I disagree with Andy Revkin’s effort to end “Carbon Emissions”

The NYT‘s Andy Revkin writes on his blog today:

In the spirit of accuracy and settling on a common lexicon for climate discourse, I’d like to propose that a certain bit of climate shorthand go away. It’s the tendency to discuss the climate issue in terms of “carbon emissions.”  Just doing a Google search of blogs, I found 322,963 hits for this phrase.

Here’s the problem. First, not all carbon-containing emissions exert a heat-trapping effect on the atmosphere. Carbon monoxide, or CO, for instance, is not a significant  greenhouse gas.

Second, and most important, not all greenhouse gases contain carbon!

….  It’s a small point. But clarity is important in this arena, where smoke and mirrors are so abundant. Can we start talking about “greenhouse gases,” or “heat-trapping substances” if including black carbon, which of course isn’t a gas?

What do you think?

You can probably guess what I think but here goes:

The term “carbon emissions” is fine.

It has the benefit of being technically accurate in almost every situation — for instance, “we need to sharply reduce carbon emissions” or “carbon emissions are starting to destroy a livable climate.”

It also happens to cover the overwhelming majority of “heat trapping substances,” which, by the way, is an awkward phrase that hardly anyone uses.  Google it — I got 2390 hits, about one tenth of “heat trapping gases.”

But my biggest problem with this whole matter is that first alternative Revkin offers “greenhouse gases,” is obviously much more flawed than the term Revkin complains about.  First off, as Andy notes, it isn’t all inclusive itself.  But second, as everybody knows — or should:

Greenhouse gases, which include water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane, warm the atmosphere by efficiently absorbing thermal infrared radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, by the atmosphere itself, and by clouds. As a result of its warmth, the atmosphere also radiates thermal infrared in all directions, including downward to the Earth’s surface.hus, greenhouse gases trap heat within the surface-troposphere system. This mechanism is fundamentally different from the mechanism of an actual greenhouse, which instead isolates air inside the structure so that the heat is not lost by convection and conduction.


So the term isn’t even scientifically accurate.  Yet everybody uses it.

If “greenhouse gases” are okay, then certainly “carbon emissions” are.

Rhetorically, the work I’ve seen on polling and focus groups suggest an even better term is “global warming pollution.”  I’d recommend people use that term.  It is arguably more accurate than most of the terms currently being used, and has the virtue of communicating more information in a short phrase.

But the need for variety, the need to not use the same narrow a set of terms over and over again, suggests to me that we should pretty much keep all of the commonly used terms.

What do you think?

25 Responses to I disagree with Andy Revkin’s effort to end “Carbon Emissions”

  1. Bullwinkle says:

    Classic trick. He’s losing the argument, so he wants to change the terminology so he can reset the play clock.

    Reminds me of ‘intelligent design’ and ‘Jesus horses’.

  2. Philip H says:

    I’m with you, but for a different reason. While I am exceedingly liberal in my politics, I happen to have a predeliction for both precise and expository language. English, for all its confusing grammar and ill informed sentence structure, is a rich evocative language. When the press, or academia, or politicians, start telling us we can’t say a word or turn a phrase because it might offend, or it’s not inclusive enough, what they are really doing is slowly daming up free expression. It’s why, while I generally don’t use the “N-word” (which I think I ought to be able to use BTW), I won’t go around telling others not to. I will educate them as to the vile history of the word, in hopes that they will make a better choice.

    So on AGW, lets stick to what conveys the message. Carbon Emissions does just that.

  3. Robert says:

    I would opt for an even simpler shorthand. Forget emissions (which are nigh on impossible to measure) and focus on the amount of fossil fuel extracted, where, in carbon terms:

    2 tonnes of coal = 1.5 tonnes oil = 1 tonne of gas.

    Coal, oil and gas is extracted from large sites which can’t be hidden and could be easily minitored and controlled. Conversely, emissions come from everywhere, right down to the 2-stroke engine powering your strimmer.

    Aside from the small fraction of fossil fuel which ends up sequestrated to landfill as plastic, virtually all the rest of it ends up in the atmosphere. Hence it is a very good proxy for CO2 emissions.

  4. caerbannog says:

    Carbon monoxide, or CO, for instance, is not a significant greenhouse gas.

    CO has a short atmospheric lifetime (on the order of months). It is quickly oxidized to form carbon dioxide. This is very basic chemistry that any science journalist should know.

