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Hot Air: The Science and Politics of CO2

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CO2 is not a simple, immediately graspable substance like water, salt, or mercury. It has to be conceptually and instrumentally constructed since, as an air-like GE 241 substance, CO2 is almost invisible, almost odorless and quickly diffuses into the surrounding air; and it is only through special instrumental apparatus (such as a pneumatic trough) or in hermetically sealed locations that it can be(come) sufficiently concentrated for it to be recognizable as a unique individual substance. This constructive work was carried out between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. The older belief in the special status of 'spirits' was displaced by the concept of gas - but only in laboratories. In public communication, 'gases' continue to be emotionally charged substances that are in no way normal. Further investigation of the history of CO2 shows that the substance has been increasingly politicized and moralized since around the 1980s in the context of the climate change debate. Chemical CO2 is being reconstrued as a 'pollutant' that threatens the earth and future generations.
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Keywords: IPCC; carbon dioxide; climate change; climate skeptics; emissions; greenhouse gas; history of chemistry

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2014

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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