by Lowell Bliss
The first scientific paper I ever wrote was about atmospheric gas concentrations, and I submitted my writing years before James Hansen's seminal work on climate change. Mind you, I wasn't a climatologist; I was a seventh grade student in fifth period General Science. I doubt if Mr. Shanahan, my teacher, would appreciate me claiming his grade as "peer review." Nonetheless that paper"which furthermore was about oxygen, not carbon dioxide; and about only the 210 cubic feet of atmosphere in the Apollo 1 command module"has held me in good stead as I consider how best to respond to climate change skeptics.
I can understand how the EPA must consider labeling CO2 as a pollutant if it hopes to bring warming carbon emissions under its purview, but it does seem a little silly, doesn't it? Carbon dioxide is so obviously a natural component of the processes of flora and fauna alike. More importantly, I fear that labeling CO2 as a pollutant deprives us of a direct application to a whole host of environmental problems, and arguably to the one root behind them all. The issue isn't "good vs. bad," but rather "sufficient vs. too much." Here's where the analogy of the Apollo 1 fire is useful.
How could anyone blame oxygen for anything? Surely if there's one innocent molecule in the world, it's oxygen. The command module in which Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee met their deaths on January 27, 1967 while on the launch pad during a pre-flight test, was pressurized at 16.7 psi with a 100 percent oxygen environment. Investigations later determined that such a pure oxygen environment at launch represented a combustion hazard. Later, Apollo 2 launched with an atmosphere of 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen (taking a cue from the Russians.) The cabin vented down to 5 psi for orbit and all nitrogen was eventually purged by incoming oxygen, so that the Apollo 2 cabin did return to pure oxygen, but only at low pressure. When Dr. Floyd Thompson (chair of NASA's review board) and Col. Frank Borman (who would later command Apollo 8) appeared before a Senate committee, they defended pure oxygen. A two-gas system would add weight to the spacecraft. Nitrogen ran the danger of producing the bends. Apollo 2 and all missions that followed proved that NASA was capable of doing the science. Dr. Thompson's testimony however was: "Oxygen has to combine with something else in order to make a complete combustion process. Oxygen by itself is a very useful gas. We all use it and we depend on it, but when it gets in close proximity with certain fuels or what we call fuels or combustible materials, they will then get in trouble."
Similarly carbon dioxide is "a very useful gas. We all use it and we depend on it." But in the famous quotation of James Hansen's on which Bill McKibben (of 350.org) has so wonderfully capitalized: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its [then] current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." The problem isn't that carbon dioxide is bad; it's that there's too much of it"relatively. Similarly, the warming (greenhouse) effect of carbon dioxide isn't the problem. We need the re-radiation of infrared heat back to the planet's surface for our survival. But what if there is too much re-radiation?
I have long since abandoned my science classes for the humanities. Whatever definition of "pollutant" the lawyers of Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007) argued over COz seems lost in its connotation. Pollution is bad. Therefore CO2, the pollutant, is bad. Really? As one who appeals for the care for creation, I'd much rather have the ready-made rhetorical bridge that crosses over from too much CO2 to the too much consumerism which drives the too much burning of too much fossil fuel. There's nothing inherently wrong with the consumer goods that I enjoy for the glory of God, is there? But I also need to know when to quit. . . also to the glory of God, and for the good of my neighbor, and for my own physical and spiritual health. When a climate skeptical friend wants to argue that CO2 is NOT a pollutant, I wholeheartedly agree with him or her. But then I pull out an analogy from seventh grade General Science class, and together we give thought to the biblically-informed adage that "Enough is as good as a feast."
We are pleased that Lowell Bliss has accepted our invitation to be a regular contributor to the Creation Care Blog. A fourteen year veteran of India and Pakistan, Lowell is the director of Eden Vigil, and, while this first post is an exception, he'll primarily be writing about issues related to environmental missions. Eden Vigil publishes the Environmental Missions Prayer Digest. You can read Lowell's Oct 6, 2010 article: "What is an Environmental Missionary?" in our archives.