Carbon dioxide may soon fog the brain

Is it too late for climate scientists?

A recent article on Stuff looks at the effects of high levels of carbon dioxide on brain function and suggests that the minuscule annual increases of one or two parts per million in CO2 levels will make it harder to reason. But it’s highly improbable because atmospheric levels are nowhere near those required to disrupt our thinking.

“High concentrations of carbon dioxide reduces [sic] oxygen to the brain and dulls our thinking – so what happens if we continue to burn fossil fuels indiscriminately?”

Remember, CO2 is only a trace gas, so its molecules are few and far between—at the moment, about 410 molecules per million molecules of air. To visualise this, turn that around and consider how many molecules of air accompany every CO2 molecule. (HINT: it’s more than 410.)1

Dr Robyn Phipps, of Massey University, says, “If you’ve slept in a bedroom with the door closed at night and you wake up in the morning with that fuggy head feeling, that’s what will become the new norm.”

So a fuggy head is the new norm in the dorm. But we often sleep with the door closed with no fuggy head. What’s her fuggy thinking?

An interesting paper, The effect of excess of carbon dioxide and of want of oxygen upon the respiration and the circulation, about 1908, describes responses of various animals to varying levels of CO2 in the air. At a CO2 content of 13,500 ppm reptiles died, at 24,000 ppm birds died and at 30,000 ppm mammals (I assume small mammals such as dogs) died.

It reports various trials where people were subjected to varying levels of CO2. Pure CO2 caused spasm of the diaphragm and throat that inhibited inhalation. Air containing 18,600 ppm CO2 quickly produced profoundly laboured breathing, discomfort, throbbing in the head, mental dullness and cyanosis (blue-tinged lips and extremities), along with dimness of vision and extremely rapid breathing.

These are very high levels of carbon dioxide. The warmsters like to mention how the atmospheric concentration has increased since 1750—about 39%. But as the statistician said, when you start with something tiny, even 39% of it isn’t worth anything and right now, atmospheric concentration is about 410 ppm, which means 410 molecules of CO2 to every million molecules of air. So CO2 makes up 0.041% of the atmosphere—a minuscule proportion.

If the present concentration doubled, to 820 ppm, it would still be only 0.082% of the air, which decades of experience show won’t corrupt rational thought. We should remember that the US Navy has a powerful incentive to keep the submarine atmosphere safe, since those sailors control the nuclear trigger.

We try to keep CO2 levels in our U.S. Navy submarines no higher than 8,000 parts per million, about 20 times current atmospheric levels. Few adverse effects are observed at even higher levels. – Senate testimony of Dr William Happer

The publication Emergency and Continuous Exposure Guidance Levels for Selected Submarine Contaminants published in 2007 by the US National Research Council (we find this stuff so you don’t have to) advised submarine commanders that breathing up to 8,000 ppm (0.8%) of CO2 for extended periods causes no significant harm and that crew exposed to 40,000 ppm, or 4%, for up to two weeks have reported no lasting effects.

Under the wildly unrealistic RCP8.5 scenario, the atmospheric concentration is forecast to rise by the year 2100 to over 930 ppm or even higher. However, other more moderate forecasts suggest the level in 2100 is more likely to be around 565-680 ppm. If the IPCC narrative is wrong, and our industrial system returns to normal after the COVID-19 panic, and CO2 concentration continues simply to rise at the same rate as the last few decades, one or two ppm per year, then by 2100 (80 years away) the level will reach about 570 ppm, still one or two orders of magnitude below any cause for concern.

Dr Phipps says high carbon dioxide concentrations affect our mental ability by decreasing the amount of oxygen available to the brain. With higher amounts of CO2 in the air, more of the gas is absorbed through a person’s lungs and into their bloodstream, which in turn reduces the oxygen in their blood.

However, this is true only when CO2 rises far above current levels. Though it may affect our descendants thousands of years in the future, suggestions that climate scientists already struggle to reason are mere speculation.

