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Evidence Squared #10: Debunking William Happer's carbon cycle myth

Posted on 2 May 2017 by John Cook, PeterJ

In the first “Breaking Debunking” mini-episode of the Evidence Squared podcast, John Cook and Peter Jacobs explain how the carbon cycle works (the CO2 we breath out originally came from the air) and debunk William Happer’s myth from CNN that breathing adds CO2 to the atmosphere.

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. Bill Happer say's in the first video (1:12):

    "There's this myth that's developed around carbon dioxide - that it's a pollutant - but you and I both exhale carbon dioxide with every breath.  Each of us emits about 2 pounds of carbon dioxide a day, so are we polluting the planet?"

    The obvious rebutal to that myth is to serve Happer with a nice large glass of urine, with some faeces floating in it.  Each of us, of course, emits a significant quantity of urine and faeces every day (or at least we should).  Further, both urine and faeces are fertilizers.  I mention that because in the original broadcast, Happer goes on to mention that CO2 is "greening the planet".  The analogy between urine and faeces, and CO2, in this argument, is therefore precise.  We all still consider water with a quantity of urine and/or faeces in it polluted.  We wouldn't want to swim in it, let alone drink it.  Ergo, the reasons for thinking CO2 is not a pollutant given by Happer have literally no bearing on the case.

    Indeed, if you break it down, Happer's argument is an appeal to ignorance.  Only by being ignorant can the argument appear to make sense.  For somebody supposed to be a science advisor to the President, that is shameful.  For somebody science advisor to President Trump, what else would we expect? 

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  2. I think the analogy is easier than that. Water, like CO2, is natural and life-giving. But too much and you drown.

    Not only do degrees/percentages play a part in the Climate Change issue, but in all environmental issues as well.

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  3. I think both analogies in the posts above are good. I think almost anything can become a pollutant, dependent on circumstances and quantities, etc. We currently have a big problem with cow urine introducing excessive nitrates into rivers, and in this instance its dependent on quantities.

    But it might be better to say CO2 is a pollutant dependent on circumstances. When we exhale CO2 it becomes part of the natural carbon cycle, so doesn't raise atmospheric concentrations, where burning fossil fuels does increase concentrations,so it's reasonable to call it a pollutant if it originates with fossil fuels.

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  4. A definition of "pollutant" that I like is "the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time".

    Ozone is a good example. Important and beneficial in the stratosphere as a UV-blocker, but nasty stuff at ground level where it rapidly reacts with many things biological (such as lung tissue).

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  5. Tom@1,

    I find more appalling Happer's Godwin argument video where, he starts the discussion by comparing Paris Argeement to be "like  Munich Agreement".

    So Happer jumped to the Reductio ad Hitlerum - an ultimate emotive fallacy right from the start, and totally unprovoked.  Reductio ad Hitlerum is a technique used at the end of emotional discussions by trolls or angry disputers who run out of rational arguments. So any rational discussion ended before it started because a rational person will not want to compare their argument to the worst attrocities in history because it's like descending into mud to restlle with pigs.

    It's absolutely shoking that a person with scientific credibility (PhD in atomic physics) and experience (e.g. in optics and spectroscopy) would descend into such primitive, emotive fallacy, a 100% contradiction of epistemic reasoning. Can such "scientist" be capable of evidence based reasoning? I think he is not.

    At this point I have to recall that some commenters herein, have expressed a hope, that the new president could make a positive impact on AGW mitigation despite his ignorance of the problem, if he surrounds himself with right advisors who help him with right decisions. A hope, that I very much doubted from the start, because people tend to surround themselves with the peers they like and represents similar level of intelligence and moral development. That rule applies especially to the case of T-man: pigs like to roam in mud with other pigs, they are very  unlike to e.g. go to the university to listen to the lectures they don't understand. By that exact measure, T-man found himself a "scientific" advisor he likesw to hang out with and who shares his emotive stupidity. I don't need to add that Happer among scientists is the same as T-man among world leaders: a total failure.

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  6. Unfortunately, John Cook and Peter Jacobs are also oversimplifying in the first video. Just because the metabolic carbon cycle is closed doesn't mean that it is balanced. Indeed, 20 million acres of land get desertified and 30 million acres of land get deforested each year, which shows that the metabolic carbon cycle isn't balanced. The planet's ecosystems are far from being in equilibrium.

    In his PNAS paper from 2008, Barnosky estimates that the biomass of all wild megafauna was steady at around 200 Million tons (MT) between 10K-100K years ago. Since then, the human-livestock population has overwhelmed the planet's ecosystems.

    Currently, the human biomass alone is 500 MT and we metabolize 0.93 GT of dry matter biomass (IPCC AR5 WG3 Chapter 11). Our livestock biomass is well over 1000 MT, but they metabolize 4.69 GT, FIVE times as much as all humans put together, because they are an unnatural mix of mostly young animals, who get slaughtered before they reach puberty.

