The Washington Post says carbon dioxide is visible to the naked eye.
In a Page One story, staff writer Juliet Eilperin says catastrophe looms if carbon dioxide emissions are not reduced to zero. Her story is illustrated with this photograph. The caption says, “A heavy haze could be seen in Beijing in August 2007.”
The haze in the photograph is not carbon dioxide. It is a combination of photochemical smog (the byproduct of volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and sunlight) and particulate matter (such as sulfates). In other words, it is conventional air pollution. A photograph illustrating carbon dioxide in the lower atmosphere would have crystal clear visibility.
Any objective environment reporter and editor would know that this photo misleads readers to believe that carbon dioxide causes visible air pollution. Therefore, because the Post is a major newspaper, both Eilperin and her editors can be inferred to have intended to mislead.
In her story, Eilperin emphasizes the gap between what her sources say needs to be done and what political leaders are willing to do. She writes: “For now, at least, a goal of zero emissions appears well beyond the reach of politicians here and abroad.”
The “reach of politicians” is an interesting construct. Let’s deconstruct it.
What global regulatory policy mandates would be necessary to achieve zero carbon emissions? Here are some major examples:
- Global population (not just population growth) must be radically reduced.
If the human “carbon footprint” is the problem, then fewer humans is inevitably part of the solution.
- The production of carbon-based energy must be eliminated.
Eliminating carbon dioxide emissions requires eliminating the combustion of carbon-based fuels.
- Energy consumption by those who remain must be severely curtailed. For the developed world, this means reducing energy consumption to a level that can be sustained without fossil fuels.
For the developing world, it means accepting perpetual poverty. If nuclear energy is proscribed for reasons other than carbon, the permissible level of consumption (and global population) must be a reduced by another large fraction.
What powers do governments worldwide (or a worldwide government) need to have to enforce these regulatory mandates? They would include:
- The power to eliminate billions of people, and to ration the human right of reproduction.
We can fairly assume that no people or nation will volunteer to be exterminated. This will have to be accomplished by force.
- The power to prescribe how energy is produced and proscribe how it is not.
In principle, all electricity could be produced through nuclear fission or fusion, and renewable sources such as hydro, solar, and wind, which do not require the consumption of fossil fuels to generate. Transportation poses a more difficult technical problem, and until a technical solution is devised, governments must have the authority to limit who gets to travel, where they travel, and how they get there.
- The power to effectively prohibit the combustion of prohibited energy, such as fossil fuels.
This includes the power to impose severe penalties on violations of restrictive energy consumption rules. How severe? It defeats the objective of zero carbon emissions if people are allowed to pay fines or buy carbon offsets for the privilege of consuming fossil fuel-based energy. Thus, penalties for illicit energy use must be so severe that violations are rare. If an elite group is exempted from these rules, then governments must have the power to suppress public complaints and policy dissent.
Neither of the two regulatory policy innovations under discussion — transferable permits (that is, “cap and trade”) and carbon taxes — could achieve zero carbon emissions. Both have a fatal flaw: they allow individuals and firms to make their own decisions. Buying a permit or paying a tax creates a legally enforceable right to emit a specified amount of greenhouse gases. That’s incompatible with the policies required to achieve Eilperin’s vision of a zero carbon world.