You guys may want to check out Part 1 and Part 2, which had detailed the connections several big climate change skeptics had to Big Oil.  "Fine," conservatives will say when you bring this up, "but so what," they'll ask, "you haven't refuted the science behind their arguments.  I ain't buying it, you global warming alarmist."  And then the debate usually descends into spirited name-calling after that.

This diary will attempt to provide, once and for all, a scientific rebuttal based on logic to one of their key arguments.  Then, I'll show you exactly how to frame the issue to put yourself in an unassailable position.  This is key.  Too many of us (myself included) get emotional when arguing with these people who refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming research that shows climate change is indeed being influenced by humans.  This is a trap, and they'll pounce on you and make you play defense, instead of the other way around.  Follow me below the fold to see exactly how to argue with them.

The argument I will focus on debunking is, as I said in my previous diary, a column Dr. Carter wrote in 2004 about carbon dioxide.  Very interesting first paragraph.

The first thing to be clear about is that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.  Rather, the presence of this trace gas in Earths atmosphere is vitally important for the growth of plants.  And in extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, plants in turn release the oxygen that is required for the respiration of most animal life forms, you and me included.

In just that one paragraph, I found three errors in his argument, with varying levels of egregiousness.  The first error is the most trivial, but requires the most science just to explain what the error is.  For those whose eyes will just glaze over when reading science, you may skip to the next two errors.

Error 1: Before I go about debunking the first error, I first need to introduce a little biology and chemistry.  Oh no, you say, I'm not good at science!  Well, neither am I.  I'm in statistics, I know some math, and I absolutely suck at biology and chemistry.  But these are just the basics one can pick up from Wikipedia and other sources online, and I've tried to distill it down enough so that you don't have to be trained in science to understand it.

Dr. Carter talks about these plants taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.  This is a chemical reaction called carbon reduction.  Anyone know what the overall process behind it is called?  Photosynthesis.  Heard of that, right?  Now, photosynthesis technically only applies to converting sunlight into chemical energy in the form of ATP and NADPH.  But what happens to that stuff?  The ATP and NADPH then get used to transform carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen.  And there's the oxygen the plants give out.  Basically, without the photosynthesis in the first place, most of the chemical energy won't be there for the plant to produce oxygen.

But few people seem to know this: plants also take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere!  This is a process called respiration, i.e., breathing.  Think about it.  Plants need oxygen to survive.  Now, plants are respiring 24 hours a day nonstop.  That means they're constantly releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Photosynthesis, however, only occurs during the day.  (The "photo" part of photosynthesis represents light.)  And it turns out carbon reduction in the daytime completely overshadows plant respiration, so the net effect is one of taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.  So... what happens in the nighttime?  Without the sunlight to spur on the chemical reaction, what happens?  Respiration takes over.  At night, plants are pretty much just spewing forth carbon dioxide and taking up our oxygen.  Click here for a tutorial on this process if you want to brush up on it.

Now, the way this applies to Dr. Carter's column is that he had to have known this.  That he doesn't mention it at all is a sign he may not be completely forthcoming with his readers, leaving important facts out.  And how many people knew that plants also spew back carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?  But, you could make the case that leaving this fact out is trivial, because overall, plants still take in a lot more carbon dioxide than oxygen, and release a lot more oxygen than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Error 2: What plant is most responsible for releasing the oxygen into our atmosphere?  Trees?  Flowers?  Grass?  Nope, none of the above.  In fact, their output of oxygen is almost negligible.  Whaaaa..., you say?  Yep, about 98% of all the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from phytoplanktons living in the ocean.  (Although some have put the figure at only 90%. Still, 90%'s a lot.)  Yes, plankton, the stuff you thought was only there for whales to eat.  Well, they've got more functions than just that.  Now, how many of you, when you read Dr. Carter's paragraph mentioning plants, thought of trees and flowers and grass, and not ocean life?  Maybe you thought of algae.  But phytoplankton?  Probably close to none of you did, and those that did probably have a pretty good background in science to begin with.  Most of you thought of embryophytes, otherwise known as "land plants" in common parlance.  Most of you probably have never heard of the word "embryophyte" either.  I know I hadn't until I researched this.  (BTW, one thing I cannot find online is if phytoplankton respire the same way land plants do.)

