Romney Plays to His Denialist Base: “I Don’t Think Carbon Is a Pollutant”

By The Intersection | July 21, 2011 10:39 pm

by Jon Winsor

Last month we praised Mitt Romney for taking a brave stand, if not a full-throated one, supporting the overwhelming weight of climate science. He was immediately pounced on by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum–while standing alone from the other GOP presidential contenders in talking seriously what scientists have said in unambigiously large numbers.

Meanwhile, the unapologetic Tea Party candidate Michele Bachmann has taken the lead in Iowa by 13 points. To be fair, Romney has decided not to compete in Iowa. But Bachmann has made a name for herself by proposing things like abolishing the EPA, and no doubt Romney has taken notice.

In a recent town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, Romney took his own swipe at the EPA:

The key statement: “I don’t think carbon is a pollutant in the sense of harming our bodies.”

My favorite comeback to the “not a pollutant” argument is from Steven Chu: “water is generally very good, water in great deluges is not good.” It doesn’t matter what you call it. The question is what effect it has. And as Romney’s own Massachusetts DEP concluded, there are profound health consequences to climate change.

What Romney may be considering, though, is the term “pollutant” in the legalese of the Clean Air Act, and he may sincerely think that the EPA shouldn’t enforce this law in such a broad way. The conservative American Spectator, though, remains unimpressed:

The Romney campaign contends there is an “important distinction” between pollutants and greenhouse gases, in the context of global warming and regulation of the invisible gases… but what’s the difference? He believes they should be limited just like real pollutants, so whether or not he calls them that is irrelevant.

I tend to agree with this (although I don’t agree with much else in the American Spectator). For Romney, the EPA may be the wrong regulatory vehicle, but that doesn’t mean he’s against regulating carbon. But here’s the big problem: It’s almost impossible to tell what Romney thinks. Does he actually want a serious effort to curb carbon emissions, or is carbon for him not a “pollutant,” and has no potential to “harm our bodies”?

I doubt we’ll learn any time soon. It’s interesting to contrast Romney with his counterpart Republican governor in that other blue, high tech state on the other coast, California. Romney hedges very carefully in this 2004 Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan (slow Internet Archive PDF download here) even when his statement appears in front of pages and pages of informative discussion and plans for action. By contrast, his west coast counterpart Arnold Schwarzenegger never hedged.

Why are these two politicians so different? Romney is by nature an incredibly cautious politician (Rick Perlstein conjectures why here). And Schwarzenegger can’t be president (he wasn’t born in the US, so he’s ineligible), so Schwarzenegger never had a reason to be cautious, and never had to worry about the national Republican base. Romney on the other hand had his eye on national office early on, and needs that base’s motivated support in the primaries and beyond (and can’t afford to lose that support to Michele Bachmann). For this reason, Romney’s squirming and awkward posturing is not surprising coming from the governor who initiated the 2004 Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan…

Update: According to ThinkProgress, Romney’s administration in Massachusetts had no problem frequently referring to carbon dioxide as a “pollutant.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Janice Toberlich

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/green3.htm
    We are intolerant of stupidity and those who are proud of it.

    http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm
    21 July 2011: 5,866,869 acres had burned in the US.

    One g of C/cm^2 burned. That is good for wild grass, obviously small for burned trees and their canopies. Organics within the top two cm of soil also burn. One g of C/cm^2 burned is a *very* conservative number. Double or triple that is entirely reasoanble. We’ll go small…

    (5,866,869 acres)(40,468,564.2 cm^2/acre)(1 g C/cm^2)(3.6642 g CO2/g carbon) = 8.700×10^14 g CO2 or 870 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, absolute minimum. By the book,

    http://www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/420f05001.htm
    Gasoline carbon content per gallon: 2421 grams
    http://www.epa.gov/oms/climate/420f05004.htm
    A gallon of gasoline produces 8.8 kilograms of CO2, Code of Federal Regulations, 40 CFR 600.113-78

    (2421 g C)(3.6642 g CO2/g C) (1 kg/1000 g) = 8.871 kg. Dial down a tad for Enviro-whiner “oxygenates” and other additives. 5,866,869 acres US alone burned through 21 July 2011 are then

