The Questionable Authority

Yesterday, the Daily Kos and ThinkProgress reported on some spectacularly inane things that Texas Representative “Smokey Joe” Barton said about carbon dioxide. Now, Barton getting something wrong that involves science or the environment is, of course, nothing new. He is, after all, the man who recently Twittered his pride at “stumping” the Nobel Laureate Energy Secretary with a question that actually demonstrated nothing more than Barton’s own ignorance of basic geology. As revealing as that whole little incident was, he managed to make more mistakes yesterday.

Barton committed the errors in an interview he did with newsmax.com’s Ronald Kessler. Barton was expressing his disagreement with the EPA’s recent decision to regulate industrial carbon dioxide emissions as a greenhouse gas. Barton’s arguments took two separate, but equally inept, routes: carbon dioxide isn’t harmful; and the EPA’s new regulations could cause it to close down events like the Boston Marathon where an excessive amount of heavy breathing is taking place in a short period of time.

Barton’s first attempt – the “carbon dioxide isn’t bad” approach – took the following form:

Under Obama, the EPA has issued an endangerment finding saying that carbon dioxide is a hazard to public health.

“Of course, they’ve not really given any explicit examples of that, because they can’t,” Barton says. “There’s never been anybody who’s been treated in an emergency room for CO2 poisoning. It doesn’t cause asthma; it doesn’t cause your eyes to water; it doesn’t cause cancer.”

When I told my wife, who is a physician, that a member of Congress said that nobody has ever been treated in an ER for CO2 poisoning, her reaction was instant, and predictable:

facepalm.jpg

It is in fact possible for carbon dioxide to reach life-threatening levels far before a lack of oxygen becomes a problem. And it happens. The technical name for this is “hypercapnia“. It’s not a particularly common condition, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is nowhere near enough to lead to hypercapnia under normal conditions, but it is real. If you ever watched Apollo 13, you might recall that concerns about CO2 poisoning actually played a large role in both the movie and the real incident.

Barton continued by presenting some data of unknown (but highly suspicious) origin:

Barton says the average healthy adult exhales between four-tenths of a ton and seven-tenths of a ton of CO2 a year.

I honestly don’t know where he got that from, but I don’t think reality was involved in any way. Even if I use a set of assumptions that are all favorable to Barton (Short tons instead of metric, 2g/L density for CO2, 4% CO2 in exhaled air, and 750mL tidal volume), an average human being would have to breathe 20 times a minute every minute of every day to produce 0.7 tons of CO2. An “average healthy adult” is not going to exhale anything remotely close to 0.7 tons of CO2 annually. In fact, I’m not sure that most olympic athletes release that much CO2.

Even if you do the math using an average minute volume of 8 liters per minute, which is the upper end of the generally accepted human norm, the average person only produces 0.37 tons of C02 per year – which is under the lower end of the range Barton gave.

OK. That takes care of medical and physiological ignorance and pulling numbers out of thin air. Next, we get to an inability to do the minimal amount of math necessary to keep a lie straight:

“So if you put 20,000 marathoners into a confined area, you could consider that a single source of pollution, and you could regulate it,” Barton says. “The key would be whether the EPA said that 20,000 people running the same route was one source or not.”

Barton is basing that assertion on a regulatory cutoff of 250 tons of CO2 per year. Let’s do the simple math that he didn’t do.

If we take Barton’s asininely high 0.7 tons per year average human CO2 emission, that works out to an “average” human emission of 72.5g/hr. Let’s assume that the exertion required to run the marathon results in four times as much CO2 being released – at 5% CO2, that requires moving 48L/min, which is probably outside the realm of the possible for most of the human population, but what the hell – that gives us 290g of CO2 per marathoner per hour.

250 short tons converts to 226796185 g. Assuming a 5-hour event (lots of slow marathoners), that requires the production of 45359237g of CO2 per hour of the marathon. If we divide that by the 290g of CO2 per runner per hour that I came up with above, we find that it would actually take more than 156,000 runners to produce 250 tons of CO2.

For some strange reason, I don’t think the EPA is going to worry about the Boston Marathon anytime soon.

