The carbon dioxide that industrial civilization spews into the atmosphere has dramatic consequences for life on Earth that extend beyond climate change. CO2 levels directly affect plant growth, in turn affecting any kind of life that depends on plants – in other words, everything.
Greenhouse Planet reveals the stakes of increased CO2 for plants, people, and ecosystems – from crop yields to seasonal allergies and from wildfires to biodiversity. The veteran plant biologist Lewis H. Ziska describes the importance of plants for food, medicine, and culture and explores the complex ways higher CO2 concentrations alter the systems on which humanity relies. He explains the science of how increased CO2 affects various plant species and addresses the politicization and disinformation surrounding these facts.
Ziska confronts the claim that "CO2 is plant food," a longtime conservative talking point. While not exactly false, it is deeply misleading. CO2 doesn't just make "good" plants grow; it makes all plants grow. It makes poison ivy more poisonous, kudzu more prolific, and cheatgrass more flammable. CO2 stimulates some species more than others: weeds fare particularly well and become harder to control. Many crops grow more abundantly but also become less nutritious. And the further effects of climate change will be formidable.
Detailing essential science with wit and panache, Greenhouse Planet is an indispensable book for all readers interested in the ripple effects of increasing CO2.
Part I. A Green Blindness
1. Plants Are Important: The Part About Food
2. Plants Are Important: The Part About Drugs
3. Plants Are Important: The Part About Religion
4. Plants Are Important: The Part About Weeds
5. Plants Are Important: The Part About Art—and Allergies
Part II. Plants and Magic
6. Science Is Fundamental
7. CO2 Is Plant Food: The Good
8. CO2 Is Plant Food: The Bad
9. The OMG
Part III. CO2 Is Plant Food. Now What?
10. More Questions Than Answers
11. The Ten-Ton T. rex in the Hall Closet
12. Wait, What?
Part IV. Politics and Pleas
13. Cracks in the System
14. Science Says
15. CO2 Is Plant Food: The Last Bit
16. A Personal Note
Afterword and Thanks
Lewis H. Ziska is an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He served for nearly twenty-five years as a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, resigning in 2019 to protest interference by the Trump administration with his research into the effects of rising carbon dioxide on rice cultivation. His books include Agriculture, Climate Change, and Food Security in the Twenty-First Century: Our Daily Bread (2017).
"Greenhouse Planet is not just another book about climate change. Ziska unpacks the science and politics of the climate-denying mantra that carbon dioxide feeds plants and greens the planet. More poisonous poison ivy, creeping kudzu, super weeds, and protein-deprived bees are some of the nuances that shatter the simplistic talking point. Fun to read and completely accessible, this book will help both scientists and nonscientists deepen their knowledge about the far-ranging effects of our changing atmosphere on the plants that underpin our very survival."
– Ruth DeFries, cofounding dean, Columbia Climate School, and author of What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times
"The idea that more carbon dioxide will "green the world" has been endlessly promoted by the fossil fuel industry and its friends. But as Ziska demonstrates in a straightforward and understandable fashion, this is by no means a slam-dunk good thing; in fact, the implications may turn out to be almost as devastating as the rise in temperatures that come with CO2. Oh, and he also provides a fascinating reflection on the stupefying politicization of modern science. On every count this is a crucial little book."
– Bill McKibben, author of The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon
"Anyone interested in how the plants we depend on for life are changing must read Greenhouse Planet. A witty yet deeply concerning story about how increasing carbon dioxide is altering our food, drugs, and ecosystems, yet we are failing to investigate what this all means to the basis of life and our future."
– Michael P. Hoffmann, professor emeritus, Cornell University, and author of Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need
"Ziska draws attention to an often overlooked world-threatening problem – that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are changing a fundamental parameter of global plant growth. A fascinating and important book."
– Barbara Freese, author of Industrial-Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change