    (8.700×10^14 g CO2)(1 kg/1000 g)/(8.8 kg CO2/gallon) = 9.89×10^10 gallons gasoline. 98.9 billion gallons of gasoline burned equivalent.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/…/Gasoline_and_diesel_usage_and_pricing
    The US burned average 386 million US gallons of gasoline/day in 2005. [before the “recession”]

    (9.89×10^10 gallons gasoline)/(386 million gallons/day) = 256 days

    Shut down *every car* for 253 days. That balances CO2 emitted by wildfires through 21 July 2011. 21 July is day 202 of the year. Natural CO2 emission overall worldwide (fires, methane from wetlands and water impoundments, 7 billion humans and their animals breathing) absolutely swamps any fossil fuel combustion contribution.

    Hire firemen not fluttering mouths.

  2. Mike H

    With respect to the Clean Air Act, he’s absolutely right. The scope of the original Clean Air Act was to control the levels of airborne contaminants that are hazardous to human health. It doesn’t matter how you try to contort the language, regulation of CO2 is out of its scope (that’s why we have a legislature).

  3. Jon Winsor

    Mike H.:

    We have a fairly conservative Supreme Court. And they didn’t have trouble ruling CO2 as a “pollutant”:

    3. Because greenhouse gases fit well within the Act’s capacious definition of “air pollutant,” EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases from new motor vehicles. That definition—which includes “*any* air pollution agent … , including *any* physical, chemical, … substance … emitted into … the ambient air … ,” §7602(g) (emphasis added)—embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe. Moreover, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are undoubtedly “physical [and] chemical … substance[s].” Ibid. EPA’s reliance on postenactment congressional actions and deliberations it views as tantamount to a command to refrain from regulating greenhouse gas emissions is unavailing. Even if postenactment legislative history could shed light on the meaning of an otherwise-unambiguous statute, EPA identifies nothing suggesting that Congress meant to curtail EPA’s power to treat greenhouse gases as air pollutants. The Court has no difficulty reconciling Congress’ various efforts to promote interagency collaboration and research to better understand climate change with the agency’s pre-existing mandate to regulate “any air pollutant” that may endanger the public welfare.

    Massachusetts vs. EPA

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-1120.ZS.html

  4. Sean McCorkle

    Mike H @ 1
    The scope of the original Clean Air Act was to control the levels of airborne contaminants that are hazardous to human health.

    According to this, CO2 affects people negatively at concentrations about a factor of 10 above current atmospheric levels, and twice that or higher it is dangerous.

  5. Nullius in Verba

    The main philosophical problem with using the EPA and the clean air act to regulate CO2 is that the legislation on pollutants doesn’t make any distinction as to source. A hazardous substance is assumed hazardous, irrespective of where it came from or how it got there. Thus, carbon dioxide breathed out by livestock, or people, or released by the decay of vegetation at the end of the year, or any other natural source counts as “pollution”. If you own a (deciduous) forest, you’re technically a polluter.

    While the legal arguments haven’t gone quite that far, the principle legal problem the EPA faces is indeed that the legislation requires them to cover many more sources than is feasible. Under the act, regulation is required for all facilities emitting more than a threshold amount of any regulated pollutant, where the threshold is either 100 tons/yr or 250 tons/yr depending on the type of facility. This has been estimated to cover more than 6 million new sites, all requiring permits. While the EPA is legally entitled to declare CO2 to be a regulated pollutant if it chooses, the unavoidable legal consequence of doing so would be a more than hundred-fold increase in their workload. (With no extra funding or staff.) The backlog of applications would virtually shut the US economy down until all the permits could be issued. This is made worse when you remember that the EPA’s regulation wouldn’t actually reduce the hazard measurably, either, so it’s unclear on what basis the EPA could say yes or no to any permit decisions.

    Claiming that this would lead to absurd results, (Of course! Because the legislation was clearly never designed to do anything so ridiculous!), the EPA have been trying to rewrite the law so that they can decide their own thresholds. That’s obviously illegal and unconstitutional – the unelected officials of executive agencies cannot rewrite legislation to suit themselves.

    As noted by #1, the CAA is clearly designed to regulate (directly) hazardous substances – hazardous enough that 100 tons/yr is a big deal – in order to prevent harm. Carbon dioxide does not pose that sort of hazard, which is why the results of trying to twist it to fit are ever-mounting absurdities. It’s a transparently political abuse of process, and fundamentally undemocratic.

