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?