Climate change will also make us more stupid

31 08 2021

Most people are at least vaguely aware that climate change isn’t good for us.

Let’s consider the obvious direct health effects, like heat exhaustion and stroke, dehydration, increased inhalation of particulate matter from bushfires and other pollutant sources, greater expression of allergies, higher incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, greater injury rates, and higher probability of disease transmission from flooding events (see review here).

Let’s not forget the rising incidence of mental illness either.

Then there are the climatic events that increase the probability of dying violently like in a bushfire or a flood, getting caned in a major storm by debris, personal injury from storm surges exacerbated by rising sea levels, or dying slowly due to undernutrition from crop failures.

Some of the more indirect, yet just-as-insidious repercussions are those climate-driven events that worsen all of the above, such as increasing poverty, rising violent interactions (both individual-level and full-on warfare), loss of healthcare capability (less infrastructure, fewer doctors), and increased likelihood of becoming a refugee.

So, when someone says increased warming at the pace we’re witnessing now isn’t a problem, tell them they’re full of shit.

But wait! There’s more!

Yes, climate change will also make us more stupid. Perhaps one of the lesser-appreciated byproducts of an increasingly warmer world driven by rising greenhouse-gas concentrations is the direct effects of carbon dioxide on a variety of physiological functions.

The world has gone from just shy of 340 ppm CO2 since 1980 to about 415 ppm today. At the current rate, we’re looking like well over 1100 ppm or more by 2100. After that, it’s all a bit of a ‘what if’ scenario.

So, what do CO2 concentrations > 1000 ppm mean for our health? There are in fact a lot of data on this, summarised nicely in this review article.

But to summarise even more, the effects include higher inflammation, bone demineralisation, respiratory acidosis, oxidative stress, kidney calcification, headaches, and endothelial dysfunction. Nasty.

But something that until quite recently escaped my attention is the effect of diminishing cognitive function of high CO2 concentration. So far the experimental data have been restricted to case studies and short-duration impact studies, but they all point to the fact that exposure to high CO2 essentially makes human beings more stupid.

All this will be exacerbated by the fact that as the world continues to heat up, we’ll all be spending a lot more time indoors where CO2 concentrations well over 2000 or even 3000 ppm can occur, especially in poorly ventilated infrastructure (which is arguably the most common type).

Given the daunting challenges and eroding political capacity to do anything sensible about climate change, I fear a lot more stupid people — irrespective of any major changes in education worldwide — will make tackling the problems even more difficult.

CJA Bradshaw



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