Wall Street Journal Misfires (Again) on Climate Change


Every so often the Wall Street Journal publishes some thinly researched, headache-inducing column calling into question the conclusions of climate science. Like clockwork, it gets tons of clicks, the misinformation propagates, and the wider public is left none the wiser. Just when you think they might have dropped the act, another op-ed comes along as if to remind readers which side of the future they represent. This time they go after CO2—the linchpin of human-caused climate change—in a piece titled “The Phony War Against CO2.”

It’s a mercifully brief column, barely enough there to round out any assertions its authors seem to want to make. Their basic argument: a) CO2 is essential for life and b) More CO2 is a good thing for plants, agriculture and the planet overall. It shouldn’t take much digging around, or indeed much more than a course in introductory logic, to see that, while a) is true, b) does not follow from a). I doubt the “More is Better” philosophy will check out for anyone not already committed to denying climate change; the bulk of the Journal‘s readers simply aren’t that stupid.

We’ve been through this before, of course: the tireless “CO2 is Plant Food” trope has been peddled for years by conservatives bent on politicizing inconvenient science. I addressed this particular fallacy in an earlier essay:

“It’s of course true that CO2 is essential to life as we know it, but it does not follow that more is better. Alcohol is not hurriedly toxic but consume twelve beers in as many minutes and you’ll have newfound appreciation for the phrase ‘drink in moderation’. Steroids, as well, are naturally produced by the body, but adding prodigious amounts on top of that baseline can disrupt human physiology in myriad ways. Likewise, additional CO2 can stimulate plant growth, but dump too much carbon into the air and you alter the climate to the point that those plants can no longer survive.”

Plant varieties, like most organisms, are sensitive to temperature swings outside the range for which they have adapted. Spend too much time outside of that healthy range, and the plant is unable to grow properly. As the anthropogenic influx of CO2 is driving up global temperatures—about 2.0° F since 1880—more CO2 threatens to expose more plant and crop varieties to temperature values beyond the nominal range.

Even without the factor of warming, the argument for more CO2 is still waylaid by the evidence. And that’s because the relationship between CO2 and botanical growth is only proportional up to a point. Studies have shown that too much CO2 leads to a reduction in photosynthesis, lower nitrogen uptake (another key ingredient for plant growth), and increased vulnerability to insects. It is well understood today that there is a warming threshold (varies by crop) beyond which agricultural yields no longer increase, but begin to decline sharply due to changes in precipitation, water availability, soil moisture and plant nutrient levels.

Slight boosts to CO2 are usually harmless and often promote positive trophic response, especially under the controlled environments found in your average greenhouse. But eventually you run up against limits as offsetting variables come into play. Focusing strictly on CO2 is like thinking that eating more potassium alone will yield a well balanced diet. Like your body, the climate is a complex ecosystem shaped by a wide array of interdependent variables.

Climate Feedback reached out to climate scientists in their analysis of the story (as they typically do for the bigger denialist stories that go viral), and concluded the following:

“This commentary in the Wall Street Journal by Rodney Nichols and Harrison Schmitt tries to argue that CO2 emitted by humans is, overall, “beneficial”–particularly for agriculture. To do so, the authors ignore all the evidence of the negative impacts of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere (due to climate change and ocean acidification, for example). The commentary relies on claims that are not supported by any evidence, like the assertion that more CO2 in the atmosphere has helped to reduce poverty.

“The authors invite the reader to “check the facts” but do not apply that maxim to themselves. Instead of referring to published scientific research, the article draws heavily from information created by an advocacy group that exists to promote CO2 emissions as beneficial. Taken as a whole, the body of scientific evidence clearly shows that this is not the case.”

The Journal plays up the agriculture angle, but offers no peer-reviewed evidence to support their claims. The consensus among agriculturalists and plant and climate scientists is that any gains in crop growth from increased CO2 (and, as noted above, even this relationship holds only under ideal conditions in many cases) are far outweighed by the harmful impacts associated with CO2-induced warming. Climate Feedback airs the same criticism, rejoining that the claim that additional CO2 will increase agricultural yields is directly refuted by IPCC’s AR5, which concluded that productivity is expected to be hindered significantly in response to additional warming.

As for the suggestion that increases in CO2 will aid us in the problem of feeding an overpopulated planet–a strained extrapolation if there ever was one–Wolfgang Cramer, Professor at the Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE), had this to say:

“The article speaks about scientific questions under an “opinion” banner—as if questions about the role of CO2 in the Earth system could be a matter of opinions. Virtually every single point in the article can be easily proven wrong by referral to standard textbook knowledge. For the major final conclusion “With more CO2 in the atmosphere, the challenge [to feed additional 2.5 billion people] can and will be met.”, there is absolutely no scientific credibility, nor support in the scientific literature—it is pure fantasy.”

It should further be noted that neither of the two authors has formal training in this area to begin with, a significant problem when siding against science that was settled generations ago. Harrison Schmitt—the only one of the two with a background in science—hasn’t published anything climate-related that I can find. If he believes there are good grounds for doubting what we know about CO2 and its impacts on climate, he is more than welcome to bring those ideas to the peer-reviewed literature. That he would resort to firing off a few lazy paragraphs for the popular press rather than active engagement in the empirical process of science should speak to the legitimacy of his views.

The Journal‘s readers may also wish to know that Schmitt has appeared on Alex Jones’ radio show, where he suggested that environmentalism and concern for climate change was a front for Soviet Communism. (If Green is the new Red, I want my EDF donations back.) This isn’t the first time Schmitt’s made these facile arguments for online rags, either. His latest is basically a verbatim copy of those he’s written previously, such as this one from three years ago.

In short, the notion that more CO2 is the panacea for plant life is scientifically baseless and has been debunked countless times over. The only ones still peddling this sophomoric tripe are known cranks with either an ideological commitment to small government or a vested interest in the continued burning of fossil fuels. Readers of the Journal interested in preserving the health of our planet should push back on this critical issue in any way they can, even if it means canceling their subscription.


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