See, here Dr. Carter employs the trick of parsing the language that Bush and Company frequently use.  While not techincally incorrect, the way he writes it is very misleading.  Because he's not writing this for a scientific journal and other scientists who'd know what he really means by "plants".  He's writing this for the layperson who may not have a good science background and doesn't know any better.  He knows who his audience is, and so as a scientist, he has to know this will happen, and his failure to clarify what he means is a sign of intellectual dishonesty.  It's this obfuscation of the whole truth that I find so callous, when the consequences could be so potentially grave for all of us.  Obfuscation to lead us into a war with another country (Saddam + 9/11) or to make us do nothing about a potentially deadly threat is reprehensible.  But that's still not the kicker.

Error 3: Look at his first sentence.  "... carbon dioxide is not a pollutant."  Dr. Carter is claiming carbon dioxide is not a pollutant because plants need it to produce oxygen.  Well, in the same line of thinking, oxygen is necessary for animal life, including us.  But, if we were producing huge amounts of oxygen, enough so that it raised the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere by just a few percentage points, it would make wildfires on Earth unstoppable.  Pure oxygen, when added to combustible materials, causes them to combust far more violently.  Just look at what happened to Apollo 1.  It took only 17 seconds in a pure oxygen environment to kill the whole crew.  Trained astronauts who could hold their breath for over a minute were suffocated to death in just 17 seconds.

Burning is a chemical reaction involving oxygen, so flames become more intense with more oxygen present.  That's how welding torches work, for instance.  Acetylene by itself doesn't burn very hot.  But add a bit of pure oxygen, and it can cut through blocks of steel.  So could oxygen be a pollutant?  Of course.  Increase oxygen levels enough, you can get uncontrollable wildfires.  Increase carbon dioxide levels, the models predict disastrous global warming.  For another example, iron is a heavy metal necessary for life.  Take too much of it, and it's toxic.  Same goes for other heavy metals.  This is the crux of it all: Carter's argument is simply and entirely without logical foundation.  Anything can be a pollutant if there's enough of it, and this is a mistake no self-respecting scientist would ever make.  The rest of his article is all based on the lie that carbon dioxide is simply not a pollutant, and that is being completely intellectually dishonest.

Tim Patterson, another one of the so-called Friends of Science, was also echoing Carter's beliefs that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.

He mocked the view that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. "It's plant food, it's a natural part of the atmosphere."

So Patterson is being just as intellectually dishonest as Carter is.

All right, so now you know one of the logical mistakes these scientists supported by Big Oil are making.  Don't be fooled by it.  But when arguing with climate change skeptics, many will simply refuse to hear any scientific or logical arguments, feigning ignorance or just being unconvinced this intellectual dishonesty is even a big deal in the first place.  Some of you may have these same doubts.  So now, I provide the unassailable argument.  We have to base this, as Al Gore has said, as an ethical issue.  Here's what to say to these skeptics:

Why is it that conservatives are so against taking precautionary measures against a possible catastrophic climate change?  Nobody is saying that those scientists should ever say that global warming is without a doubt caused by humans (yes, I realize they ARE saying it now, but since you can't argue with some of these people based on the science itself, I'm giving up this point to focus on other ones they can't as easily dodge), but only that there is an indication that human activity may be linked to a very rapid warming of the environment.  That's not actually saying very much at all.  However, are you willing to ignore the possible ramifications of doing nothing to investigate or prevent this possible catastrophe in a future that your children and grandchildren will have to grow up in?

It seems to me that the generation of my parents acted completely irresponsibly in the '60s and '70s.  And now, during the time of possible catastrophic change, they are again being irresponsible in not actively pursuing ways to possibly mitigate this change.  How much does it really cost to change our behavior as a precautionary measure?  What Al Gore's point is is to show people that there are productive ways of dealing with this issue that are not reactionary, and not economically unsound, that it can actually be economically beneficial to adapt our behavior as a preventative measure.

The point of all this is to ask where the burden of proof lies.  What the clear majority of scientists are telling us is that our actions are potentially very harmful, and that there are economically viable solutions.  Isn't the burden of proof on the side that says that our actions are not harmful?  Because this is the side where there are potentially dire consequences, but not on the other.  The other side says, if we're wrong, we're wrong, but then there'd be no potential disaster for the planet.  If your side is wrong, our future is f*cked.  So why the resistance?  Does it really make sense?

As far as the paper trail to Big Oil, the point is there's not much money in the global warming camp.  The money is where the oil industry is, and certainly they have vastly far more resources than a couple of science foundations in a country where those in charge now are very against any notion of global warming.  What's more reasonable, to think about rich environmental groups attacking the poor, poor corporations, or the extremely wealthy corporations funding a minority of scientists for their personal gain?  Does the National Science Foundation have a known bias or vested interest in proving global warming either way?

