Carbon Emissions Rebranded as Pollution

Updated: Oct 13

California activists paved the way for defining climate change as an air pollution problem. Now it's federal law.


Factory chimney emitting pollution

What do you think of when you hear the word “pollution” - a city smothered in smog, a beach strewn with trash, factories pumping out dark clouds? Now try to picture “carbon emissions.” See anything? Probably not, since carbon dioxide is invisible.


This simple exercise helps explain the growing popularity of once-rare phrases like “carbon pollution” and “climate pollution” in place of “carbon emissions” or the older “greenhouse gases.”


This is good news in the sense that connecting climate change with something visceral and dangerous brings more immediacy to a problem that’s often seen as unfolding far away or in the future.


“Carbon pollution” has been adopted by the Biden administration, appearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s site, in press releases about cleaning up manufacturing, and in speeches by the president.


“I think ‘pollution’ is a better word to use than ‘emissions,’ because everyone understands that pollution is harmful,” said Susan Joy Hassol, the director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit for science outreach.


The Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate legislation signed by President Joe Biden in August, amends the 1970 Clean Air Act to clearly identify greenhouse gas emissions as a form of air pollution. When it comes to the law, definitions mean everything.


Over the past decade, more people have come around to seeing climate change as a threat to their health, not simply an “environmental” problem. Not only does connecting climate change to pollution make the problem relevant to people’s lives, but it also makes acting on it more popular. Clean air isn’t something just environmentalists want - basically everyone wants it.

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