Ted Cruz Knows 1 Thing About the Carbon Cycle

Ted Cruz appears to have a vague notion of the carbon cycle in this tweet. It is indeed true that humans breathe out CO2 and that plants consume it. But, of course, he’s trying to use this to say that CO2 is no problem in the atmosphere. This I suppose is a step up from the notion that humans create CO2 — an issue that I’ve dealt with before, Humans Do Not Create CO2.

So Cruz seems to be aware that the carbon atom is just being swaps from animals to plants and back again. But if this is all that is happening, then why is it that CO2 levels have gone up over 20% since 1960? I mean, this is not one of those cases where Ted Cruz can pick one early high year and claim it is actually going down. Temperatures are highly variable, but CO2 stays in the atmosphere so long that its concentrations are very smooth. Here is the CO2 concentration as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory over the last six decades. (The squiggling is the annual cycle.)

CO2 Mauna Loa - Carbon Cycle

So if animals (not just humans) are swapping all this CO2 back and forth, why is it that the level of CO2 just keeps going up? That would be a good question for Ted Cruz and all of the rest of the anti-science conservatives. Even if they know, they would not be keen to admit it. You see, there is lots of carbon that is in the ground. While it is in the ground, it shockingly doesn’t have an effect on the atmosphere. But once it is released from the ground, it interacts with animals and gets turned into CO2 — eventually. And so we get to the atmospheric carbon cycle.

Now most of this is just plants taking it out of the ground. But that is just more of the carbon cycle. And it is ridiculously complicated. Animals eat plants (directly or indirectly) and use the carbon to build their bodies. Part of living is taking in oxygen and breathing out CO2. The plants take the CO2 back in. And when the plants die, they get buried and the carbon is sequestered. The same thing happens to the animals, of course. This is all be very simple stuff that should be taught to all children by the time they finish grammar school.

The Deeper Carbon Cycle

What’s more interesting is what happens to stuff that gets buried. That carbon still reacts with its environment. But in general, those reactions will be anaerobic — without oxygen. And so that carbon, under the right conditions, turns into hydrocarbons. And we have been busy over the last two centuries, pulling those hydrocarbons out of the ground and burning them, thus releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. And that is why the concentration of CO2 at the Mauna Loa observatory is so much higher today than it was in 1950.

Now I know: this is all kind of complicated and very science-y. It’s much easier to say, “CO2 is what every human breathes out; every plant, in turn,consumes CO2.” And if you are an incurious person — or just a demagogue — that’s where you stop. But it offends me. If Ted Cruz wants to deny science, fine; that’s his right. But I wish he wouldn’t use some minor bit of science to justify his science denial. Science isn’t about saying, “I know one thing, so let’s stop talking.” The carbon cycle is a beautiful thing. Ted Cruz is a great symbol of everything that is ugly about humanity.

Fake Anniversary: Invention of the Clarinet

ClarinetOn this day in 1623, the Comité pour l’Invention de la Clarinette was formed. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the flute. For example, the fingerings of the notes in different octaves were pretty much the same. This made learning the flute fairly easy. It was, in the words of one Comité member, “Too logical!” And so: the clarinet.

The problem was physics. The flute has holes on both ends and thus, it is based on the octave. But by closing one of the ends, it was possible to make the clarinet based on a 12th — an octave and a 5th. In this way, the upper registers were fingered in totally different ways. It was, in the words of one Comité member, “A perfect mess!”

But the Comité was not finished. They added various keys at random, just making the whole instrument a nightmare of complexity. But still, their work was not finished. They found that by placing buttons very close to each other — buttons that did very different things — they could normally get a 12 year old clarinet student to cry in under three minutes.

In the clarinet community, it is often joked that the instrument was invented by eight people who never met each other. But that’s not actually true. The Comité pour l’Invention de la Clarinette worked very hard to make the clarinet the bane of woodwind players everywhere. But it has been great for the clarinet instructors who have avoided suicide.