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No, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere won’t increase food production and reducing it won’t lead to a ‘dead planet’

IN SHORT: Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, but putting more of the greenhouse gas into our air won’t mean more food. It will mean more droughts, floods, heatwaves and pressure on food production.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing, says a man in a video uploaded on YouTube by the US-based Prager University.

The video is titled The truth about CO2. The man is identified as “Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace”. Part of the work of Greenpeace, a nonprofit global environmental organisation, is to fight climate change.

“We should celebrate carbon dioxide as the giver of life that it is,” Moore says.

The video was uploaded in 2015, but Moore’s views continue to circulate online, as seen here, here, here and here.

Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that trap our sun’s heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Its name comes from its molecular structure of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms, CO2 in short.

The gases given off by people burning fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, since the start of the industrial revolution have increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by 50% in 200 years.

This has led to an accelerating increase in the world’s average temperature. In turn, global warming is changing the planet’s climate, melting sea ice and glaciers and causing drought and heatwaves. Rising sea levels may also wipe out some countries.

To slow down climate change and “secure a liveable future”, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The IPCC’s fifth synthesis report, released in 2014, called for the governments of the world to cut the burning of fossil fuels to zero by the end of the century.

But Moore says this would be “catastrophic”.


 ‘Take away CO2 and you’d have it’ 

“If we don’t save ourselves from ourselves, we’re toast. That’s the claim,” Moore says in the video. He adds that all life on Earth is carbon-based “and the carbon for all that life originates from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”.

“If there were no carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, the Earth would be a dead planet. Period. Talk about catastrophic climate change. Take away CO2 and you’d have it.”

Moore adds that more atmospheric CO2 will “boost food and forest productivity. That will come in handy since by mid-century we will have to feed eight to 10 billion people”.

CO2 is used in photosynthesis, the process in which plants make the sugars they need to grow. Higher atmospheric CO2 does boost the growth of some plants, but it’s more complicated than that.

Is Moore right that cutting CO2 emissions would be “catastrophic” to the planet and that more carbon dioxide in the air will be beneficial for global food production?

Before we answer these questions, let’s check who Moore is.

Not a climate scientist, not a Greenpeace co-founder

Patrick Moore is a consultant with a PhD in forestry. He is not a climate scientist nor the co-founder of Greenpeace based at any university.

In a statement, Greenpeace says Moore “played a significant role in Greenpeace Canada for several years” but was not there from the start. He left the organisation in 1986.

“Phil Cote, Irving Stowe, and Jim Bohlen founded Greenpeace in 1970,” the statement reads. “Patrick Moore applied for a berth on the Phyllis Cormack in March, 1971 after the organization had already been in existence for a year.” 

The Phyllis Cormack is a fishing boat first chartered by Greenpeace in 1971.

Prager University is also not a university or any kind of accredited educational institution. It doesn’t hold lectures or give academic degrees

It’s a website that attempts to promote what it calls “American values” using “videos that reach millions of people online”. The site was founded by radio host Dennis Prager.

Carbon dioxide past and present

Life on Earth is carbon-based, and that carbon does ultimately come from CO2 in the atmosphere. Plants feed themselves with photosynthesis, which uses CO2, water and sunlight. Herbivores get their carbon from eating plants and carnivores get their carbon from eating herbivores.

But Moore suggests that if CO2 emissions were cut to zero it would “take away” carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and “Earth would be a dead planet”. This is not true.

Carbon dioxide is released into the air in many ways, not all of them a result of human activity. Atmospheric CO2 also comes from sources such as volcanic eruptions and the oceans. Life on Earth could not have evolved if there wasn’t CO2 in the atmosphere to begin with, long before we started burning fossil fuels.

What human activity has done is disrupt Earth’s natural carbon cycle.

Earth has had higher levels of CO2 in the past. But the planet has also not been hospitable to human life in the past. 

In the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago CO2 levels were much higher, but so was the planet’s temperature. Sea surface temperatures were as high as 60°C and there was no life on land other than, possibly, algae.

Our species Homo sapiens only emerged about 200,000 years ago. We’re adapted to live in the current era’s climate.

Climate change pressure on food production – especially in vulnerable regions

Moore’s most serious claim is that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will allow us to produce more food. This is not true.

Due to global warming, some parts of the world are getting warmer and wetter, other parts are getting hotter and drier. These are not good places to grow food.

More CO2 increases the heat and acid in our oceans. This is killing off the fish and other marine species we eat.

In its sixth report, released in March 2023, the IPCC says it has “high confidence” that climate change will “increasingly put pressure on food production and access, especially in vulnerable regions, undermining food security and nutrition”.

It adds:

At 2°C or higher, global warming level in the mid-term, food security risks due to climate change will be more severe, leading to malnutrition … concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America and Small Islands (high confidence).

Increases in frequency, intensity and severity of droughts, floods and heatwaves, and continued sea level rise will increase risks to food security (high confidence) in vulnerable regions from moderate to high between 1.5°C and 2°C global warming level.

The panel says it has some confidence that global warming will “weaken soil health and ecosystem services such as pollination, increase pressure from pests and diseases, and reduce marine animal biomass, undermining food productivity”.

More than this, the IPCC says many African countries are “projected to face compounding risks from reduced food production across crops, livestock and fisheries, increased heat-related mortality, heat-related loss of labour productivity and flooding from sea level rise, especially in west Africa”.

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