  5. charlie says:

    Revkin’s argument would make some sense if the coal company/Republican party attempt to say “carbon is good for you” campaign took off. As far as I can tell, that didn’t, and there is no need to switch around terms.

  6. Dill Weed says:

    Presumably vague language includes a pernicious and largely uncontrollable source of greenhouse gases.

    Human exhalations

    Human flatulence

    We’re killing ourselves

    Dill Weed

  7. DavidCOG says:

    > global warming pollution.

    I also read somewhere the recommendation to call it ‘global heating’, as ‘warming’ sounds somewhat comfortable and non-threatening.

  8. Erik says:

    I’m fine with either term. But I disagree with your characterization of how a greenhouse works and that it is a fundamentally different process. The glazing in a greenhouse absorbs and re-radiates infrared. Adding an opaque (to infrared) barrier between your seedlings and the night sky is one of the important things that keeps them growing. A shed will stay at ambient temperature while a greenhouse will stay well above.

    [JR: It is not “your characterization.” It is “everybody’s science.” The two effects are essentially different, even if a tiny part of one is the same as all of the other.]

  9. Scatter says:

    One thing which would be good to get rid of is the measurement of emissions in terms of tonnes of carbon rather than CO2. I don’t know if it’s used stateside but it is in Europe (by policy wonks only really) but it frequently leads to confusion (and a factor of 44/12 difference).

    CO2 or CO2e only please!

  10. Brendan says:

    I do think Revkin has a point though when he says “Second, and most important, not all greenhouse gases contain carbon!”. In the short term, it may not matter as much of the warming caused by humans comes from carbon. However, in terms of building long term solutions to global warming, it is important to remember that if we replace our carbon emissions with methane emissions, we are going down the wrong path. Personally, I think “carbon emissions” is fine for say a coal power plant, when the greenhouse gas we worry about is carbon, but on the other hand it’s kind of silly to talk about carbon emissions when talking about the cows on a cow farm. I do think it is important when we talk about solutions to keep in mind that carbon is not the whole problem.

  11. Charlie says:

    I agree that Revkin is being silly and trying to divert the argument–there’s nothing wrong with “carbon emissions”.

    However, Erik is right that the IR characteristics of glazing materials matter in a greenhouse. Citing a Wikipedia article doesn’t settle the question, especially when another Wikipedia article addresses the same topic in more depth and does say that the IR characteristics matter ( ). Also, if you look at people selling greenhouse glazing materials, they have different grades with different IR characteristics. It’s true that blocking convection is an essential part of the function of a greenhouse, but it’s not true that the IR effects are “tiny,” especially for making it through a cold, clear night.

  12. Charlie says:

    Brendan, for what it’s worth, methane does have carbon in it: CH4. So do CFCs, HFCs, and HCFCs. But it’s true that not all greenhouse gasses have carbon in them.

  13. Jim Eager says:

    Scatter, I quite agree that measuring only the weight of the carbon can be confusing to the public, and I have gone round and round with denialists over their own confusion over it, even with some who have flat out refused to accept the 44/12 ratio.

    But the reason for using only the weight of the carbon is because it makes it far easier to compare the source carbon (fossil fuels vs emissions from natural sinks) with the resulting CO2, CO, and methane in the atmosphere. After all, it is the “carbon cycle”, not the carbon dioxide cycle.

    Plus, as others pointed out, CO and methane eventually oxidise to CO2 in the atmosphere, but sticking with CO2 or even CO2e will not describe that CO, and how many members of the public understand the concept of CO2e and that it includes methane, nitrous oxides, ozone CFCs, etc?

  14. hapa says:

    carbon — from fuels, land, sea, livestock — is the bulk of the problem, and hydrocarbons are physically messy. maybe andy has a background worry about one bad thing being swapped for another because of a loophole. i wouldn’t be worried about that. if we can pull this off, it’s unlikely we’ll make that kind of mistake.

  15. hapa says:

    jim eager: a lot of the public thinks evolution is fake. other parts confuse the ozone hole with global warming, while another group thinks cassandra was in it for the money. “CO2e” is not that kind of problem. you might have a hard time finding people who remember seeing that shorthand at all.

  16. Pangolin says:

    I think that keeping track of carbon emissions as a subset of global warming pollution is important. We have no means of removing nitrous oxide or methane from the atmosphere and they degrade fairly quickly compared to carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a pollutant in excess either in the atmosphere or dissolved in water. It remains a pollutant until the carbon is bound up in something else.

