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The Distempered Brain Strikes Again!
Volume 4, Number 36: 5 September 2001

The World ran Mad, and each distempered Brain,
Did Strange and different Frenzies entertain.

When we borrowed this couplet from Mrs. Aphra Behn (1688) to introduce our Editorial of 10 January 2001, we assumed it would be a one-time event. How wrong we were! The times – with all due respect to a once-young Bob Dylan – seem never to change, especially when it comes to human foibles, as evidenced by the recent Policy Forum article by Cifuentes et al. in the 17 August 2001 issue of Science. Entitled "Hidden Health Benefits of Greenhouse Gas Mitigation," the article strives to convince us we should immediately begin to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, not because carbon dioxide – one of the two major end-products of the combustion process (the other being water vapor) – negatively impacts the well-being of any life-form on the planet, but because certain of the pollutant by-products of the burning of fossil fuels are claimed to adversely affect human health.

The major air pollution culprits singled out for special emphasis within this context are ozone and inhalable particulate matter (often referred to as PM10), which Cifuentes and colleagues accuse of "sickening or killing millions throughout the world." If this assertion is true – and we’re not saying it is or it isn’t – would it not be reason enough to approach the air pollution problem head-on, rather than suggesting it be relegated to the status of a second-class problem worthy only of being resolved via the trickle-down consequences of an assault upon another problem, which may or may not be all that closely related to it, or even a problem at all? Of course it would. If you have a broken leg, for example, most physicians don’t put your arm in a sling; they put your leg in a cast. So why does the group of five scientists tell us we should fight air pollution by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which basically amounts to an assault upon carbon dioxide, which has no pollutant properties whatsoever but possesses many highly desirable qualities that could well make the ongoing rise in its atmospheric concentration a blessing in disguise?

There is little logic in the gang of five’s strategy, unless it is a ruse to justify what would otherwise be an unjustifiable assault on the usage of fossil fuels, in which case we would say they are not short on brain cells but crazy like a fox. Why, for example, would a doctor – and doctors they are – put a person’s arm in a sling on the pretense of mending a broken leg, unless he or she had an ulterior motive for wanting to render the person’s arm of no use? In their defense, the gang of five could well retort that in the case of air pollution and CO2 emissions, their proposed backdoor approach kills two nasty birds with one efficient stone. But that’s just the point of our complaint: Are both birds nasty? Do they each need killing? And is the stone really all that efficient?

When properly understood, the double-barreled approach of Cifuentes et al. is seen to be analogous to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We have written many times in the past about the indisputable fact that carbon dioxide is an unparalleled aerial fertilizer, helping all of earth’s plants grow more efficiently and productively, while using less water per unit area of leaf surface, as the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration climbs ever higher. In addition, we have indicated that the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content is absolutely essential to the future well-being of the human race, as well as all natural ecosystems (see our Editorials of 1 October 1999, 1 February 2000, 15 November 2000, 21 February 2001, 2 May 2001, 13 June 2001, and 4 July 2001), since without the extra productivity boost and increase in water use efficiency provided by the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content, we will not be able to produce enough food to feed the number of people projected to reside on the planet fifty years hence (see our Journal Review Will There Be Enough Food?). Consequently, if we are right – and thousands of real-world experiments reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature suggest that we are – it would be the height of folly to fight against the ongoing rise in the air’s CO2 content, which may well prove the biosphere’s salvation by enabling us to feed the world’s burgeoning population without displacing all of the planet’s natural ecosystems to obtain enough land and water to do so. This fact is especially evident when it is realized that reducing CO2 emissions is not a prerequisite for combating air pollutants and what Cifuentes et al. claim to be their deadly effects. Those nasty particles and trace gases can effectively be fought via many means that do not deplete the air of its beneficial complement of CO2. In fact, one of the very best ways of fighting the adverse effects of ozone on plant life is to actually enrich the air with CO2, as is described in detail in the many Journal Reviews filed under Ozone in our Subject Index.

Even more disturbing is another nagging question: What if the inhalable particulate matter problem isn’t really the problem the gang of five makes it out to be? In an illuminating analysis of this not-so-remote possibility, Smith et al. (1999) studied the influence of PM10 on deaths in the elderly in Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois. Their work indicated that several complexities greatly cloud the issue. For one thing, the presumed cause-and-effect relationship sometimes just wouldn’t fit the data. They also identified other confounding issues, including "the existence of a threshold below which PM10 has no discernible influence, the interaction with other pollutants, and the mortality displacement or harvesting effect (the theory that the direct effect of PM10 is limited to a very small subset of the population who are already critically ill and whose death is only advanced by a few hours or days as a result of air pollution)." After studying these and other complexities associated with the subject, Smith et al. concluded there were "too many uncertain issues to allow us to make definitive statements about a causal relationship between PM10 and mortality."

If we and Smith et al. are correct about the two different points we independently address, the program proposed by Cifuentes et al. reduces to a strategy of claiming to fight (which it may not do at all) something really bad (that may not be nearly as bad as they say it is), while it has us attacking the phenomenon (anthropogenic CO2 emissions) responsible for the highly beneficial effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment that are desperately needed to stave off future food shortages and protect earth’s remaining natural ecosystems from destruction by people who in the absence of sufficient food to eat will have no recourse but to appropriate for agricultural purposes the land and water that support those ecosystems. Truly, the gang of five’s approach, when viewed in the light of what is known and unknown about the several pertinent and intertwined issues, defies all logic. It is, however, an excellent way of getting nowhere fast, while wasting large amounts of time, money and effort in the process, not to mention shooting oneself in the foot. But who knows? That may be exactly what the five and their crazy-like-a-fox supporters are aiming for!

Yes, there is much that is either irrational or devious about the proposals of Cifuentes
et al. But why should we be surprised? People like the gang of five, who support their hypothesis with the statement that "deaths from air pollution … have been ranked as one of the top 10 causes of disability," shouldn’t be expected to excel in the logic department. Nevertheless, we continue to wonder: How could five supposedly competent scientist-authors, an unknown number of supposedly competent manuscript reviewers, and an unspecified number of supposedly competent editors – at a journal called Science, no less – ever let such illogical rubbish be printed, unless they were so driven by their political agenda they were blind to some of its most obvious inconsistencies?

Deaths from air pollution cause disability? Give us a break! And while you’re at it, you folks described above, we’ll give you one, setting aside the crazy like a fox appellation and bestowing upon you our coveted Distempered Brain Award. Download this editorial, which is your only evidence of having won our highest form of praise, have it appropriately framed, and display it in a prominent place at your home or office. You’re the first to receive this official recognition!

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Behn, Mrs. Aphra. 1688. A Poem to Sir Roger L’Estrange on his third Part of the History of the Times, Relating to the Death of Sir Edmund Bury-Godfrey.

Cifuentes, L., Borja-Aburto, V.H., Gouveia, N., Thurston, G. and Davis, D.L. 2001. Hidden health benefits of greenhouse gas mitigation. Science 293: 1257-1259.

Smith, R.L., Davis, J.M. and Speckman, P. 1999. Assessing the human health risk of atmospheric particles. Environmental Statistics: Analyzing Data for Environmental Policy Novartis Foundation Symposium 220: 59-79.