More CO2 for a Greener World: One From the Tobacco Advertiser’s Playbook

  • Published on September 29th, 2009

In April of 1994 CEO’s from the leading tobacco companies appeared before Congress and said, one by one and under oath, that nicotine was not addictive. That may have been the last dying gasp of organized denial of the dangers inherent in smoking.

What the tobacco industry learned from the early days of “doctor recommended” cigarettes through to that hearing in ’94, was that all it took to sell the idea that smoking was good for you – or at least not that bad – was a dose of misinformation combined with a perception of scientific legitimacy in questioning established research. By tossing out a reasonable sounding tidbit of information you can keep uncertainty alive in the public’s mind and thwart progress.

Which leads to the obvious conclusion that if plants need CO2 to grow, then more CO2, not less, is what the world needs now.

That’s the message a new lobby group called CO2 is Green is urging citizens to press on their representatives in anticipation of renewed focus on energy and climate legislation in Congress, and as the EPA finalizes its CO2 endangerment finding.

Though I honestly expected, for some naive reason, that CO2 is Green would attempt the appearance of a more rational-sounding argument, upon landing at their website one’s attention is quickly drawn a Glenn Beckian-like statement proclaiming that “if humans inhale and exhale CO2 with every breath, how could it be a pollutant?” – a blatantly false argument confusing the natural respiration of CO2 in plants and animals with the excessive burning of millions of years worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere within less than two centuries. Why bother with rational sounding arguments? Indeed CO2 is Green is pulling out all the stops of misinformation and deception in the attempt to keep the public off balance – just like the tobacco companies did for decades to keep people buying cigarettes.

As Scott Schefield recently wrote in a recent post on TriplePundit, “The global warming debate is over. Now the argument moves to solving the crisis of climate change.” Idealistically, Scott certainly is right, but unfortunately, and rather disturbingly given the facts on the ground, that isn’t reality for many.

CO2 is Green seeks to keep the debate alive by trotting out every myth and attempting to cloak itself in science-speak, while in turn refuting the entire body of peer-reviewed climate science to the point of denying its existence.

CO2 is Green is the work of veteran oil industry executive H. Leighton Steward and Corbin J Robertson Jr., CEO and leading shareholder in Houston-based Natural Resource Partners, a limited partnership involved in coal mining. Along with CO2 is Green, Steward and Robertson have formed Plants Need CO2, an organization with a similar agenda, but aimed at what the duo calls “education,” as opposed to CO2 is Green’s mission of attempting to muddle the minds of politicians through “grassroots” lobbying to prevent climate legislation.

What Steward and Robertson fail to recognize, beyond the silly arguments made regarding CO2, is that business and industry is beginning to understand not only the need to price carbon and regulate emissions, but also the opportunity it presents to take a leadership role in a new energy economy.

We reported last week that California power utility Pacific Gas & Electric was ending its relationship with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with Nike likely following suit, over the Chamber’s position on climate change. Since then, more companies are becoming fed up with what the Christian Science Monitor terms the Chamber’s “climate deniosphere.” Next week more than 100 business leaders will converge on Capitol Hill for an “advocacy day” in support of climate and energy legislation dubbed We Can Lead.

All these companies aren’t run by tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals, they are bottom-line business pragmatists who understand that business-as-usual is unsustainable and the choice now is to either take a leadership role and seize an opportunity or become, just like those tobacco execs back in ’94, the last dying gasp of denial.

Whether Steward and Robertson actually believe the misinformation they are peddling is difficult to tell, but it is plain they have made there choice of where they stand – with head firmly buried in the sand.

Regulation and balance is the way of all creation. When human activity interrupts the natural balance, we can either regulate our own excess, or wait for nature to do it for us. But it surely will happen, one way or another.

Image credit: iStockPhoto

About the Author

is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs, including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, and Planetsave.   Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.
  • Patrick jones

    Julie S. The world has had CO2 levels in excess of 1100 ppm in the past (fossil records prove this)

    Between 135 million years ago and 65 million years ago these levels occured at least 3 times. The consequences were astounding, global temperatures we at least 10 degrees Centigrade warmer than today, there was no ice on the planet and one of the consequences of this fact was that there was no Thermohaline circulation, (ocean current that circulates around the globe), so resulting in an almost total loss of oxygen in the oceans. No oxygen at anything below about 10 metres meant that there was virtually no animal life. There was though on organisim that flourished during those periods, this is phytoplankton which uses CO2 and sunlight to photosynthecise. When these little organisims died they simply sank to the ocean floors and with no oxygen to promote decay and no animal life to eat them they just stayed there until moved/buried by continental drift.

    Over several million years billions of billions of billions of the phytoplankton built up to kilometres in depth. These phytoplankton achieved two goals though, first they absorbed so much CO2 that levels fell to under 300 ppm so giving us a temperate climate, and secondly, they are the source of all the oil and gas found in the world tday.

