While elected Republicans struggle to find a way to make it look as though they’re doing something about climate change without actually doing anything to upset their fossil fuel funders, for die-hard deniers it’s more of the same: repeating the decades-old myth that really CO2 is good for the planet because it’s plant food. There have even been whispers that deniers will use this approach to argue that the social cost of carbon should be negative-- meaning we should actually subsidize fossil fuel use because higher CO2 levels are good for crops.
In fact, fossil-fuel-funded Pat Michaels and Heritage Foundation’s Kevin Dayaratna just published a study with Ross McKitrick claiming exactly that. But given Michaels and McKitrick’s track record (they’re the geniuses whose 2004 study confused radians and degrees) and Michaels and Dayaratna’s positions in Koch-funded front groups (despite their acknowledgements section claiming that “no funding was received for this work”) odds are slim this study will fare well when real scientists get ahold of it.
A quick read makes it obvious that they got the low price tag for climate costs by making some rather bold assumptions in predictable ways- lower climate sensitivity and higher discount rates that downplay future suffering. But that wasn’t quite enough. So the authors also just totally write off the possibility of “future extreme or abrupt events,” the sort of low-probability but highly-catastrophic events that are otherwise unimaginably expensive.
But even all that wasn’t quite enough to get the answer they wanted, so they also chose to boost the CO2 fertilization effect, claiming that mainstream models don’t incorporate how much more growth the additional carbon dioxide will cause. To recap, their claim that carbon dioxide is actually good rests on the belief that the climate won’t change as much in response to CO2 in the future as it has for the past hundred million years, that the costs people in the future must pay don’t really matter anyway, that there will never be any abrupt or extreme events like we’re already seeing, and that CO2 is a more potent fertilizer than the consensus recognizes.
Obviously these are all very brave assumptions to make given the stakes. Particularly because the “actually CO2 is good” meme wasn’t true in the early ‘90s when fossil fuels paid for a video saying as much, and still wasn’t true in ‘16 when we wrote about it and a judge explicitly ruled against it, or in ‘19 when deniers reached for it in response to the IPCC-Lands report. Yet it remains irresistible, with another recent example seen in a Breitbart op-ed by James Taylor claiming that high yields of wheat, corn and soy prove climate isn’t bad for agriculture.
The fact that chemical-input-driven industrial agriculture that relies on ever-larger quantities of fertilizers and genetically modified crops is expanding at the expense of small family-owned subsistence farms is not addressed. Nor is the fact that it's the steady drumbeat of technological advancements that’s increasing crop yields rather than CO2, and in the absence of climate change, yields may well have been much higher.
On top of that, swarms of locusts that have been helped by climate change-driven extreme rainfall are currently ravaging crops in East Africa and threatening food security. And with over 800 million people around the world going hungry despite ever-increasing production levels, even if industrial agriculture is doing a great job of producing a handful of staple crops that are largely used to feed livestock or for processed ingredients like corn syrup, that hardly means climate change won’t make it even harder for people who grow their own food to eat to survive.
But instead of addressing any of that, deniers’ approach can be summed up by a 2013 blog from the famously fake Natural News that is inexplicably getting shared around again: “If carbon dioxide is so bad for the planet, why do greenhouse growers buy CO2 generators to double plant growth?”
We’d like to suggest some sequels: “If floods are so bad for crops, why do farmers irrigate?” or maybe “If viruses are so bad, why do we put them in vaccinations?” Or what about “If pepper spray is so bad, why do we put pepper on food?” and “If we salt our food, why not salt our fields?
Though knowing deniers, the real question is something more along the lines of “If eating lead paint chips is so bad, why do they taste so good?”
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