    It reminds me a lot of the petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide – DHMO is another greenhouse gas, and according to the IPCC’s projections will be directly responsible for even more warming than CO2. It’s also emitted by the combustion of hydrocarbons. It’s a physical/chemical substance emitted into ambient air, that as Steven Chu said, can be deadly at sufficiently high concentration. Isn’t the logic of this proposal such that you would have to regulate emission of DHMO via the EPA as well?

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    FWIW : My prediction is that it will be Rommney versus Obama for the 2012 US presidential election -and Obama will win.

  7. Sean McCorkle

    @4
    The main philosophical problem with using the EPA and the clean air act to regulate CO2 is that the legislation on pollutants doesn’t make any distinction as to source. A hazardous substance is assumed hazardous, irrespective of where it came from or how it got there. Thus, carbon dioxide breathed out by livestock, or people, or released by the decay of vegetation at the end of the year, or any other natural source counts as “pollution”. If you own a (deciduous) forest, you’re technically a polluter.

    There is no philosophical problem here. Many substances regulated by the EPA and CAA are found or produced in nature, i.e. mercury, benzine and toluene just to name few. The latter two are natural by-products of plant matter decomposition. They’ve been around so long that many enviromental microbes have evolved metabolic pathways to deal with these toxins. But that doesn’t mean someone is free to build a factory near me which copiously outputs one of these chemicals to the point where it harms me, and then use “Oh its a naturally occurring chemical” as an excuse. The purpose of regulating the production and use of these substances is to ensure that they don’t reach harmful levels in the environment.

    The Clean Air Act takes it a step further, explicitly recognizing both the widespread production of pollutants (for example, many millions of cars) and that the pollutants spread far and wide, well beyond state lines, affecting individuals and livestock far from the source, and stating up front:

    (b) Declaration
    The purposes of this subchapter are—
    (1) to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population;

    among other things.

    A person should not have to suffer breathing problems in a city simply because just they can’t precisely identify those individuals whose cars actually generated the harmful molecules which entered their lungs. Same goes for harm caused by benzine, mercury etc.

    CO2 clearly falls under the purview of the Clean Air Act on the basis of its adverse medical effects alone. It is harmful at concentrations on the order of a percent or so. Furthermore, one doesn’t need to be able to distinguish exactly which molecules come from animal breath and which from burning fossil fuels in order to regulate production, so long as it can be demonstrated that fossil fuel combustion is the dominant or major source. And since the negative consequences of increased greenhouse heating fall under section 7401 (b)(1) above, CAA regulation because of greenhouse effects is also appropriate and proper.

    (By the way, the “water is harmful in high concentrations” argument is a bogus strawman and very pedestrian; you should stop using it—it’s unbecoming. We can tolerate high amounts of water (people routinely SWIM in it) as long as it doesn’t block O2 from our lungs (asphyxiation is a danger also posed by environments of pure N2 and argon, both of which are relatively inert and non-pollutant.) and as long as one doesn’t drink so much that the body is purged of ions like sodium and potassium. We are made largely of water and we need to consume it. Quite the opposite for CO2, which is a waste product our bodies produce that needs to be expelled quickly.)

  8. Sean McCorkle

    Janice @ 1

    You’re making a big error by only looking at one side of the carbon balance sheet: all that carbon released back into the atmosphere by forest fires had been previously sequestered from the atmosphere during the years of growth of those plants. Once the fire is over, plants will begin growing anew and sequestering atmospheric carbon again. If those forests and grasslands are allowed to grow back to their original mass, all of the carbon expelled during the fires will be recovered from the atmosphere.

  9. Nullius in Verba

    “But that doesn’t mean someone is free to build a factory near me which copiously outputs one of these chemicals to the point where it harms me, and then use “Oh its a naturally occurring chemical” as an excuse. The purpose of regulating the production and use of these substances is to ensure that they don’t reach harmful levels in the environment.”

    My argument was quite the opposite. I was saying that if it occurs naturally, then the EPA would be forced to regulate the sources of the natural emission.

    In this case, you may have a problem defining “harmful levels”, though. The thresholds for global warming action overlap with the naturally occurring.

