Bad Astronomy

No Need to Worry About Global Warming, Folks: More Carbon Dioxide Will Be Awesome

Earth on fire

Fire photo by peasap; Earth photo by NASA; composite by Phil Plait.

I see a lot of pretty amazingly bad global warming denial online. It ranges from mildly cherry-picked data to such baldly transparent garbage that you have to wonder if the person who wrote it can possibly, actually believe what they are saying is true.

After reading dozens, hundreds, of such mind-numbing articles, I think we’ve found a winner. One that is so sweepingly wrong and based on such a ridiculous premise that it’s weapons-grade denial. Unsurprisingly, it was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a lengthy history of printing reality-free OpEds about climate change. Perhaps surprisingly, it was penned by two actual scientists, William Happer and Harrison Schmitt. I’ll have more about them later.


I present to you the article, titled—seriously—“In Defense of Carbon Dioxide”. At least the title isn’t misleading; it really is an article that is saying, “Sure, we’re dumping vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, but don’t worry, because plants love it! We had lots more CO2 in the air millions of years ago and everything was fantastic!”


If you think I’m being unfair or mischaracterizing the article in any way, then please go read it. You’ll see that is precisely what the article is stating. It is a piece of—if you’ll pardon the expression—breath-taking illogic and intellectual legerdemain.

However, it boils down to two basic and overwhelming problems: global effects of more CO2 in the air, and the rate of increase.


You’re Getting Warmer

Their main point is the idea that you can just increase the CO2 in the atmosphere and then stand back and watch plants grow better; everything will be hunky-dory. That is monumentally naive. That might work in a small greenhouse or in a lab, but on a whole planet you’ll run into the fact that the ecosphere is incredibly complex. That extra CO2 means a lot of extra heat, and that will have all sorts of ramifications.

Sure, growing pineapples in Toronto might be fun, but what do you think will happen in Kansas when the summer heat gets cranked up to broil, and changing weather patterns dry up all the rain for a few months at a time?


Everything comes with a price. Droughts, flooding, fires, rising sea levels…increasing CO2 may help some plants in some places, but it will have catastrophic effects elsewhere. The authors just dismiss all this without evidence. Hence my use of the term “denial”.


Simply claiming increased CO2 will help plants grow while ignoring everything else it does is a stunningly tone-deaf argument, yet one deniers seem to use over and again. Looking at a few plants growing better due to more CO2 is like ignoring that you killed a patient while curing their hangnail.

Stick Checking

Then there’s the problem of rate. Sure, CO2 levels were higher in the past. But it’s not just the amount the counts, it’s how quickly it rose to that amount. Solid research done over the past few years has shown that the current rate of increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is entirely unprecedented over at least the past 11,000 years (and almost certainly much farther back than that). There were times in the past when the amount was higher, but it took millennia to reach those levels. We’re about to blow through the record like a rocket, and we’ve done it in a mere century.

global warming graph
The famous “Hockey Stick” graph, extended well into the past, shows we are experiencing unprecedented warming.

Graph by Marcott et al. (via Climate Desk)


That means there’s no time to adapt. Evolution takes time, which means countless species of animals and plants won’t adapt. It’ll cause a massive disruption of the planet’s ecosphere on a colossal scale.


Dr. Michael Mann is a climatologist whose famous “hockey stick” graph showed global temperatures were rising rapidly—a result that has been confirmed over and again, despite denier claims. I asked him about this Wall Street Journal OpEd, and he said:

It took nature hundreds of hundreds of millions of years to change CO2 concentrations through natural processes such as natural carbon burial and volcanic outgassing.

So, yes, 100 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous period, CO2 concentrations were higher than today, and the Earth was warmer than today. Nature buried all of that carbon over a timeframe of 100,000 years. What we are doing is unburying it. But not over 100 million years. We’re unburying it and burning it over a timescale of 100 years, a million times faster. There is no precedent in Earth history for such an abrupt increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.


Think of it this way: Imagine driving a car at 100 kilometers per hour. Apply the brakes slowly and evenly, and over enough time you will gently and smoothly glide to a stop.


Smash into a telephone pole and you’re dead.

In other words, rate matters. Happer and Schmitt completely ignore that.

If You Can’t Take the Heat, Write for the WSJ

This idea that CO2 isn’t dangerous has been a denier talking point for some time now, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. They claim that CO2 is just a natural and “harmless byproduct of nature”, which is bonkers; try living on Venus to see why.

That politicians would say something this utterly nonsensical is de rigueur. But the authors of that atrocious Wall Street Journal article are scientists. William Happer is a physicist at Princeton University, but also denies that the current warming is due to increased carbon dioxide.


The other author may surprise you: Harrison Schmitt, a geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut who walked on the Moon in 1972. However, as I’ve pointed out before, being a hero doesn’t make you an expert on climate change. He has a long history of flat-out denial of global warming as well, making some pretty bizarre and completely wrong claims about Arctic sea ice, for example.

That’s the part that really gets me. The arguments they make in that OpEd don’t even come close to passing a scientific smell test. As climatologist Michael Mann points out, “The whole article is built on a fallacy, a straw man.”

I agree. It’s just another in a woefully transparent series of Wall Street Journal OpEds denying the reality of global warming. They ignore evidence, use cherry-picked data, pollute the discussion, and distract from the real problem.

They are simply, plainly—and dangerously—wrong.