NIWA climate scientist Petra Pearce cites a forecast from the RCP8.5 scenario—known as the “outlandishly impossible” scenario. She says that, whereas Auckland now gets about 21 days a year above 25°C, “under that [high-emissions] scenario, we’re more likely to get 83 days a year above 25°C.”

So what? Our Kiwi holiday spots will be even more attractive. Mrs Pearce must agree that such a mild forecast doesn’t signify a climate emergency—but does open the door to a new surf board …


  1. About 2439: 1 ÷ 410 × 1,000,000 = 2439

4 Thoughts on “Carbon dioxide may soon fog the brain

  1. Cambridgedon on May 22, 2020 at 1:01 pm said:

    If all the trace (remember!) gas CO2 and all the (even more “trace”!) CH4 were removed from the atmosphere what would be the outcome?

    • Richard Treadgold on May 22, 2020 at 1:06 pm said:

      We would, every one, starve to death, probably remaining unconcerned about the presence or absence of temperature change (which is fiercely disputed).

    • Mack on May 22, 2020 at 7:32 pm said:

      “If all the trace gas CO2…..were removed from from the atmosphere what would be the outcome?”

      That is the typical, unreal, hypothetical, speculative, unthinking sort of crap that originates from you wacko believers of “climate change”. “What if “….
      There is no “what if”. Humans and animals etc. EXIST… and.. breathe out CO2, so it is a physical impossibility to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
      The same sort of garbage, woolly thinking, goes into the postulating of some wacko “greenhouse effect” in the atmosphere. ie “What would the Earth’s global average temperature be… if there was NO ATMOSPHERE” ? !!
      That’s what these “scientists” actually have going round in their heads…..”what if there was NO ATMOSPHERE? ”
      Sorry to inform them of reality, but the Earth’s atmosphere is real and exists. The global average temperature is an ATMOSPHERIC temperature… measured about 5 feet off the ground in Stevenson screens.
      Anything other than that is cloud-cuckoo land.

    • Rick on May 23, 2020 at 11:42 am said:

      That’s an interesting hypothetical question, Cambridgedon, although it is too laden with undisclosed assumptions to permit a simple and straightforward scientific answer.

      If, though, we assume that the oceans and the atmosphere are in chemical equilibrium initially, then Henry’s law* deems that the gases which have been removed from the atmosphere will simply be replaced by outgassing of the same gases from the oceans until equilibrium is restored.

      Equilibrium exists when the partial pressures of the gases inside and outside the oceans are the same and that condition determines the relative proportions of the gases (called the ‘partitioning ratio’) inside and outside the oceans too. The partitioning ratio is inversely dependent on temperature and at 15⁰C (the approximate global mean surface temperature of the earth, according to NASA) the partitioning ratio for CO2 is about 52:1. (I don’t know off-hand what the partitioning ratio for CH4 at 15⁰C would be.)

      These facts, which are all well-established in the physical sciences, have some highly significant implications for the debate about man-made climate change.

      First, they imply that well over 90% of all human emissions of CO2 and CH4 will eventually end up dissolved in the oceans when equilibrium between the atmosphere and the oceans has been restored, leaving less than 10% behind in the atmosphere to form parts of the resident atmospheric greenhouse.

      And second, they imply that removing CO2 and CH4 from the atmosphere by whatever Heath-Robinson schemes of ‘carbon sequestration’ can be devised, would be futile, economically prohibitive exercises in all cases, because whatever quantities of the two gases were removed from the atmosphere would be replaced automatically, practically in full, by outgassing from the oceans anyway.

      Or, to put it another way, for every 1ppmv of CO2 which you wanted to remove from the atmosphere, you would have to remove the equivalent of 52ppmv from the oceans as well in order to preserve the equilibrium between the two. This means that if you wanted to reduce the current 410ppmv of atmospheric CO2 down to its pre-industrial level of about 280ppmv (according to the IPCC) – a reduction of 130ppmv – you would have to sequester the equivalent of 130×53 = 6,890ppmv of CO2 in total. (I’ll leave you to work out what that is in gigatonnes at your leisure.)

      The earth may be small as planets go, but it is still enormous by human standards and quite beyond our powers to control.

      [* See: ]

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