperatures and that current carbon dioxide levels are "low by the standards of geological and plant evolutionary history," pointing to CO2 levels over 65 million years ago:

The cessation of observed global warming for the past decade or so has shown how exaggerated NASA's and most other computer predictions of human-caused warming have been--and how little correlation warming has with concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As many scientists have pointed out, variations in global temperature correlate much better with solar activity and with complicated cycles of the oceans and atmosphere. 


The current levels of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, approaching 400 parts per million, are low by the standards of geological and plant evolutionary history. Levels were 3,000 ppm, or more, until the Paleogene period (beginning about 65 million years ago). [Wall Street Journal, 5/8/13]

Scientist: CO2 Has Never Risen "So Much So Rapidly" Without "A Mass Extinction Event." Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford University who has specialized in paleoclimate issues, wrote in an email to Media Matters that it is the rate of increasing carbon dioxide levels that is worrying:

Yes, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been high in the past, but those high levels were achieved over many millions of years.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have never risen so much so rapidly as they are today without being accompanied by a mass extinction event. The geologic record gives us no reason to be sanguine about current rates and amounts of CO2 increase.

100 million years ago when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were high, volcanoes and other natural sources were probably emitting twice as much CO2 as they are today.

We, in contrast, are emitting about 100 times more CO2 than all the volcanoes of the world put together. We are so far beyond what the natural world does in terms of rates, it isn't even funny.

Atmospheric CO2 is increasing today about 100 times faster than it did after the last ice age.

We are not sure how the Earth will respond to these rates of change, because there are no real examples of similar rates of change except for the big mass extinction events.

Michael Mann, a paleoclimatologist and a professor at Penn State University, echoed Caldeira, saying that the "claim is at best deceptive" because "[t]he problem isn't the levels of CO2 per se, but the rate at which we are increasing them." And Ethan Grossman, a professor at Texas A&M who has published paleoclimate research, noted that the high CO2 period that the op-ed refers to -- the late Cretaceous period, which was the tail-end of the age of the dinosaurs -- experienced warm temperatures with essentially ice-free polar regions and higher sea levels:

Periods of high CO2 coincide with warm intervals (greenhouse climate mode) such as the late Cretaceous ( ~85 million years ago [myr]).


During greenhouse climate intervals, there were essentially no continental glaciers at the poles ("ice-free" condition), and subtropical plants sometimes extended into the Arctic Circle (such as in the Eocene, ~50 myr). Sea levels of course were much higher. [Email exchanges, 5/9/13]

CO2 Levels Are Higher Than Any Time In Human History. As Smithsonian Magazine wrote, we are poised to exceed atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of over 400 parts per million, which is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years according to ice core records:

For the first time in human history, later this month the world's atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will likely exceed 400 parts per million, according to a study conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The researchers monitor CO2 concentrations from a station in Hawaii, and those levels usually peak in May. Right now, levels are teetering at 399 ppm. If they do not exceed 400 ppm this year, the researchers say, they almost certainly will next year.

In March 1958, when the first measurements of atmospheric CO2 were made, the northern hemisphere stood at 316 ppm. Researchers project that the pre-industrial atmosphere was around 280 ppm. For the past 800,000 years prior to the industrial revolution, Scripps points out, CO2 levels never exceeded 300 ppm. [Smithsonian Magazine, 5/7/13]

Caldeira added in an email to Media Matters that most species alive today have "never existed in a world with CO2 levels substantially higher than today's":

[T]here is no evidence that CO2 concentrations have been higher than today's concentration in the past 20 million years.

The average species lives something like 6 million years, so the species that are alive today never existed in a world with CO2 levels substantially higher than today's. [Email exchange, 5/9/13]

CO2 Levels Are Indeed Closely Correlated With Warming. While the op-ed claims that carbon dioxide levels have "little correlation" with temperatures, The New York Times reported that scientists have actually found a "close association" between the two:

The basic physics of the atmosphere, worked out more than a century ago, show that carbon dioxide plays a powerful role in maintaining the earth's climate.


