When cows do what they do

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Look if John Boehner wants to believe that global warming isn't happening or isn't bad or whatever, then fine. But can we at least be spared this kind of stupidity:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So what is the responsible way? That's my question. What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?

BOEHNER: George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide. And so I think it's clear...

OK, so this is, as Wolfgang Pauli is supposed to have said "not even wrong". First, nobody is claiming that CO2 is a carcinogen. The reason people want to reduce CO2 emissions isn't that they give you cancer, it's that CO2 causes global warming. So, the fact that you exhale it hardly leads to the conclusion that it's somehow a great idea to radically increase the CO2 content of the atmosphere.

Even if the reason to restrict CO2 was that it was bad for humans instead of the environment (like, say mercury) this wouldn't follow. Have you noticed that you're inhaling CO2? It's a waste product from aerobic respiration (look up the Krebs Cycle). Boehner's argument is like suggesting that feces isn't bad for you because you emit it regularly, as do cows, etc., but I'm assuming he'd like to minimize his feces consumption.

Interestingly, while CO2 is a waste product, it's not actually toxic. You wouldn't want to breathe an all CO2 atmosphere, but CO2 is what stimulates the breathing reflex. Oxygen, on the other hand, is fairly toxic once you get too far above the normal partial pressures in the atmosphere.

4 Comments

There's plenty of stupidity to go around on this topic. I've actually spent a fair bit of effort looking at the evidence and I'm reasonably confident CO2 emissions are not a significant issue. But guys like this give skeptics a bad name. Unfortunately, there is plenty of idiocy on the other side as well (e.g., James Hansen calling for oil executives to be tried for crimes against humanity). All this just clouds the issue and makes it hard to come up with a reasonably balanced policy.

Whichever side I listen to is the side I suddenly believe less.

I believe that Boehner is referring (implicitly) to the fact that EPA is chartered to regulate emissions of carcinogens.

If EPA is going to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, then, clearly, carbon dioxide must be a carcinogen.

Otherwise, EPA's charter would have to be amended by Congress to allow it.

@Eric: except that's dumb too, because "regulating carcinogens" is not the only thing that the EPA is chartered to do. There's tons of things that the EPA regulates without them being carcinogens.

@EKR: CO2 does become toxic once it reaches about 1% in air (normal is a bit under 0.04%). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide#Toxicity -- though of course that's not what anyone is referring to when discussing CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

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