    “A person should not have to suffer breathing problems in a city simply because just they can’t precisely identify those individuals whose cars actually generated the harmful molecules which entered their lungs. Same goes for harm caused by benzine, mercury etc.”

    Or pollen. Grasses, grain, and other air-pollinated plants cause breathing difficulties for hayfever sufferers and asthmatics. (Fungal spores too.) Should farmers and other plant-growers be permitted to emit them into the air?

    “CO2 clearly falls under the purview of the Clean Air Act on the basis of its adverse medical effects alone. It is harmful at concentrations on the order of a percent or so.”

    Which would be about 10,000 ppm. Let me know when CO2 levels in the atmosphere get there.

    (And levels can exceed 20,000 ppm in a crowded room, just from all the people breathing out. Therefore people breathing out do need to be regulated. Yes?)

    “so long as it can be demonstrated that fossil fuel combustion is the dominant or major source”

    Fossil fuel combustion obviously isn’t the major source. Natural sources and sinks far exceed anthropogenic efforts. That’s why the Keeling curve wobbles up and down.

    “By the way, the “water is harmful in high concentrations” argument is a bogus strawman and very pedestrian; you should stop using it—it’s unbecoming.”

    That wasn’t me – that was Steven Chu, being quoted for the purpose by our gracious host.

    And it’s still true.

    “We are made largely of water and we need to consume it. Quite the opposite for CO2, which is a waste product our bodies produce that needs to be expelled quickly.”

    The EPA is about protecting the environment, and plants in the environment consume CO2. It’s not a waste product to them.

    Water not only needs to be consumed but also expelled quickly. If urine doesn’t count as “waste”, I’m not sure what does. Indirectly, via the plants we eat, we’re made of CO2 too.

    “You’re making a big error by only looking at one side of the carbon balance sheet”

    So far as I know, the Clean Air Act only looks at one side of the balance sheet, too.

    “all that carbon released back into the atmosphere by forest fires had been previously sequestered from the atmosphere during the years of growth of those plants”

    The same may be said, on a longer timescale, of fossil fuels, yes?

    But all of the above is nit-picking. The risks from sort of pollutants the EPA is intended to cover via the Clean Air Act don’t include the type of risk fossil fuel CO2 poses to the climate. You can’t set an environmental safety threshold of 10,000 ppm or higher based on human health and turn down any fossil fuel use, nor set a limit of 350 ppm based on climate computer games without banning people breathing out.

    And you can’t get round the fact that the legislation specifies limits of 100 or 250 tons/yr before paperwork is required, which you have to implement if CO2 is classed as a regulated pollutant.

    It’s a transparently political abuse of process by unelected officials, and grossly undemocratic. If you think CO2 should be regulated, then argue the case and get the votes to regulate it in Congress. Stop cheating.

  10. Sean McCorkle

    @9

    Or pollen. Grasses, grain, and other air-pollinated plants cause breathing difficulties for hayfever sufferers and asthmatics. (Fungal spores too.) Should farmers and other plant-growers be permitted to emit them into the air?

    No, because farmers & plant growers only replaced plants which were already there anyway. Also, high individual specificity in allergic reactions points more towards individual treatment of the condition, unlike general toxins which affect much broader populations.

    Which would be about 10,000 ppm. Let me know when CO2 levels in the atmosphere get there.

    I’m only too happy to: I get a pretty decent exponential fit to the Mauna Loa record that hits 10,000 ppm around 2300. But I would hope that, for safety’s sake, the regulated levels would be well below where problems are reported: 5000 ppm in 2245, 2000 ppm in 2180, 1000 ppm in 2120. The latter is a little over a century from now. These are all numbers being floating around for safe levels.

    And don’t forget, thats the entire atmospheric average. Its easy to imagine higher concentrations being reached in locales near strong sources (ie. urban areas during temperature inversions, which are also high population areas and thus a concern)

    Fossil fuel combustion obviously isn’t the major source.

    it IS the major source of the growing excess concentration.

    Natural sources and sinks far exceed anthropogenic efforts.

    Natural sinks exceed natural sources. Anthropogenic sources are overwhelming the net natural sinks.

    That’s why the Keeling curve wobbles up and down.