In recent years, researchers have been able to put the Keeling measurements [of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since the 1950s] into a broader context. Bubbles of ancient air trapped by glaciers and ice sheets have been tested, and they show that over the past 800,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air oscillated between roughly 200 and 300 parts per million. Just before the Industrial Revolution, the level was about 280 parts per million and had been there for several thousand years.

That amount of the gas, in other words, produced the equable climate in which human civilization flourished.

Other studies, covering many millions of years, show a close association between carbon dioxide and the temperature of the earth. The gas seemingly played a major role in amplifying the effects of the ice ages, which were caused by wobbles in the earth's orbit.

The geologic record suggests that as the earth began cooling, the amount of carbon dioxide fell, probably because much of it got locked up in the ocean, and that fall amplified the initial cooling. Conversely, when the orbital wobble caused the earth to begin warming, a great deal of carbon dioxide escaped from the ocean, amplifying the warming.

Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, refers to carbon dioxide as the master control knob of the earth's climate. He said that because the wobbles in the earth's orbit were not, by themselves, big enough to cause the large changes of the ice ages, the situation made sense only when the amplification from carbon dioxide was factored in.

"What the ice ages tell us is that our physical understanding of CO2 explains what happened and nothing else does," Dr. Alley said.

The article included the following graphics:

Carbon Dioxide Levels Are Closely Associated With Past Temps

[The New York Times, 12/21/10]

Who Are Harrison Schmitt And William Happer?

Neither Have Written Peer-Reviewed Climate Research. Harrison Schmitt has a Ph.D in Geology, and served as an astronaut at NASA from 1965 to 1975. After resigning from NASA, Schmitt was a one-term Republican Senator from New Mexico. William Happer is a physics professor at Princeton University. Neither Schmitt nor Happer has published peer-reviewed climate research. William Happer wrote a paper titled "Climate Science and Policy: Making the Connection" that was published by the oil industry-funded George C. Marshall Institute, but not any peer-reviewed journal. Several surveys have shown that the vast majority of climate scientists agree that humans are warming the planet and that the public should be concerned about the effects. [Skeptical Science, accessed 5/9/13] [DeSmogBlog, accessed 5/9/13] [DeSmogBlog, accessed 5/9/13] [Media Matters, 7/7/11]

Journal Does Not Disclose Happer Is Chairman Of Industry-Funded Institute. The Journal did not disclose that Happer is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the George C. Marshall Institute. In 2000, the Marshall Institute listed the Exxon Education Foundation as a funder. As recently as 2011, the Marshall Institute received funding from foundations associated with the Koch brothers. [The George C. Marshall Institute, accessed 5/9/13] [Web archives, The George C. Marshall Institute, 2000, via SourceWatch] [Greenpeace, accessed 5/9/13]

Schmitt Was A Director At The Industry-Funded Heartland Institute. Schmitt was a member of the Heartland Institute's board of directors, according to a 2010 press release. Though he is not currently listed as a director on the group's website, Schmitt is still listed as a Heartland expert. Heartland's expert page states: "The experts identified here are staff, managing editors, senior fellows, and policy advisors (unpaid volunteers) to The Heartland Institute, as well as persons affiliated with other think tanks who have agreed to be identified as topic area experts for Heartland." ExxonMobil contributed over $600,000 to Heartland between 1998 and 2006, but has since pledged to stop funding groups that cast doubt on climate change. Heartland does not disclose its current donors, but internal documents obtained in 2012 revealed that Heartland received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder is the CEO of a corporation with significant oil operations. In 2012, Heartland used a billboard featuring Ted Kaczynski to launch its campaign comparing those who accept climate science with "murders, tyrants, and madmen." After drawing strong criticism, including from some of its own staff, Heartland quickly removed the billboard, but refused to apologize. [Heartland Institute, 2/12/10] [Heartland Institute, accessed 5/9/13] [Heartland Institute, accessed 5/9/13] [Heartland Institute, accessed 5/9/13] [The New York Times, 3/9/09] [Media Matters, 11/28/12]

