The Tipping Point: How Naturally Occurring Compounds Become Dangerous Pollutants

One of the main objections made by those who criticize efforts to control carbon emissions is that “carbon dioxide is not an atmospheric pollutant“. This line of reasoning tends to argue that emissions-induced global climate destabilization is an elaborate anti-corporate hoax aimed at creating a one-world socialist government. The problem is that this line of reasoning conveniently, or unknowingly, ignores altogether the crises that emerge not from essential contaminants but from substances crossing a threshold, a tipping point. 

Naturally occurring substances of all kinds become toxic because they achieve a minimum threshold after which such a concentration becomes toxic: a tipping point. Carbon dioxide is emitted by all oxygen-breathing life-forms, and is inhaled by plant-life, which in turn emits oxygen, creating a global symbiotic relationship that works for everyone. But such systems work when the symbiotic exchange is in balance

When one input floods the system, the absorption capacity is overwhelmed, and the system cannot adequately metabolize the entire amount of that input; at this point, the remaining amount of that surplus will be definition effect the environment, the surrounding area. If the system that is designed to handle the carbon dioxide emissions of the animal kingdom and the mineral realm is overtaxed, then other systems have to deal with the surplus. 


What no climate change skeptics seem able to do is demonstrate with scientific evidence that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by human industry is somehow of no importance. That is in part because all the scientific data relevant to that question indicates that in fact, human industry since the 18th century has emitted ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (and other ‘greenhouse effect’ inducing gases), and that the amount is now so substantial that the ecology and the climate of the entire planet are changing as a result. 

The argument that regulating carbon emissions is “dangerous” because it would “bankrupt” the United States or “would inflict GDP losses of $9.4 trillion” is based on a number of inherently flawed assumptions. The most prominent is that inaction on climate destabilization is justified by the money we can make in the meantime. Evidence suggests otherwise, and the losses already being felt around the world from climate-related phenomena, including crop failures and drought, are 1) already intolerable and 2) not included in the calculations of such skeptics. 

The next flawed assumption, also prominent in all such references to “GDP losses” is that GDP is an adequate measure of the wealth of a society. GDP measures only the exchange of currency for goods and services. It does not provide vital information like the actual quality of life of the average individual (which cannot be derived by dividing GDP by population) and the value of service provide by nature for which no currency is exchanged, but whose value may far exceed anything produced by human industry. 

For instance: what would it cost to not only produce rainfall across the entire planet, but also direct the atmosphere to maintain basic rhythms and function on its own, without constant planning and upkeep? As it turns out, we don’t have enough GWP (gross world product) to cover the costs. What about surface temperature? Stopping the advance of deserts? Guaranteeing the biodiversity needed to derive noticeable benefit from harvesting “miracle” cures from evolving plant and animal species and their peculiar qualities? 

We don’t know, because we have never paid for any of these things, and we expect them to go on serving our needs indefinitely. But they have no inherent reason to serve our needs, and evidence suggests the reliability of some of these vital natural services is slipping.

Climate patterns are out of order, there is grave concern about the deep ocean currents that regulate surface temperature and wind and precipitation patterns, and fears that if they are altered the Asian monsoon could “shut down” (the rain might fall elsewhere), depriving over 3 billion people of life-sustaining water and food production. You are not likely to find climate skeptics who can explain their decades-long studies comprehensively showing a correlation between emitting excess carbon dioxide and the fortification of the deep ocean currents, because those studies have not been conducted, and the logic underlying the arguments of skeptics tends to be: nature can fend for itself. 

And as a whole, as a single, overarching environmental reality, “nature” will continue to be nature, but we may not benefit from its chosen course. We cannot fend for ourselves; we need a certain order, a certain balance that serves the biological needs of relatively frail organisms, with energy-guzzling big brains, whose senses are dull compared to most of their predators. 

You are not likely to hear from climate skeptics any solution for China’s rapidly advancing northwestern deserts or how to protect the Asian monsoon climate pattern from degradation due to atmospheric alterations brought on by the ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide they say all natural systems can handle with no adverse side-effects. 

But there is yet another startling false assumption that often underlies the “GDP losses” climate-skeptic argument: such “losses” are always related to assuming the American economy can only function efficiently using carbon-based fuels. Much of the projected losses over several decades is specifically related to income carbon-harvesting businesses (coal-mining companies and oil extracting multinationals) will not make if carbon-based fuels are less widely incentivized and more expensive to produce. 

That does not mean no one will earn that revenue or that the economy broadly will experience the loss of that “GDP”. It just means the money will be made by someone else, who actually figures out what the new economic environment is like (markets evolve, and those who profit from them evolve with them) and makes adjustments to their business models, their planned revenue streams and their relationship with the consumer. 

Of course if you only know how to make money from mining coal, it will be frightening to be made aware that newer, smarter, cleaner, safer technologies with less long-term damaging economic fallout, are coming online, and that the government is incentivizing the transition to those fuel-sources. But there is nothing that would prevent those who currently mine or burn coal from adopting new sources of revenue derived from clean energy production. 

For those who argue that carbon dioxide is not a “pollutant”, because it is already part of the environment: so is uranium, but there are dosages that are unsafe. It takes a lot more carbon-dioxide to get to an unsafe dosage, but a dosage that would ruin worldwide climate patterns that have been relatively stable for the entire life of human civilization is something like a tipping point into toxicity. 

Ozone protects us against the rays of the sun, in the upper atmosphere, but at ground level, it is dangerous to the human respiratory system. Water is the foundational compound for life as we know it: just one day without it can lead to serious and noticeable alterations in the organism, but inhale it into the lungs or consume an amount the body cannot tolerate, and it can kill.

So, we have to consider the dosage factor. Carbon dioxide becomes a kind of “pollutant” when the amount we emit into the atmosphere exceeds nature’s capacity to absorb and metabolize it. This seems absurd to some, who observe that nature is far more powerful than any single human being. But the dosage factor related to human activity is related not only to the economic activity and demand of all 6.67 billion human beings

And, human civilization is an intense amplification of the influence of the whole of humanity: industrialization, mass production and radical alterations to the natural environment —such as the reorganization of river systems, depletion of forests, even the leveling of mountains—

mean that the human species, which is part of the natural fabric, has an influence far beyond what we take to be the frailty of the individual human being, or of small communities. 

Cosmopolitan homo sapiens is in fact able to produce enough carbon dioxide to defy nature’s metabolic balance and alter the Earth’s atmosphere. The effect of that shift in dosage is the destabilization of climate patterns, which rely on fairly complex and fragile intertwinings of natural processes and more or less stable ecosystems. We don’t know if we have passed the point of no return, but we do know that the concentration of carbon and other greenhouse gases —like methane—

has passed the tipping point, after which we actually need to try to engineer absorption, something called carbon capture

There is “alternative research” that argues that warming in the Earth’s climate is attributable to “natural cycles”, or that climate change is not human-induced, because warming has not accelerated over the last few years as some predicted. In fact, the 12 warmest years on record have all occurred over the last 14 years. But the effects of warming, like the melting of the Arctic Ocean ice-cover, are accelerating at a steady pace, suggesting an overall trend that is in fact destabilizing global climate patterns in a testable way.



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