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EPA, White House Won’t Say If CO2 Is Harmful To Human Health

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The Obama administration has released two major regulations in the past year that limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, citing huge public health benefits from reducing emissions and closing coal-fired power plants.

But top Obama administration officials can’t say at what level CO2 becomes harmful to human health. Top administration officials were asked this question by California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in a House hearing on Wednesday.

“At what point does CO2 become damaging to human health?” Rohrabacher asked.

“That’s a red herring,” replied Dr. John Holdren, the White House science czar. “We’re not interested in carbon dioxide emissions because of their direct impact on human health.”

Holdren added that CO2 had “very strong indirect impacts” through global warming, including warmer temperatures and more extreme weather. Janet McCabe, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s air and radiation office, did not answer the question, deferring to Holdren.

Holdren’s and McCabe’s response shouldn’t be surprising. Despite attempts by the White House and environmental groups to label carbon dioxide as “carbon pollution,” the greenhouse gas is, in fact, not a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is a natural chemical compound necessary for life, especially plant life.

The EPA even conceded as much in its 2009 endangerment finding, saying that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do not directly harm public health, but indirectly harm the public through global warming.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached about 400 parts per million (ppm) last year, but there is still no direct impact on human health. Rohrabacher noted that carbon dioxide levels within plant greenhouses is generally between 1,000 ppm and 2,000 ppm. He added that levels from 6,000 ppm to 20,000 ppm are considered dangerous to human health.

The U.S. Can’t Do It Alone

The House Science hearing focused on the EPA’s recent rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Republicans particularly focused on the actual impact the EPA’s rule will have on global temperatures.

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, noted that in the long run  the EPA’s plan to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 will only be enough to offset 13 days if China’s future emissions.

Both Holdren and McCabe acknowledged the U.S. acting alone to cut carbon dioxide emissions will do little to stem global warming. They both argued that U.S. action will help spur international action to fight global warming.

“The impacts of any single action would be small,” said McCabe. “It takes many, many actions to make a difference.”

“If the United States does not take that sort of action it is unlikely major emitters of the world… will take that action.” Holdren added.

Bankrupting Coal?

Republicans also pressed Holdren and McCabe on 2008 campaign remarks made by then-candidate Obama about his energy policy.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Obama said he would bankrupt someone who wants to build a coal plant. He also said he was for a cap-and-trade program under which “electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket, regardless.”

Holdren and McCabe, however, both repudiated Obama’s 2008 remarks, saying they don’t believe the president himself even agrees with his own words.

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