Schmitt: The "Obvious Path Of The United States" Under "Current Congress And President" Is "National Socialism." Schmitt wrote:

The previously faint but obvious path of the United States toward national socialism has suddenly become a super-highway. Reversing direction requires concerted, immediate action in the courts, push-back by the States, and passive resistance by the people. Using the term "national socialism" for where we are headed may make some uncomfortable, but it has historical precedent in referring to the logical end-point of current governing trends. A possible alternative term for where we are being taken would be "authoritarian capitalism," as now practiced in China, but that term does not yet have as good historical examples of the potential consequences of these trends as do analogies with the "national socialism" that swept Europe in the last Century.

Although national socialism clearly has atrocious legacies of genocide, aggression, and terrorism under the despotism of Hitler and the Third Reich, the term actually refers to a philosophy of authoritarian government that took hold in Germany early in the 20th Century. Once national socialists took control, the German government dominated individual liberties and the decision-making of private business and industry. Soon, that business and industry became an implementing arm of the domestic repression and the international ambitions of the Third Reich. Our concern today should be that "regulation" of individual liberties and "control" of the private sector now has become the often publicly stated goals of the current Congress and President in the United States. [AmericasUncommonSense.com, 4/2/10]

Happer Compared Mainstream Climate Science To Holocaust "Propaganda." The Daily Princetonian, Princeton Unviersity's student newspaper, reported:

Physics professor William Happer GS '64 has some tough words for scientists who believe that carbon dioxide is causing global warming.

"This is George Orwell. This is the 'Germans are the master race. The Jews are the scum of the earth.' It's that kind of propaganda," Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, said in an interview. "Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Every time you exhale, you exhale air that has 4 percent carbon dioxide. To say that that's a pollutant just boggles my mind. What used to be science has turned into a cult." [The Daily Princetonian, 1/12/09]

WSJ Op-Ed Continues Pattern Of Slanted Climate Change Coverage

WSJ Published Op-Ed By Same Authors And Others Last Year Making Similarly Misleading Arguments. In January 2012, the Journal published an op-ed by 16 scientists and engineers, many retired, that vaguely argued against doing "something dramatic" to counteract climate change. But most of the authors, including Happer and Schmitt, had never published peer-reviewed climate research, and the op-ed made misleading arguments to those found in Happer and Schmitt's 2013 op-ed. The Journal reportedly rejected an op-ed by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences affirming the seriousness of climate change. [Media Matters, 1/30/12] 

WSJ Previously Downplayed Study Confirming Global Warming. After a study championed by climate contrarians confirmed the accuracy of previous global temperature records, the U.S. print edition of the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the study's author only in its European and online editions, not in its U.S. paper. The U.S. paper only covered the study in an article focusing on the "uncertain nature" of the temperature records, when temperature records are actually largely in agreement with each other and all show a warming trend. [Media Matters, 11/8/11]

WSJ's Editorial Board Has Downplayed Environmental Threats Since 1976. A Media Matters analysis of more than 100 editorials from 1976 to 2012 found that the Wall Street Journal is using the same rhetorical tactics to forestall climate action that it used to argue against action on acid rain and ozone depletion -- tactics that did not stand the test of time. [Media Matters, 8/2/12]

Study Found WSJ's Climate Coverage Is "Overwhelmingly Misleading." A 2012 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 81 percent of references to climate science in the Wall Street Journal's opinion section were "misleading," meaning that they cherry-picked data, attacked individual scientists, or otherwise "attempted to broadly undermine the major conclusions of climate science."

UCS graphic on its study

[Media Matters9/24/12]

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
Wall Street Journal
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