    Burning hydrogen isn’t a problem. Burning methane is a problem because of the carbon portion of the emissions just as the carbon from burning coal is the problematic part of the emission spectrum and the water vapor is ignored.

    Until the carbon in coal that is burned is returned to a solid as charcoal, peat, hydrocarbons or some form of carbonate it’s a problem. A huge store of CO2 isn’t really something you want to keep in your backyard. If it gets loose it will kill you. The carbon atom is the thing that has to be secured.

  17. The secret memo has come out, henceforth “carbon emissions” shall be called:

    “the Glorious Sacrifice to Reclaim Our Exhilarating Economic Future”

  18. Leland Palmer says:

    I wouldn’t trust anything that originates at the NYT.

    Is this an attempt to dissociate global warming from coal and oil production?

    Or is this an attempt to add confusion to the debate?

    Or both?

    Our existing terminology is just fine, thanks, in my opinion.

  19. Sasparilla says:

    Another muddy the waters moment from Mr. Revkin – if things do get delayed and we blow this thing, he will personally have alot of future blood on his hands because of the visibility of his columns. Bullwinkle was right on about this.

    If the same thing was being stated by Sen. Inhofe (or the other deniers/delayers) it would fit perfectly – divert, complicate and make things less clear – Inhofe would love to have the club of water vapor within our normal climate change day to day vocabulary to pound on this whole process about to the public.

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    The big job is leaving coal, oil, and gas in the ground. That means changing our entire energy economy — trillions of dollars of energy producing assets and trillions more of energy using assets. As Inhofe, Barton, Exxon, and all the other deniers and delayers constantly remind us, it is a huge job.

    Revkin is dithering.

  21. By far the most dangerous pollution in the world is ignorance. Clear discussion including both reason and commonly understood terminology is the best counter to that ignorance, and where such discussion can become quantitative, the whole thing moves to a level where one can make sensible choices.

    Most people on either side of the present debate have no more than a vague notion of what they are talking about. If they are careful about the way they speak, for example, they say, “carbon dioxide” when that is appropriate, there is a better possibility of intelligent discourse.

    Lofty rhetoric is better served by “carbon” since it rolls off the tongue a bit more easily. Lofty rhetoric is everyone’s right, but when I realize that is the mode of conversation, I try to get out of there.

    I recall our host agreeing to use CO2 or carbon dioxide some time in the past.

  22. Greg N says:

    I think a good alternative to “global warming pollution” would be “fossil fuel pollution” – one illustrates the problem caused, the other illustrates the cause of the problem.

  23. David B. Benson says:

    Fossil Fuel Pollution is Global Frying Pollution!

  24. riverat says:

    Greg N, I like fossil fuel pollution but it’s not complete either. A significant amount of CO2 comes from non-fossil fuel sources, the biggest (I think) being the production of cement.

  25. quakergardener says:

    “But second, as everybody knows — or should…”

    There’s a huge question of education here:

    This spring I taught a college Rhetoric 101 class focused on environmental issues. The first task was to discuss global warming, of which possibly three of twenty-five students had any conceptual notion. Few of them had paid much attention in high school science, or hadn’t been taught about GW, so I, an English teacher, began there.

    We started with Secetary Chu’s statement of fear about California’s future conditions reported in the Chicago Tribune. We discovered they didn’t feel they understood GW.

    We then went to How Stuff Works, where in a fairly decent –or at least fairly easy to understand–explanation (judging as a non-scientist) this analogy appears:

    “Although it’s not a perfect analogy, you can think of the Earth sort of like your car sitting out in a parking lot on a sunny day. ”

    Not too different from the greenhouse idea disparaged in Joe’s entry. Now, the rest of the explanation hews closely to Joe’s explanation above, but what I saw in their subsequent explanatory essays, for the most part, was the analogy, rather than the more scientific explanation. To me this demonstrated a lack of real understanding, though they did get the idea that GW might be a bad thing and were at least able to visually conceptualize and discuss GW’s implications, which they weren’t before. Several said they wished the media offered more explanations like this.

    My conclusion, based on this small sample, is that many people who get much of their information through mainstream media are woefully uninformed of even the most basic scientific information. Yes, everybody should know these things–but how do we teach them in ways that are useful to them?

    BTW, I don’t accept Wikipedia as a reference in the research essays I assign.