April 7th, 2007 by jayb
You may be clear about the difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide but the distinction has tripped up a few people over the years. In Detroit in 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan shockingly said that “
Trees cause more pollution than cars do”.
Though Mr. Reagan inadvertently had his science all backwards and inside out (more on that in a second), his comment reflected the tension between people who wanted cars to emit less carbon monoxide and those that wanted less government car regulation.
The reason we’ve been reducing carbon monoxide emissions is that it’s a toxic gas that causes smog and respiratory health problems. When the weather reporter says “
don’t go outside today unless you have to” or “
put off exercising until later in the week” or “
check in with your elderly neighbors and family members today” it’s usually because of smog.
In the smog context, a “clean” car was one that burned gasoline so cleanly that there were very little carbon monoxide emissions.
But the context is shifting. During the past 25 years, we’ve realized (some people faster than others – count me in the slow group) that the other gas coming out of our tailpipes and smokestacks, carbon dioxide, causes global warming. Carbon dioxide is odor-less and color-less with a slow, subtle and creepy side effect.
Getting back to Mr. Reagan, what do trees have to do with this? Trees are really part of the solution, not the problem. Trees don’t produce pollution or carbon monoxide (unless they are burned). But trees do have a big connection to carbon dioxide. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the air, combine it with sunlight and water and create oxygen. It’s a pretty important trick that turns us all into “tree-huggers”. There are even efforts underway to plant new trees as a way of absorbing some of the carbon dioxide emissions we’re creating.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a carbon dioxide catalytic converter or some new piece of technology that a car manufacturer can install to reduce the amount of CO2 produced except to design the engine to get use less gas (or no gas at all).
As if the difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide wasn’t confusing enough, one of the groups that has been trying to keep us from taking action on carbon dioxide emissions has a TV commercial that points out that CO2 is a natural part of life because it comes out of our children’s mouths. (It’s true. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.) And what could be bad about something that comes out of our children’s mouths?
Well, the writer of that TV ad has obviously never had children.
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