Newsmax, predictably enough, challenged exactly none of Barton’s amazingly stupid claims.

Of course, all of this talk about exhaled carbon dioxide ignores and distracts from the more important point: the environmental effects of carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels are very different from the effects of breathing. That particular branch of Representative Barton’s inanity is a whole post in itself – and one that I’ll have up here tomorrow morning.

Comments

  1. #1 ngong
    May 13, 2009

    At the winery I worked at, they asked newbies to take a good whiff of the CO2 emanating from the 20,000 gallon tanks. It’s not pleasant. There’s a point to that exercise: the CO2 will knock you out, you’ll fall in the tank, and you’ll die long before the manway can be drained.

  2. #2 Moderately Unbalanced Squid
    May 13, 2009

    Unfortunately, Rep. Barton doesn’t have to make sense to other people in general, he only needs to make sense to his a subset of his constituency, which is probably an anti-science subset anyway.

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    May 13, 2009

    Another way to look at the calculation:

    Assume that the subject human is burning a half-pound of carbon per day (that’s quite a bit more calories than reality, but we’re being generous.) Add the weight of oxygen and you get about 1.8 pounds per day of CO2. Times 365 and you have 670 pounds of CO2 per year.

    I can soooooo easily see some genius doing that calculation, rounding up to 700 pounds, and then some other genius converting “700 pounds” to “0.7 ton.”

  4. #4 BaldApe
    May 13, 2009

    So how much CO2 is being sequestered in growing the food to feed all those marathoners?

  5. #5 Orac
    May 13, 2009

    Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick. Hasn’t Barton ever heard of death by suffocation? It’s the hypercapnia due to the CO2 that kills, not the lack of oxygen.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    May 13, 2009

    Hasn’t Barton ever heard of death by suffocation? It’s the hypercapnia due to the CO2 that kills, not the lack of oxygen.

    “Representative Barton, this room is hermetically sealed. I am locking you in. We’ll open the room and let you out when the oxygen level gets below 10,000 feet equivalent.”

    Shouldn’t be a problem, right? After all, there’s lots of oxygen at 10,000 feet so the good Representative is in no danger at all.

  7. #7 Brook
    May 13, 2009

    Both sides of this are talking stupid, and we’ve had enough of this nonsense. Al Gore saying the climate bill was going to single-handedly solve our climate, economic, and nat’l security problems.

    Common sense Americans aren’t about to fork over $ 650 billion, because Barack Obama believes he can control the weather. The insanity of that idea is inescapable to every thinking person.

  8. #8 natural cynic
    May 13, 2009

    …4% CO2 in exhaled air, and 750mL tidal volume), an average human being would have to breathe 20 times a minute every minute of every day to produce 0.7 tons of CO2.

    If you breathe at 20/min the %CO2 will be more like 2-2.5% unless you increase the metabolic rate. And at 20 breaths/min at rest, you will get hypocapnic unless the tidal volume is proportionally reduced.

    Brook:

    Al Gore saying the climate bill was going to single-handedly solve our climate, economic, and nat’l security problems.

    Where did he say that? I think that he would have said “help solve our climate, economic …”

    Common sense Americans aren’t about to fork over $ 650 billion, because Barack Obama believes he can control the weather. The insanity of that idea is inescapable to every thinking person.

    Where did Obama say that the $650B will control the weather? Sigh, just another troll that doesn’t know the difference between climate and weather.

  9. #9 Dan
    May 14, 2009

    This kind of reminds me of the time a denialist said to me (roughly paraphrasing) “You wouldn’t expect a person jumping in the Atlantic Ocean to have an effect on the world’s sea level, so why would you expect 100ppm addition of CO2 to the atmosphere to have a difference.”

    Out of curiosity, I crunched the numbers, underestimating the volume of your average human being and using the official oceanographic estimate of the volume of the oceans. I found you’d need roughly 16 x 10^16 human beings jumping into the ocean to have the same effect in terms of density change. He was off by 16 orders of magnitude.

    The point? – these denialists have absolutely no shame in their cluelessness of scale.

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