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PolitiFact VA: Is CO2 a pollutant? Some Virginia Republicans don't think so

cars driving Airport Drive at the I-64 bridge in Henrico County
The Environmental Protection Agency considers CO2, especially from vehicle emissions, a form of pollution. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition
Statement: “CO2 is not a pollutant.”
Date: April 30
Setting: Seminar

The Republican Party of Virginia recently held a weekend bash at a Dulles hotel to celebrate its sweep in the statewide elections last fall and discuss its agenda.

High among its goals is to repeal the state’s Clean Economy Act, a law that commits Virginia to joining a regional cap-and-trade program and achieving 100% carbon-free power by 2050. The law was passed in 2020 when Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governorship.

The law was labeled “wokeism” at a seminar held by the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, an Alexandria-based group that says its weekly newsletter reaches 25,000 people. SUVGOP rejects that a climate crisis exists and that man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) is harming the environment.

“CO2 is not a pollutant,” SUVGOP said in its presentation materials for the April 30 session.

The statement contradicts piles of scientific studies showing increasing CO2 levels are contributing to rising temperatures across the globe, the efforts of industrial nations to reduce their emissions, a ruling by the Supreme Court and findings by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Let’s start with a trip back to middle school science, where we learned about  photosynthesis. Plants pull in carbon dioxide through tiny openings in their leaves where it combines with water and sunlight to create sugar, producing oxygen as a byproduct. 

It may be hard to imagine something as life-sustaining as CO2 could be so damaging, but it’s what’s called a greenhouse gas. Those gasses, which also include methane, nitrous oxide and others,  produce an insulating effect that allows sun rays to enter the atmosphere but not leave after they bounce off the earth’s surface. When fossil fuels - such as oil, gas and petroleum - are burned to create energy, they release CO2.

In the U.S., 76% of greenhouse gas emissions are CO2. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 47% since the beginning of the Industrial Age and 11% since 2000, according to NASA

The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gasses fall under the Clean Air Act’s definition of pollutants and can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. (The high court heard oral arguments in February 2022 challenging the ruling but has yet to render a second opinion.)  

In 2009, the EPA classified greenhouse gasses - especially from vehicle emissions - as a form of pollution. The gasses “are the primary driver of climate change, which can lead to hotter, longer heat waves that threaten the health of the sick, poor or elderly; increases in ground-level ozone pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses; as well as other threats to the health and welfare of Americans,” the EPA said.

SUVGOP’s counter

Why does SUVGOP reject these findings? We asked Collister Johnson, a senior advisor to the group who led the presentation as well as another one to the state’s Republican party in December 2021.

“I’ve been studying this for a long time,” said Johnson, who lives in Alexandria and is a former chairman of the Virginia Port Authority and administrator of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. “We breathe in carbon dioxide. The notion that it’s polluting to human beings doesn’t hold up.”

Johnson laid out his arguments in a 2020 article for CFACT, a conservative organization that disputes human-made climate change. He accurately noted that CO2 constitutes about four of every 10,000 molecules in the atmosphere - an increase of about one CO2 molecule since the mid-20th century. 

“Most importantly, the theory of man-made global warming does not pass the sniff test – the test of common sense,” Johnson wrote. “It simply does not follow common sense to believe that an increase of one human-caused atmospheric CO2 molecule out of ten thousand over eighty years should result in the ruination of the planet.

Johnson’s logic, a talking point among climate-change doubters, is widely dismissed by climate scientists. They say the important point is that CO2 levels are increasing - not that they still compose a tiny part of the atmosphere. 

“It shouldn't be surprising that a small amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can have a big effect,” wrote Jason West, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina. “We take pills that are a tiny fraction of our body mass and expect them to affect us.”

Vickie Connors, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies, wrote in an email, “The argument that common sense has any role to play in determining the ultimate outcome from our unabated release of fossil fuel emissions into our thin envelope of atmosphere is outrageous in this era of global data sets, measurements of temperature increases from any altitude above the surface to the tropopause, in the surface and upper layers of the oceans, in the upper soil horizon, in the measured melting [of] sea ice, glaciers, and snow at high elevation and polar latitudes.”

Johnson has also noted that CO2 levels were once 10 times higher than they are today and “animal life thrived and prospered.” But scientists told us that occurred before humans existed. “‘Pollution’ is a term that is somewhat human-centric,” John Reilly, co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, wrote in an email.

Kevin Trenberth, distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, sent us an email labeling the CO2 claims by Johnson and SUVGOP “misleading rubbish.”

Our ruling

SUVGOP, in a presentation at a meeting of the state Republican Party, said “CO2 is not a pollutant.”

The statement contradicts piles of scientific studies showing increasing CO2 levels are contributing to rising temperatures across the globe, the conclusions of almost all climate scientists, a ruling by the Supreme Court and a statement by the Environmental Protection Agency.

We rate the claim False.