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  7. Chriskoz @5, your reductio ad hitlerum fallacy reminds me of another similar tactic called "poisoning the well" used repeatedly by Trump.

    "Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a fallacy where irrelevant adverse information about a target is preemptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say."

    Regarding Trump and his team, you are of course exactly right. Most people surround themselves with like minded people, and "yes men" and with Trump this has been taken to an an extreme level. The bubble they live in  is gigantic and dangerous, as it insulates them from constructive criticism and full information, so risks poor quality decisions.

    I would however give Obama some credit for including a few people with opposing points of view, regardless of what you think of him in other ways. So not everyone chooses to live in a bubble.

    However apparently Ivanka Trump is moderately sympathetic to climate issues, and Trump pays a lot of attention to "familiy". I hope it's not all a big pretence from Ivanka, but I'm trying to see some positives and not get too despondent.

    Another small ray of hope is apparently some republicans in congress are promoting renewable energy and carbon taxes etc. (from some reputable looking media article, I can't remember which one). The general opinion is that now Obama is gone, it's safe to promote climate issues. But I would think it's probably too little, too late.

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  8. chriskoz @5, personally I am not convinced of the soundness of reduction ad Hitlerum.  To me it is as often used as rhetorical avoidance of argument as are false (and offensive) comparisons to Hitler.  An example of that which you might be inclined to agree with are claims that calling the irrational objectors to climate science "deniers" are an attempt to are the invoking a comparison between AGW deniers and holocaust deniers, and that therefore supporters of climate science thereby show they are without coherent argumentative response, as per reductio ad Hitlerum.

    Better to unpack the analogy.

    The Munich agreement was an ineffective response to a very real threat.  By making that analogy, Happer commits himself to the view that global warming is in fact a very real threat.  A threat comparable to that posed by Hitler. 

    I would take issue with Harper's overwhelming confidence in an economic theory which is not supported by a consensus, ie, that the Paris agreement will cause enormous harm.  I would contrast that dogmatic agreement with a carefully selected subset of economists with his refusal to accept the genuine consensus on climate science.

    I would also take issue with his claim that the effects of the Paris agreement are trivial.  In fact, if actually implimented the Paris agreement will reduce expected warming by around 20%.  But it will not reduce that warming to below 2oC, let alone the 1.5oC above the preindustrial average that a significant number of relevant experts consider necessary to avoid substantive harm from AGW.

    But that the Paris agreement is an inadequate response to an (at least) Hitlerian level of risk?  Yes, that at least is true.

    And coming full circle, I will note that Happer's analogy paints climate change deniers as, not the equivalent of holocaust deniers, but of those traitors in the UK and the US who thought Hitler was a great man, and that we should take his side rather than oppose him.

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  9. saileshrao @6, the change in total CO2 stored as biomass is accounted for by the IPCC as Land Use Change ( or LULUCF), which includes emissions from agriculture, deforestation and reforestation, and desertification.  Cook and Jacobs are responding to a suggestion that human respiration has an effect on total atmospheric CO2 just because it is respiration, and without any consideration of total changes in biomass due to changes in how and where humans farm and source timber.

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  10. Tom@8,

    It's interesting that the "Munich analogy" can be taken at face value as a rational analogy and I agree to your point.

    However Hepper, when asked why this analogy is apriopriate, did not give any indication that Paris agreement was an inadequate response to the "Hitlerian" level of risk. Had he qualified his analogy that way, it would indeed be a valid analogy and not a fallacy. He was given a very clear and ample opportunity to precisely qualify his words. His only qualification was that Paris Agreement was a "garbage" that will result in nothing but "enormous cost". He did not say a single word nor did he even suggest the risk element that both Paris and Munich conferfences tried to mitigate. Ergo, the would be apropriate aspect of his analogy ws not on his mind. Absense of evidence in this case, is IMO the evidence Happer did not use his analogy in the literal sense you're trying to ascribe. On the other hand, the words he used in his qualification - "garbage", "enormous cost" - that added more emotion than precision to his argument, suggests his intentions were emotive rather than epistemic from the very start.

    BTW, there are many diferent, more recent analogies available to express that something is futile. E.g. SALT fiascos, why going back to pre-WW2 event? Because it carries larger emotional load. But, ultimately, Happer's failure to rationaly qualify his analogy is a key for us to conclude that he:

    - did not understand the face value of his words

    - used an inapropriate analogy to express his words

    - by looking for an emotive rather than intellectual analogy, he ultimately fell victim of Godwin's law.

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  11. Even though as I indicated @5, I don't value Happer as a worthy human after learning about his argumentation in this post, I still appologise for mispelling Happer's name as "Hepper" in my comment @10. Sorry.

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