Humans Do Not Create CO2

Conservatives really think they gotcha when they point out that humans breathe out CO2. Ha!

Humans do not create carbon when they breathe. They cycle carbon. We are part of the global carbon cycle. You probably learned about this in grammar school. Plants take in CO2 and release O2. We take in O2 and release CO2. And on and on. Cycle carbon? Yes! Create carbon? No!

Under normal circumstances, there is a set amount of carbon in the air. This carbon spends time as plant material and animal material and in the air as CO2, but it is just part of this global cycle. For each carbon atom that takes up residency as part of a plant, another carbon atom that used to be part of a plant is released into the air. It’s a beautiful system.

It is only when we rip large amounts of sequestered carbon—usually in the form of hydrocarbons (oil, coal, natural gas)—that we add to the total carbon in the atmosphere. And this is why the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing.

People who claim that humans are creating CO2 by breathing are offensive. I don’t say this just because they are denying the science. I say it because they are accusing scientists of being idiots. The idea that thousands of climate scientists have spent their whole lives studying this stuff without noticing such an obvious thing is repugnant. You can tell that the people who talk about this stuff are almost giddy to have found such a clever retort to the scientists. It’s a lot like Bill O’Reilly’s proof of God, “Why is the moon there? Huh, smart guy? And while you’re at it, why is the sky blue? And sometimes red? No one can answer these questions!”

It’s important for liberals to understand how this works. I assure you that eventually, you will run into this argument. It’s sad that these arguments even have to be made. For most things we simply yield to the experts. “I’ll believe that guy who has spent his whole life studying it,” is a very good approach to take. Unfortunately, your crazy Fox News watching uncle doesn’t accept information from those highly biased scientists who sometimes make over a $100,000 per year just to make Al Gore wealthy. Repeat after me, “We cycle carbon, we don’t create it…”


Whenever I watch Rachel Maddow mix drinks, I get the idea that she doesn’t do it much. It’s kind of cute. She likes to pretend she is this serious drinker, but just look at her! She is so white bread it almost makes me despair. But you gotta love her!

7 thoughts on “Humans Do Not Create CO2

  1. In a certain sense everything cycles carbon, that is nothing creates carbon atoms (except nuclear reactors and stars). Carbon exists in various states from reduced hydrocarbons to oxidized carbon dioxide, so its not wrong to speak of burning gasoline as cycling carbon. From a chemical perspective it doesn’t matter is the CO2 came from burning sugar within the human body or from burning gasoline, itself ultimately the product of long-dead plant matter. The decay of plant material and volcanoes are also sources of carbon dioxide. There is also not one set point of atmospheric CO2, it varies over (geologic) time.

    The issue is what is the impact upon our environment caused by the sudden release of stores of hydrocarbons from the earth burned for fuel and transformed into CO2. In other words the human impact of industry.
    Understand I’m not disagreeing with you, its complicated. As a scientist I’m sure you understand this, and I think you’re point is that the "humans breathe out CO2 too" comment is a pseudoscientific argument designed to appeal to those who have very little understanding of science.

    Its funny seeing the MSNBC folks try to be "hip" and "cool". I love watching Rachel too and she brings a lot of important things to attention (esp gay rights) but her attempts to be "cool" are painfully funny.

  2. @Andy – You’re right in a sense. But if you want to take the carbon cycle to the limit, it because a useless idea regarding the environment. Estimates are that it takes a carbon atom about 200 years get semi-permanently out of the atmospheric environment. And that is what we’re interested in. The carbon pumped out of the earth would have stayed there for tens of thousands of years. Every carbon atom we release into the atmosphere this way we are stuck with for a couple of hundred years. That’s the issue. So really we are limiting our view to the atmosphere and the first few meters of soil.

    I’m not sure what you mean by "hip" regarding Rachel Maddow. I’ve noticed that she tries to come off as nerdier than she actually is. She should leave that to Ezra Klein who is a full member of the nerdosphere. Do you mean the "cocktail moments"? I think they are kind of charming, if awkward. But her taste in booze is awful! It ain’t 1928 anymore, girl!

  3. Jon Steward really demonstrates what I mean when he does segments making fun of the MSNBC folks. He did a piece called "Jedi Knight or Sith Lord" when newscasters (I view those shows as a hybrid of news and opinion so that’s probably not the right word) were wearing hoodies in solidarity of Trayvon Martin. He did another piece recently that was aimed more at fox but in the same vein titled "spot the narc" following coverage of CO and WA. When they try to make themselves part of the story, be it OWL (oc wall st) or whatever, they can (though not always) come off like the professor in the ivory tower marching in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, sympathetic yes but not truly "one of them". This is what I mean by trying to be "hip".
    The cocktail moments are kind of funny in an awkward way.I’m not into going to bars and don’t drink anything stronger than beer so they’re kind of lost on me. In some ways they bother me because segments like these really demonstrate the level of cognitive dissonance Americans have regarding which recreational drugs are acceptable and which are "abuse." I also realize I have a serious bias to see things this way and they probably come off as innocent enough to most people.

    PS Funny line about 1928

  4. @Andy – I see. And I agree. As much as I like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, they are [i]not[/i] me. They are upper (upper-middle at worst) class with all of the blind spots of their class. Regardless, I’ll take all the rich who want to join my side. But I don’t want them pretending that they are part of the oppressed classes.

    I have a special love of cocktails because in my past, I’ve run the bar at parties. I like the process, but more, I just like having a role at any party. I’m not the most at ease of people…

  5. Do people know you have a freakin’ PhD in freakin’ atmospheric freakin’ physics? When you are arrogant, it is only humbly so.

  6. @Morwalk – I’m not sure about the humbly so, but thank you. I don’t know. It isn’t on this article, but I’ve gotten some really wacko responses. Check out this one:

    But really, I don’t lean too much on my background. It takes a lot to keep up on this science, and I don’t really do it. But this carbon cycle stuff is pretty simple.

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