    We don't need 1200 to 1500 ppm C02 in the atmosphere as most of the planet will become uninhabitable for today's mamals and this includes mankind.

  • Oh, and just to keep it on the level here. Is "Julie S." your wife? your sister? your neighbor stealing your internet?… Or is it just you trying to make your position sound like it's more widely held than it really is?

    (We can see in the backend that it's the same IP address)

  • Darren- It must be nice to be that trusting of corporations who, of course, always have your best interest in mind. /s

  • Julie S

    Here's the deal

    The government is telling us to hand over money to save ourselves, based on their 'interpretation' of a theory that nobody understands. It's the exact same thing the Catholic church did for 100s of years.

    If you already align with the political/religious ideology, you are not likely to question the science/reality. And you are quite willing to obey & sacrifice to atone for your sins that you didn't know you had 'til they told you!

  • Darren

    So the hundreds of billions of $ to be transferred from the private to the public sector and to various eco-companies has nothing to do with it. It's all about saving the planet? The vast wealth and power to be gained by vested parties is just an incidental side affect? Al Gore's million's came as a complete surprise to him? It must be nice to be that trusting of politicians.

    Lead is actually a pollutant that has been proven to cause real harm. Co2 is not.

  • Darren, here's the deal: no matter what the good that is being produced, the producer must be held accountable for what is in that good and how it is produced. How do you feel about lead in Chinese toys or other examples of private industry executives merely asking 'to be free to operate' so they can keep and spend their hard earned profits? No, it is not inherently evil, but what the 'politician/activist' you write of wants is for that company to internalize the cost of that good. Plain and simple.

  • Darren

    I have nothing to do with energy industry- I've been a musician and artist all my life. But I'd tend to trust an oil industry exec over any eco-politician/activist etc any day.

    Weigh up the two interests.

    The oil exec represents private industry, all he asks is to be free to continue to operate, providing the products people want to buy at a price they want to pay, and for the company to keep and spend some of it's hard earned profits as they see fit. I can't call that evil, because that's what I want too.

    The politician/activist simply wants vast amounts of unearned income and power signed over to them at the stroke of a pen, in the name of a 'righteous cause' that they cannot even begin to explain scientifically.

  • Julie S

    Tom, Thank you for the reply. I think we agree that there is some benefit of Co2 to consider, so I think you brought a little balance to the original article.

    Anthropogenic Co2 is exactly the same as natural Co2.

    which is produced by respiration in FAR higher quantities than human activity. Plants thrive on it no matter what the source.

    Hence most scientists do not label Co2 as 'pollution' since this means every breathing creature is a polluter, and every green plant thrives on that pollution. The whole basis of life on Earth is pollution based? So I don't think it's a 'blatantly false argument' to point out the absurdity of this?

    I'm not suggesting pushing for 1200-1500 ppm- and this is considered far higher than anything we could achieve anyway- but what sort of 'certain disaster' do you have in mind? runaway warming? an ice age? somewhere in-between?

    Consider that the Ordovician ice age had Co2 levels of around 4000 ppm.

  • Yes, of course CO2 is required for photosynthesis – part of the "naturally occurring respiration in plants and animals" to which I allude in the article. I don't know anyone disputing that or saying it isn't well understood basic science. I'm certainly not saying that.

    I'd have to ask for some citation of a study verifying the assertion that the "planet is greener due to our added CO2" – I'm not necessarily disputed there are regions that will benefit to some degree, but the net effect on global climate is what is at issue.

    Nor am I saying there is a "difference" in the basic structure of naturally occurring CO2 and CO2 from burning fossil carbon. I've never heard of that "myth." The issue is the rapid release of the fossilized carbon into the atmosphere and its effect on climate – which can already be seen. Acidifying and warming oceans, Arctic sea ice thinning and retreat, rapidly shrinking glaciers, persistent drought, damaged forests, altered hydrological patterns, a steady trending up in global temperatures, etc.

    The planet isn't a gardener's greenhouse, and while I'm sure you're not suggesting it, to push for 1200-1500 ppm in atmospheric CO2 as some grand global experiment to enhance plant growth is surely a hubris that could only invite certain disaster.

  • Julie S

    Actually, it is true that Co2 is necessary for photosynthesis which makes our planet green.

    This is not a myth, it's basic science and well understood.

    The optimum level is around 1200-1500 ppm for most plants (ask a greenhouse gardener) far higher than today's 380-something

    And it is in fact true that our planet is already a little greener than it would otherwise be, due to our added Co2.

    A common myth is that our Co2 is somehow different from natural Co2- it is not. I think the confusion comes from the word 'carbon' which sounds dirty, and the intuitive feeling that if humans produce it, it HAS to be bad?