Carbon Pollution Could Alter Our Cognitive Abilities: Study
Sun, April 18, 2021

Carbon Pollution Could Alter Our Cognitive Abilities: Study

When scientists started tracking carbon dioxide concentrations at Mauna Loa in 1958, carbon levels reached around 315 parts per million (ppm). By 2013, it had surpassed 400 ppm / Photo by: kodda via 123RF

 

The last time the planet’s air was so rich and pure in carbon dioxide was millions of years ago. This was back when our early predecessors were wielding stone stools and killing animals themselves to survive. When scientists started tracking carbon dioxide concentrations at Mauna Loa in 1958, carbon levels reached around 315 parts per million (ppm). By 2013, it had surpassed 400 ppm.

By that time, scientists started to worry because they knew that the figure was higher than any experienced in recorded history. They figured this out through ice cores and paleoclimate evidence showing 800,000 years of data. When the Industrial Revolution began, it introduced high levels of greenhouse gases while humans burnt fossil fuels to support an increasingly technology-driven lifestyle. 

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the global temperatures today have reached about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, which is higher than during the pre-industrial period. The increasing global temperatures are also accompanied by stronger ocean wind and waves, more frequent droughts, and unprecedented warm seasons.

“We keep breaking records, but what makes the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere most troubling is that we are now well into the 'danger zone' where large tipping points in the Earth’s climate could be crossed,” Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said. 

CO2 Reaches Highest Recorded Levels in History

The 2015 Paris Agreement, the latest international climate treaty, aims to keep the global temperature below two degrees Celsius, and hopefully limit it to 1.5 degrees. However, this goal is far from being achieved.

Recently, the annual “State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere” report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed that carbon dioxide reached an all-time high in 2018 since pre-industrial amounts. According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, the highest recorded measurement last year was 415.70 ppm. This was higher than it has ever been in human history. 

The findings of the study show that Earth is continuing to warm at an alarming pace. “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

Scientists reported that this isn’t the first time that carbon dioxide has reached those levels. About 500 million years ago, C02 was been as high as 4,000 ppm during the Cambrian, while as low as 180 ppm in the more recent “ice age” on Earth. However, experts stated that we should still be worried for several reasons. For instance, our era has witnessed C02 levels increase faster in the past century than ever before in natural history. In fact, the annual rise in carbon dioxide levels is increasing about 100 times faster than recorded during natural increases in Earth’s history. 

The report revealed that concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide, two other greenhouse gases, have also increased over the past decade. According to NBC News, owned and operated by NBCUniversal, methane emissions had a 259% increase and nitrous oxide had a 123% increase over pre-industrial levels.

Carbon Dioxide Affects Our Thinking

A recent study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Pennsylvania revealed that higher carbon dioxide levels are slowly dulling our ability to think. 

Previous studies showed that high carbon dioxide levels indoors can lead to cognitive decline. This time, the team wondered what happens when fresh air has high levels of CO2. They also aimed to determine its impact on children's learning in a classroom. 

According to Phys.org, an internet portal that provides the latest news on science, the researchers created a model with two outcomes: one that factors in reductions in CO2 and another that projects conditions if emissions continue unfettered. The researchers concluded that students’ cognitive abilities may decrease by 25% by 2100 if exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, a model without emissions mitigation could see a 50% reduction. 

The mechanisms behind this cognitive decline are still not well understood. However, the researchers have linked the impact to carbon dioxide making it harder for the brain to absorb oxygen. At the same time, concentrated CO2 might lower the pH of blood, resulting in a number of symptoms including confusion. Fortunately, this can still change if we stop carbon concentrations at 540 ppm. This means keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius. 

“By the end of the century, people who are trying to solve this problem of climate change, which is a complex problem, are going to half as good at doing that. This is a hidden impact of climate change that could actually impact our ability to solve the problem itself,” Kris Karnauskas, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder and lead author of the study, said. 

If the trend of increasing carbon dioxide continues, our cognitive abilities may truly suffer.

A recent study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Pennsylvania revealed that higher carbon dioxide levels are slowly dulling our ability to think / Photo by: gstockstudio via 123RF