    You’ve simply got to be kidding. The very slight, regular seasonal oscillations in that curve are completely dwarfed by the steady secular increase of the last 50 years

    The EPA is about protecting the environment, and plants in the environment consume CO2.

    No, its not. You’re confusing the EPA mission with that of the Park Service. The first and foremost mission of the EPA is the protection of public health.

    Water not only needs to be consumed but also expelled quickly. If urine doesn’t count as “waste”, I’m not sure what does.

    Sorry, water is not the waste product—its only the vehicle for the soluble wastes. You’re grasping at straws here.

    So far as I know, the Clean Air Act only looks at one side of the balance sheet, too.

    To control dangerously high outputs of toxins from factories, thats entirely appropriate.

    You can’t set an environmental safety threshold of 10,000 ppm or higher based on human health and turn down any fossil fuel use, nor set a limit of 350 ppm based on climate computer games without banning people breathing out.

    Oh of course you can—stop being silly. Banning people breathing would kill them so thats ridiculous. You’re presenting a half-truth/excluded middle argument in that, by equivocating respiration which is necessary for human and animal life, to the combustion of fossil fuels, which is not. Regulating allowable amounts of human waste products and by-products in lakes, rivers, reservoirs etc. is done all the time, without forcing people to stop going to the bathroom. And we’re all better off for it.

    The risks from sort of pollutants the EPA is intended to cover via the Clean Air Act don’t include the type of risk fossil fuel CO2 poses to the climate

    This distinction is only in your mind and not found in any of the legislation. As Jon Windsor says in #3 above, even the very conservative, business-friendly US supreme court says so.

    It’s a transparently political abuse of process by unelected officials, and grossly undemocratic. If you think CO2 should be regulated, then argue the case and get the votes to regulate it in Congress. Stop cheating.

    Pure baloney. The CAA was passed by Congress, EPA was established by an elected president (Nixon, a republican BTW) and approved by Congress. If they are now found to be distasteful, Congress is always free to repeal it.

  11. Nullius in Verba

    Hmm. I noticed you skipped the bit about the 100-250 tons/yr limits.

    The rest is a bit off-topic, but I’ll go through it briefly, purely for the entertainment value.

    1. The plants farmers raise are not natural in either species or quantity. And the CAA makes no such distinction, anyway. It just asks if you’re emitting it.
    2. Exponential growth is not projected to continue that long.
    3. So you agree that fossil fuel is not the major source. The CAA only deals with sources, not more subtle distinctions.
    4. The curve wobbles up and down. For it to go down at all, the natural changes in that period have to exceed the anthropogenic. You’re comparing several years anthropogenic contribution against a single season’s natural contribution.
    5. What do the letters EPA stand for?
    6. Water is a product of metabolism. And is excreted as waste when in excess of requirement.
    7. Banning people using energy would kill them, too. (We couldn’t maintain current population levels and longevity without industrial technology.) And of course it’s ridiculous! – that’s exactly what we’ve been saying. But it’s the logical consequence of consistently applying the CO2-as-pollutant reasoning we’ve been seeing. If you was to be ridiculous enough to set a safety limit of 350 ppm, that would be the consequence. With a limit of 10,000 or more, there is no justification for stopping any industrial emissions under the regulations, because they’ll never approach dangerous levels.
    8. The supreme court only said that the EPA had the legal right to declare CO2 a pollutant if it chose. It didn’t say it was correct in judging it a pollutant, or that it didn’t lead to absurd consequences. The EPA can declare water, or air itself a pollutant if it chooses. That doesn’t mean it is one, except legally.
    9. Congress passed the CAA act to regulate real pollutants. The abuse of process is not the CAA itself, but the attempted rewriting of the limits in the CAA regarding when permits are required.

    The CAA as it stands leads to absurd consequences, that would destroy both the EPA and cripple the American economy if CO2 becomes a regulated pollutant. Only Congress can re-write the law, or vote them the billions it would cost to implement as the law stands. It puts them in an impossible situation. It’s a giant bluff, and it’s been called. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

  12. TTT

    We made a net addition to carbon levels interacting with the biosphere when we dug up long-sequestered underground sources and burned them. They hadn’t played a role in the source-sink cycle for the prior several hundred million years.

  13. Sean McCorkle

    Nullius,

    Curious: If CO2 is not a pollutant, what are the properties or aspects which determine that?

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