CO2 is Good for Plants: Another Red Herring in the Climate Change Debate

Guest post by Mariana Ashley

CO2 feeds plants. And so, too, does ignorance and a little bit of politicking feed inane misconceptions. Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois made famous the CO2 as plant food argument during a U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing in 2009. The basic plant food argument is that since plants need CO2 to grow, more CO2 means, by proxy, more sustained and robust plant growth globally.

A quick look at the science behind this argument demonstrates its inherent weaknesses. In closed, controlled environments, like greenhouses and plant nurseries, an increase in CO2 does indeed spur plant growth. However, the globe is not a controlled environment, and it’s incredible sensitivity to a variety of factors is something that is often taken for granted when such narrow arguments are proffered. A rise in CO2 levels is not the only consequence of climate change, and it is these other effects that have had and will have more abiding adverse effects on plant growth around the world.

While CO2 is an important element that stimulates plant growth, the planet's flora requires a cocktail of elements to maintain its health. Arguably the most important of these elements is water. With the global increase in temperature caused by the various factors affecting our climate's balance, increased evaporation means decreased soil moisture. Another effect of global climate change is erratic precipitation patterns. This causes extreme weather in certain geographic locations only sporadically, with overall, balanced rainfall drastically reduced.

Suppose, however, that CO2 does prime plant growth in the world at large. To what extent will this happen? For one, the increased density of forest vegetation could increase the risk of wildfires, which have reared their ugly heads in California all too often in the past few years, wreaking devastating damage. Presumably the CO2 as plant food enthusiasts offer their argument in an effort to demonstrate the resulting agricultural advantages. But even if "CO2 fertilization" occurs, weeds proliferate in tandem with crops, which would only increase the global cost of agriculture.

We could discuss the scientific finer points of global climate change and the unlimited effects it could have on global plant growth all day. A Climate Denial Crock of the Week video does just that in debunking the CO2 plant food argument. However, at its most basic level, the CO2 plant food argument rests on a simple logical fallacy--the fallacy of exclusion, which focuses on one cause-and-effect (in this case, more CO2 means more plants) to the exclusion of all other cause-and-effect chains.

When CO2 is framed as an element good for plants in order to dismiss the other existing pieces of evidences that suggest the dangers of global climate change, we are left with an idea that only distracts us from the more pressing issues of our planet's increased loss of balance.

This guest post is contributed by Mariana Ashley, who writes on the topics of online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email:

Posted by Mariana Ashley on Thursday, 1 July, 2010

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