We have been hearing about it in the news almost every day, until it was supplanted by other issues. The run-up to BREXIT, the general election, floods, and now the Coronavirus pandemic have made us all temporarily dump the issue and public attention is now fully occupied with the control of the global pandemic.
The mainstream media have highlighted the drop in climate-change gases – a direct link to a significant reduction in both travel and manufacturing following global lockdown.
From a planetary perspective, the drop is not highly significant and as soon as lockdown finishes, we will probably revert to our old ways very quickly.
Having said that, I am hopeful that state governments will use the opportunity to consolidate some of the steps that have been taken to enable the use of alternative means of transport – making that small reductions permanent.
We have seen cities around the world banning vehicular traffic from city streets, together with enhancing cycle lanes and pedestrian routes, making it easier and cleaner to travel.
This is nowhere near enough, but at least it is showing that people can get around large cities safely without using a car or public transport.
All the media focus revolves primarily around the ever-increasing levels of air pollution that are triggering climate change, rising sea levels and rising temperature.
There is, however, an interesting health issue that lurks in the sidelines.
As a species, we rely on breathing air, from which we extract oxygen, and then exhale CO2, together with other gases such as Nitrogen and Methane, and some organic compounds.
In order for our bodies to function correctly we rely on our lungs to absorb oxygen and exhale the CO2 in the correct ratios.
The composition of the air that we breathe is 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and 1% Argon. There are also traces of CO2, and rare gases such as Xenon, Neon, Helium, Methane.
As we increase the levels of CO2 in the air, our lungs will be unable to exhale the surplus and this will be absorbed into the body, which will have an effect.
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado in Boulder, The Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Pennsylvania, evidence suggests that future levels of CO2 may severely impair our cognitive ability.
The study based its research on two scenarios; one, a world where human society reduces the amount of CO2 it releases into the atmosphere, and the other where we don’t – “business as usual.”
Alarmingly, even when we do reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we release into the ecosystem, by the year 2100, individuals would still be exposed to elevated levels (by today’s standards) of CO2 leading to a 25% decrease in cognitive abilities.
The reduction in mental ability is caused by an increase in CO2 in the brain, a condition called Hypercapnia. which leads to a reduction in brain/blood oxygen (Hypoxemia).
The result is a reduction in brain activity, decreased levels of arousal and excitability. On top of this, it induces sleepiness, and anxiety, the result of which is an impact on our cognitive functions such as learning, memory, strategising and crisis management.
This is easily understood. Who hasn’t been in a lecture room, classroom or meeting room, where our concentration wanders, and we get tired and disengaged. The result of excess CO2 released by a lot of individuals. The solution is normally to open a window to let in some fresh air.
But what if the air outside was not really fresh at all?
A report in 2001 (Robertson) argued that even slightly elevated levels of CO2 (720 parts per million) could cause lowered pH in the blood (acidosis) leading to restlessness, mild hypertension and ultimately confusion.
The report concluded that if we continue with “business as usual”, flagrantly releasing megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, by 2100 we could see our cognitive functions reduced by as much as 50%.
Unless we build on this virally-induced reduction in CO2 and continue to decrease global pollution, we may survive this.
If not, we, as a race, are doomed to become the joint recipients of the last-ever Darwin Awards.