ThinkProgress: Higher CO2 Levels Make Workers Dumber, Less Productive

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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ThinkProgress’s Joe Romm is at it again, this time claiming increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon will reduce human cognition, driving down the productivity of people who work in offices and even outdoors.

“A number of recent studies have projected a collapse in labor productivity from business-as-usual carbon emissions and warming,” Romm, ThinkProgress’s climate editor, wrote in a Labor Day blog post.

“At the same time, higher carbon dioxide (CO2) levels threaten indoor productivity,” Romm wrote. “The Harvard School of Public Health has found that CO2 has a direct and negative impact on human cognition and decision-making at CO2 levels that most Americans are routinely exposed to today.”

Romm also argued rising temperatures — the result of increased CO2 from human activities — will decrease worker productivity, citing work by economists claiming “[p]roductivity starts to nose-dive at 90°F and falls off the cliff at 100°F.”

This is the second article Romm has written claiming ambient CO2 is harming human cognition — in other words, people’s ability to learn and process information. In October 2015, Romm cited Harvard University research that human cognition is being harmed at CO2 levels commonly found in offices, classrooms and other buildings.

“That study found that, on average, a typical participant’s cognitive scores dropped 21 percent with a 400 parts per million increase in CO2,” Romm wrote. “We are still on a path to 675 ppm, which is too high for both the climate change impacts and the direct human cognition impacts.”

The 2015 Harvard study exposed 24 people to office environments with varying levels of volatile organic compounds as well as varying lee over the work week and found that for “seven of the nine cognitive function domains, average cognitive scores decreased at each higher level of CO2.”

“Cognitive function scores were 15% lower for the moderate CO2 day (~945 ppm) and 50% lower on the day with CO2 concentrations around 1400 ppm than on the two Green+ days,” according to the Harvard study, claiming “green” buildings are better for your health.

Romm’s 2015 blog post on the Harvard study was done to promote his book on global warming, and now the climate scientist-turned liberal activist is using similar research to show how CO2 from human activities could hurt workers. Happy Labor Day!

But is it true? Some studies do show cognition decreases as CO2 levels increase, but many show that CO2 levels need to be extremely high to be harmful to human health. People living in urban areas, for example, are routinely exposed to really high levels of CO2 with no evidence it’s impacting them in any way.

The U.S. Navy, for example, says average CO2 concentrations in submarines is 3,500 parts per million (ppm) — levels nearly 10 times higher than what Harvard claims is safe.

“Data collected on nine nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines indicate an average CO2 concentration of 3,500 ppm with a range of 0-10,600 ppm, and data collected on 10 nuclear-powered attack submarines indicate an average CO2 concentration of 4,100 ppm with a range of 300-11,300 ppm,” according to a 2007 National Research Council report on exposure issues facing submarine crews.

The NRC noted a “number of studies suggest that CO2 exposures in the range of 15,000-40,000 ppm do not impair neurobehavioral performance.”

A 1998 study by Craig Idso, the founder of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, found that people living in urban Phoenix, Arizona lived with CO2 levels as high as 555 ppm, and those lin more rural parts saw levels as high as 370 ppm.

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