Is carbon dioxide a pollutant ?
I am old enough to remember the great smog and the 1953 flood. There is nothing like a first-hand view of nature in the raw to make a person environmentally aware. It was in the 1950s at the age of about 6 or 7 that I learned how coal was made out of vegetable matter in nature's own pressure cooker. The origin of coal was so widely known that it was often called 'bottled sunshine'.
image courtesy Lucky Trev
It never made sense to me that we humans seemed to be in a great hurry to burn all of that natural wealth. When I learned - somewhere in the late 1960s - about the greenhouse effect I saw immediately that we were putting back into the atmosphere what nature had taken millions of years to sequester underground. Before all of that CO2 was locked away the world was not one conducive to mammals who walk on two legs and imagine themselves masters of the planet. It makes no sense to me that we seem hell-bent on restoring such climatic conditions in the name of economic growth.
This article is intended as a rebuttal to the arguments that 'CO2 is not a pollutant' and that some mysterious "they" predicted an ice age in the 1970s. If CO2 is not a pollutant and an ice age was predicted, why then did Britain's Parliament devote so much time and energy in discussions of the polluting effects of CO2 and the greenhouse effect ? The article draws heavily from Hansard. All emphasis in the quoted speech is mine.
Problems with gas lighting
In February 1852 the Palace of Westminster was having problems with the new-fangled gas lighting system. There were three inter-related problems. The first problem was that the windows did not let in enough light.
I will venture to say that the very first idea that would strike a foreigner on looking at the interior would be, that the edifice was built before the window tax was taken off, and that the windows were constructed merely for the purpose of evading that impost.The second problem was that the gas lighting installed to solve the first problem was a source of carbon dioxide from leaks and from combustion. The third problem was that the existing ventilation methods were inadequate to deal with the second problem.
11 February 1852, MR. BERNAL OSBORNE
SIR J. PAKINGTON was of opinion, with their old friend Sir Frederick Trench, that there was no light equal to that given by wax candles, but hoped, if they were to continue the system of gas lighting, that some very decided improvements would be made in the present system.It is clear from the context that carbon dioxide (carbonic acid gas) was considered by Parliament at that time to be a pollutant. So much so that over the years various laws were passed to control levels of CO2 in the workplace and in towns.
11 February 1852, SIR J. PAKINGTON
"as to the removal of the products of combustion of lights in the corridors, he had met that by dispensing with gas, and substituting wax candles, that hon. Members might not be troubled by the escape of gas. He had also ordered the people to put doors where they could, and in other places to put up large curtains, which Dr. Reid said would answer equally well."
11 February 1852, Lord Seymour
Dr. Reid had spoken of the extent of the evil arising from the miasma of graveyards. He had detected deleterious gases escaping from graves twenty feet deep, and stated that he had found the ground in many churchyards perfectly saturated with carbonic acid gas.
08 April 1845, Mr. Mackinnon
Captain Kerby asked as Minister of Health how many autopsies were carried out on persons who died during the recent smog in London and Leeds; and in how many cases death was recorded as having been caused by carbon dioxide and other noxious substances emitted by solid fuels.The phrase 'other noxious substances' indicates that Captain Kerby viewed CO2 as a noxious substance, i.e. a pollutant.
Captain Kerby, 20 December 1962
The greenhouse effect
The earliest reference to the greenhouse effect which I can find in Hansard is from 1969.
My Lords, can my noble friend say whether he and British Railways have taken account of the fact that what were abnormal temperatures last summer may not be abnormal if we continue to discharge carbon dioxide into the air by the burning of various fossil carbons, so increasing the greenhouse effect?During the 1970s the greenhouse effect was discussed extensively in Parliament.
VISCOUNT ST. DAVIDS, 05 November 1969
21 July 1970
It is said that jet aircraft landing and taking off in New York deposit 36 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year. This has a "greenhouse" effect because it allows the sun's rays to come down but prevents them from escaping into the atmosphere.
Mr. Carol Mather
30 November 1978The projection of 400ppm by the year 2000 was wrong. That error is no cause for celebration. We have just reached that figure.
I shall make an attempt to describe first, in the briefest possible terms, what is popularly known as the "greenhouse effect", how I believe excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide may affect the world climate.
For some years now scientists concerned with meteorology and climatology have been expressing at times conflicting conclusions, but unanimous concern at the outcome of the processes I have described. Consequently, the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Council of Scientific Unions, in collaboration with other international agencies, are planning a world climate programme spanning the two decades from 1980 to 2000. This will be preceded by the World Climate Conference in Geneva next year. This programme will have three main elements, which are climate data and applications, an investigation of the impacts of climate on human activities, and, finally, research of climatic change and variability. What all this means to me as a non-scientist is that something is going on in the atmosphere which may not be fully understood, but its effects could change the existing pattern of life for society throughout the world.
