Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Is CO2 a "Pollutant?"

Image result for samuel alitoPerhaps you are as tired of this question as I am.

Answer: Natural CO2 is not a pollutant. Anthropogenic CO2 is a pollutant.

Too difficult to understand?

Apparently it is for at least one member of the US Supreme Court: Samuel Alito.

According to Slate, here's what Alito said this past Saturday, at a keynote speech at the Claremont Institute’s 2017 annual dinner on Saturday night:
Now, what is a pollutant? A pollutant is a subject that is harmful to human beings or to animals or to plants. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is not harmful to ordinary things, to human beings, or to animals, or to plants. It’s actually needed for plant growth. All of us are exhaling carbon dioxide right now. So, if it’s a pollutant, we’re all polluting. When Congress authorized the regulation of pollutants, what it had in mind were substances like sulfur dioxide, or particulate matter—basically, soot or smoke in the air. Congress was not thinking about carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.
This is just dumb on a couple of levels.

First, as Mark Joseph Stern at Slate points out, EPA was the defendant in Mass v EPA 2007. The EPA didn't want to regulate CO2 -- Massachusetts sued them to force them to do so, under the Clean Air Act.

It's very strange that a Supreme Court Justice would not understand the basics of such a case that appeared before his court.

Morever: let's please start specifying clearly that anthropogenic CO2 is the pollutant, not all CO2, and certainly not the natural CO2 that existed in the atmosphere before the Industrial Revolution, about 280 ppm.

That's really all you have to say: anthropogenic CO2, from our burning of fossil fuels is a pollutant -- an unwanted substance with deleterious effects -- but natural CO2, existing before the Industrial Revolution, is not.

And no, Justice Alito, human breathing do not contribute to the CO2 problem. If it did, and likewise for the respiration of all other mammals, we'd be up to our necks in CO2 and probably would not exist by now.

Please, man, learn a little science.

9 comments:

Lars said...

If it's not a pollutant, why does the body regulate it so precisely and get rid of its excess?

William Connolley said...

I don't understand your post. Just reading your quote from him, you can disagree with it, but it isn't obviously dumb, and has nothing to do with the EPA.

Harry Twinotter said...

Gotta love semantics. It doesn't matter if CO2 is classed as a pollutant or a fizzy drink, it's greenhouse effect is the same.

I am always puzzled about why some people make up their own definitions when they are expressing an opinion. The EPA have their working definition.

Ned said...

WMC writes: "I don't understand your post ... and has nothing to do with the EPA."

Alito is a justice on the US Supreme Court. He is expressing his displeasure about the outcome of a case that came before the Court in 2007, in which the commonwealth of Massachusetts sued the US EPA to force the EPA to begin regulating CO2 emissions under the terms of the Clean Air Act. A majority of the Court agreed with Massachusetts and thus ordered the EPA to comply (i.e., to draw up regulations on CO2 emissions) but Alito disagreed with this decision.

The quote is a snippet of Alito's explanation for why he thinks the idea of regulating CO2 emissions is wrong. Alito's colleagues on the Court considered those arguments and rejected them back in 2007.

But what the Slate article is pointing out is that Alito seems not to remember the fact that the EPA was attempting to avoid regulating CO2 emissions, and had to be forced to do so by the Court. In his speech, Alito cites the EPA's regulation of CO2 emissions as an example of "regulatory overreach" by an unelected out-of-control bureaucracy (the EPA). But in fact the "unelected bureaucracy" was resisting issuing those regulations until the duly-elected representatives of Massachusetts took them to court and forced them to do so.

So, yes, the quote here is part of a misguided attack on the EPA.

William Connolley said...

Ned: that provides context that was lacking. But it still doesn't make the comments that the post quotes "dumb". It is simply a disagreement about the meaning of the word "pollutant". When he says "When Congress authorized the regulation of pollutants, what it had in mind were substances like sulfur dioxide, or particulate matter—basically, soot or smoke in the air. Congress was not thinking about carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases" I think he is quite likely correct - so attacking it as "dumb" is wrong.

"Alito seems not to remember the fact that the EPA was attempting to avoid regulating CO2 emissions": what in what Alito *actually said* - as opposed to other people paraphrasing him say - makes you think that?

