Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Carbon dioxide is a pollutant and sugar is a poison

In December 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that carbon dioxide--the stuff we animals breathe out--was an air pollutant (along with five other "greenhouse gases"), thus giving the EPA authority to regulate emissions of the same from motor vehicles and industrial sources. The finding was roundly mocked and objected to by various politicians and pundits on the right, but on June 26th of last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the finding in full:
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared that the agency was “unambiguously correct” that the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to impose limits once it has determined that emissions are causing harm... 
In addition to upholding the E.P.A.’s so-called endangerment finding, the court let stand related rules setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and limiting emissions from stationary sources.
With that, the EPA's attempted expansion of its own authority was affirmed and made permanent; carbon dioxide became a pollutant and by definition a gas harmful to man. And true enough, someone forced to breathe only carbon dioxide would most definitely die. But then again, so would anyone forced to breathe any other gas or mixture of gases that did not contain oxygen. To put this another way, every gas--aside from oxygen--can be seen as harmful, as deadly to man.

But the EPA's authority to regulate is limited--by the Clean Air Act--to gases and substances produced by industrial activity that are classed as pollutants. Steam (meaning water vapor only), for instance, is not classed as a pollutant (yet) so the EPA cannot set limits on how much is produced. Prior to the arrival of the Climate Change brigade, carbon dioxide was in the same class: as a common naturally occurring substance--as opposed to a toxic substance that was either only produced by industrial activity or did not occur naturally in meaningful/dangerous amounts--its production was beyond the authority of the EPA to regulate.

And that's the crux of the matter, right there. The argument for EPA authority hinges on the idea that too much carbon dioxide is being produced, so much in fact that it is responsible for global warming (which is automatically assumed to be a Bad Thing). If one accepts these last two assumptions, the EPA's position is a no-brainer, or at least that is what the DC Circuit determined.

But allowing that--just for the sake of argument--climate change was occurring specifically because too much carbon dioxide was being produced, outside of its "natural" production, is it really a no-brainer? Should the government, via the EPA, have the power to regulate it? Because carbon dioxide is not smog or smoke, let alone some kind of cancer-causing or skin-burning type of fume. Carbon dioxide is not, in fact, a toxic gas at all. Or at least it's not toxic in the way the term is usually understood and used.

There is, however, another idea of toxicity now informing the decisions of many people in power: something is toxic if long-term negative consequences can be associated with it. Carbon dioxide is toxic to man because it causes--or helps to cause--global warming, which could supposedly wipe out all of mankind.

And in that same boat, we also have--of all things--sugar. Not just the dastardly high fructose corn syrup kind, but also simple cane sugar and sugars that occur naturally in the fruits of various plants, as well. This is the fundamental basis of the large soda ban enacted in New York City by Mayor Bloomberg, the one that has been deemed invalid by a New York Judge. The Mayor's people, however, have vowed to appeal. They insist the health department has the right to institute such a ban because of the dangers posed by excessive sugar consumption. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And that's because it's the same basic argument as that for controlling carbon dioxide: sugar can be regulated because it's toxic.

Think I'm kidding? Listen to Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC's The Joe Scarborough Show yesterday:

"...[Coca-Cola] is killing us. It's killing our children. It's liquid sugar and sugar is poison."
She's absolutely serious. Ms. Brzezinski believes sugar is a poison, is toxic to humans. Where did she get such a seemingly insane idea? Why, from actual scientists, specifically Dr. Robert Lustig and those who accept his conclusions in this regard:
Lustig certainly doesn’t dabble in shades of gray. Sugar is not just an empty calorie, he says; its effect on us is much more insidious. “It’s not about the calories,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself.”
Some researchers disagree profoundly with Lustig's position. Others are more middle of the road. But the problem is, his position is taken as legitimate as a matter of course, as something that needs to be considered. And the simplistic version of that position--"sugar is poison"--becomes a simple truth, just like the idea that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, such that non-scientists repeat it without the various qualifications that should go along with the claim.

For Lustig admits sugar is not an acute toxin, it's not something like cyanide that can kill in a single does or through limited exposure. Instead, he claims it's a chronic toxin, like lead, mercury, or formaldehyde. And in that regard, it doesn't have to be lethal to be a toxin, at all. It's enough if it can be said to cause health problems from long-term exposure, which also demonstrates Ms. Brzezinski's less-than-firm grasp of the argument.

There's no question that eating too much sugar--of any sort--can be a bad thing, can cause health problems. We all know that. But the question is, does this make sugar a toxic substance whose intake level in people needs to be monitored and limited by the state?

Obviously, people like me say "no" to such a question, we say the same to a similar sort of question about carbon dioxide. Because the state is not the arbiter of life, of existence. It does not--under the social contract theory--possess the power to order existence as a means of guaranteeing a future, any future, for mankind as a whole. To think that it does is either beyond ludicrous or wholly totalitarian, for it places those who rule, who make laws, in the roles of philosopher-kings. And we all know our leaders are not kings and, in general, are sorry excuses for philosophers.

But we must be aware, must be vigilant, against these kinds of arguments and a corresponding expansion of power under the guise of protecting us from ourselves. The EPA's finding on carbon dioxide remains intact and Bloomberg is not done in New York City. These are dangerous times...

Cheers, all.