Barley is in "ear" at this time of the year and, although it is a pleasure to me that it is the "greenhouse effect" or the warming up of the atmosphere which should be blamed for things that are changing for the worse, instead of our membership of the EEC, it is nevertheless, as the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, has indicated in his remarks, much more than a joke.
... it is no longer a question; that is to say, we may have endless debates on the question of the climate because the subject is just as big as the climate itself. But one thing is now perfectly clear: the increase in the carbon-dioxide content of the atmosphere is, as I say, beyond dispute. One can argue about how one quantifies it. One can argue about the detail, but about the general facts one cannot argue.
I am getting on in years and am beginning to despair of being listened to, but the fact is that in 1963 the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology spelled this out in the same terms as those in which we are spelling it out now. That was in 1963, 15 years ago. The debate was about the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.
The fact is that these variations may be going back to the kinds of conditions before 1870, which were very hard. We know that in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Shakespeare's time, there was in fact a little ice age. Conditions were very extreme. We know this from the whole of nature. I do not want to get embarked into what would become a pretty involved argument on the general climatic picture. But I will say categorically, and beyond a peradventure, that the weather has changed and will never be the same again. It has changed since 1945–1950. There is no question about that. We have got all these variations; this weirdness, this strangeness, et cetera, which we ourselves recognise in our ordinary lives.
I would remind your Lordships that hundred of millions of year ago carbon from primeval forests was locked away in the coal seams, and carbon from the organic life of the seas was locked away in what are now our oil deposits. That carbon was locked away and kept out of circulation for a very long time. The geological vaults were not burgled to any real extent until the Industrial Revolution. During the past century, industry has vomited out of chimney stacks, and vented out of car exhausts, 360 billion tons of fossil carbon into the atmosphere.
The present 325 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase to 400 ppmv by the year 2000. This will mean an average surface warming of 1 per cent.—that is the most conservative estimate—and only 50 years beyond that, by the year 2050, it will increase to 650 ppmv, which is a doubling, an increase in temperature of a minimum of 3 degrees Celsius.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, said, this is not something we can discuss in a quiet non-political way because it is a totally global political question, though it is not a political question which can be dealt with by "demos" or "sit-ins" or any similar ways.
... carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs radiation—the well-known greenhouse effect—and warms it, possibly (I say possibly) giving rise to the melting of the Polar ice caps.
23 January 1979Why are we still arguing about the siting of ground based thermometers when there is an overabundance of direct measurements and of geological and biological proxies which all indicate that the planet is warming and that we are the primary cause ?
A final word on the environment is that I have on another occasion attempted to warn noble Lords about the effects of fossil fuel burning in the upper atmosphere —the "greenhouse effect," and so on. If these programmes, or even a half of them, that are being considered in Europe, in the United States and the Third World come about—and I am sure they will— and if, as is quite possible, we receive further information from the scientific studies being conducted in the upper atmosphere indicating that fossil fuels are going to change the climate, then we may well be faced with a choice of having to cut back on our fossil fuel exploitation.
On reflection, and on reading this report, I would say that even if we were told today that the exploitation of fossil fuels will affect the Earth's atmosphere and therefore our weather, I do not believe that we would stop the future of the coal industry because of that. We would find far more important human and down-to-earth reasons for not doing so. Other countries would do the same. Therefore, I would say that the fossil fuels are going to have to be developed over the next 20 or 30 years. My personal belief is that they will affect the atmosphere and the climate. We are going to have to live with this as one more effect which is man-made; but this effect is much more irreversible than that of the nuclear waste which we are having problems burying. It is a fact that we have created an effect which steadily moves onward and we have no means at all, so far as I am aware—the scientists advise me that is so—of reversing this process. Therefore, I should like to conclude with this warning: although I believe that fossil fuels will have to be developed along the lines we are considering in this report in this country and also in Europe and the Third World, we shall be greatly adding to a process which is far more irreversible than that of the nuclear waste that we appear to be having trouble disposing of for the future.
There are people who will challenge one standard and then come back and rebut it with their arguments, and one finds that scientists are arguing about different things; about different standards of measurement. I am sure that this will be an increasingly important part of the work of the Royal Commission, because control of our environment is expensive. The benefits are usually intangible, and many vested interests, private and public, can, and often do, feel threatened. And, not least, there is the apathy of the public with which to contend.
It seems to me that we shall need to establish standard methods for measuring and monitoring pollution of various kinds so that all of us will trust the evidence and thereby establish the need for action; and not only the need for action, but the will to take it.
Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith, 21 July 1970