Ned said...

I'm not going to weigh in on the question of whether Alito's remarks were "dumb" -- that's subjective. I disagree with Alito, and think there are fairly obvious counter-arguments that he ought to consider. I'll leave it at that.

WMC writes: "what in what Alito *actually said* - as opposed to other people paraphrasing him say - makes you think that?"

David Appell linked to the transcript of Alito's speech (the link is on the text "said this past Saturday" in the OP). Scroll down below video #2, to this paragraph:

"Here’s the basic drill: Congress enacts a broadly worded mandate that very few people can disagree with. Then it hands off the problem to a department or agency to make hard policy choices that are guaranteed to make one group or another, and maybe both sides, angry. There was a time when the Supreme Court put at least some limits on the degree of legislative power that Congress could delegate, but that ended a long time ago. Now, once a department or agency promulgates a regulation that purportedly interprets a statute enacted by Congress, the Supreme Court defers to that interpretation, unless it’s unreasonable. And that result has been a massive shift of lawmaking from the elected representatives of the people to unelected bureaucrats. "

Alito's argument is (1) Congress enacts a well-intentioned law; (2) agencies make the actual regulations to implement the law, and then (3) the courts defer to the agencies. As a result, "unelected bureaucrats" in the agencies are free to impose overbearing regulations on the country.

Skip down a couple of paragraphs, and Alito says "Here are two examples." His first example involves regulation of wetlands and the process for resolving disputes over those regulations. I don't know the details and won't comment.

His second example begins a few paragraphs further down. Alito says "Here’s another example: regulation of the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases..." and proceeds to discuss the 2007 court case. Alito goes on to say:

"Yet in an important case decided by the Supreme Court in 2007, called Massachusetts v. EPA, a bare majority of the Court held that the Clean Air Act authorizes EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. Armed with that statutory authority, the EPA has issued detailed regulations .... a policy of this importance should have been decided by elected representatives of the people in accordance with the Constitution and not by unelected members of the judiciary and bureaucrats."

That is a fairly blatant distortion of the facts of the court case. The "unelected bureaucrats" that Alito is so angry about were resisting enacting regulations for CO2 emissions. The "elected representatives of the people" took the EPA to court to force them to begin regulating CO2 emissions. The Court did not "defer" to the EPA; it refused to defer to the EPA.

Alito tried to use the 2007 case as an example of his argument. But it doesn't fit. He actually has the context of the case more or less exactly backwards.

William Connolley said...

Yes, I appreciate that the EPA was told to do something by the court. But I don't think you're interpreting A correctly. He is saying that he is unhappy about the 2007 court decision; it is entirely reasonable that he be unhappy about it, if he wants to be. He thinks that "a policy of this importance should have been decided by elected representatives of the people in accordance with the Constitution and not by unelected members of the judiciary and bureaucrats. But that is the system we have today, and it is a big crack in our constitutional structure". And this is an entirely reasonable argument to make, whether you agree with it or not.

David Appell said...

William, yes, but the Supreme Court ruled as they did based on their interpretation of the Clean Air Act and its amendments, all passed by Congress.

Ned said...

WMC, yes, it is reasonable for Alito to be unhappy about the 2007 court decision.

But he doesn't say "I am unhappy about the 2007 decision". He says the EPA's regulation of CO2 is an example of the courts "deferring" [his word] to "unelected bureaucrats" [his phrase] and allowing them to pursue unchecked regulatory overreach.

That is not a reasonable argument to make. The Court actually refused to "defer" to the "unelected bureaucrats" who were attempting to avoid regulating. Instead the Court insisted that those bureaucrats follow the instructions of the elected representatives of the people (in Congress, who passed the Clean Air Act, and in the States, who took the EPA to court).

If Congress did not want the Clean Air Act to apply to CO2, Congress could have amended the act to make that clear, either before or after 2007. If the people of Massachusetts did not want the EPA to regulate CO2, they could have refrained from taking the EPA to court.

Contrary to his own argument, Alito is actually suggesting that the "unelected bureaucrats" at the EPA should have been deferred to by the Court, instead of the elected representatives of the people.

Alito is unhappy about the outcome of the 2007 case, but tries to frame that as an argument about the process. It doesn't work.