Also, most scientists, when they publish their results, go through a rigorous peer review process to ensure the quality of their work. Scientists paid by oil companies generally publish columns raising doubt, which have no peer review.  The peer-reviewed papers they publish actually don't seem to cast much doubt.  But then they're publishing a bunch of op-ed columns designed to be submitted to newspapers, or prepping to go on FoxNews to decry global warming as nothing more than a "hoax perpetrated on the American public".  Where's the scholarship in that?  And most of the stuff ExxonMobil is funding is not for actual new and innovative research to be done (just a small amount is).  Most of it goes to letting them cram op-ed columns down our throat.  Where is the science in that?  But still, I will say that all sides need to be looked at carefully, because scientists are not without prejudice and self-interest.

As for the warming trend, no one is saying that the Earth is any warmer now than it's been in the past, on a geological time scale (again, I write this only to debate with people who are impervious to scientific fact).  But human beings do not live on a geological time scale.  This apparent warming trend appears to be occurring very quickly (a geological blink of an eye, if you will), and most scientists in the world are afraid that we and our habitats cannot adapt to it.  There is also a question that if human involvement is responsible for this change, because of its apparent speed, it might begin an uncontrollable warming.

I don't think any of these concerns are alarmist.  I think that they're reasonable concerns posed by the vast majority of scientists who are probably quite reasonable people.  Nobody is saying that we should destroy our economic infrastructure in order to minimize the possible environmental impact of human beings.  What people are saying is that there are technological alternatives out there that can and should be explored, but which are not seriously being explored at this current time, even though they may actually benefit us economically, socially, and politically, and that we are running out of time to correct this.  Why?

Now, careful consideration of the vast majority of viewpoints of scientists and climatologists should be considered a reasonable action.  Noting the possible economic interest of those dissenting scientists who are in fact paid by oil corporations is as well reasonable.  What is extreme and unreasonable is to assume without any evidence that environmental protection will result in economic tragedy.  Why is it some of you want to disregard these climate models as being unproven at best, and hogwash at worst, while putting your faith in economic models that say our economy will collapse if we increase our standards for carbon dioxide emissions?

What concerns me is the opposition to acknowledging climate change.  The arguments all lie around ignoring a potential problem, and pretending that either it doesn't even exist, or that the jury is still out.  Many of the prominent scientists who are climate change skeptics are in fact sponsored in part by ExxonMobil, an extremely rich and powerful company that has a vested interest in the status quo. If you want more names and connections, you can find many of these names at ExxonSecrets.org.  There's verifiable money trails.  Now I am not saying that every dissenting scientist is paid off by the oil companies, though it may appear that way.  I am saying that many of them are engaging in an incestuous relationship with the oil companies that have an obvious agenda and a vested monetary interest in having climate change not being taken seriously, which does taint these scientists' message.  And I'll also say that I'm confident that there are reputable scientists who, in good faith, disagree with the vast majority of the scientific community.  But this should play no bearing on our actions.  Why?

Because our actions, if taken appropriately, should not be economically destructive, but rather economically profitable and politically empowering.  These actions may also help avert a potential catastrophe.  So my question is, why the staunch opposition to taking these actions?  Most of the support for this opposition comes from large corporations that historically have made huge profits at the expense of the environment.  So why should we remain beholden to them and their wishes, when we can create new industries, new jobs, and new technology, that will increase our political strength in the world, crush our Middle Eastern foes financially, and most importantly for some (and least importantly for others), lessen the environmental impact of human beings on the planet to help ensure a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.

Notice I ask a lot of questions.  That's how to debate these people.  You draw them out and make them state their exact opinions on the subject.  Just saying that they don't believe in global warming isn't good enough.  Make them state why they don't believe it.  Make them be specific.  Once they give you specifics, use those against them.  If you're on the correct side of an argument or debate, this is generally not that hard to do.  It does take practice, though.

And yes, if you were wondering, most of what I wrote above was culled from several different debates on other message boards I've had with these people over the last couple of weeks.  Several of them I got to shut up quite quickly, another one actually wrote, "I surrender," and claimed he had work to do to make a living.  I told him not to worry, that he could post his response over the weekend when he had more time.  He never took me up on that offer.  LOL.

I hope this diary has proved useful in both shedding some light on the science behind this, but more importantly, how to frame and debate the issue with those who refuse to acknowledge the growing threat of global warming.  I close with a quote from Upton Sinclair:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Originally posted to BruinKid on Fri Jun 30, 2006 at 08:50 AM PDT.

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