Climate Scientists Hope You Forgot This High School Science Fact, And Tragically, Most People Did Just That

300px-Atmosphere_gas_proportions.svgAsk anybody for the percentage of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and you will likely get an answer that’s off by a factor of a thousand.  That’s a little shocking in a world where virtually every conversation eventually turns to CO2-driven climate change.  Why is the scientific community not diving into the breach to fix this widespread misconception about our home atmosphere?  Because climate scientists have worked hard over the last 20 years to encourage you to forget this fact that most people learned in high school: that CO2 is a trace element in Earth’s atmosphere.  It barely exists at all, amounting to no more than 0.03768% of total gases, as illustrated in the diagram at right.

In contrast, the atmosphere of Venus, the planet that caused the debate on “greenhouse gases,” is almost 97% CO2.  The only way climate scientists can convince you that the Earth is on the verge of heating up like Venus is to first help you forget the fact that the two atmospheres are factually nothing alike.  The bad news is, they’ve succeeded.

Ryan Scott Welch writes (as quoted by Anthony Watts):

[W]hen questioned about how much CO2 is in our atmosphere most people give me a guess of somewhere between 30% and 70%. When I tell them that CO2 is only 0.04% or really about 395 ppm (parts per million) they generally look at me as if I was speaking some kind of foreign language. The layman simply cannot convert 0.04% of the atmosphere or 395 ppm into anything they can picture or relate to. In searching for some way to help the layman to understand the earth’s atmosphere, CO2, and the human contribution to atmospheric CO2, I came upon the idea of relating a sample of the atmosphere to something that nearly every person has seen, a football stadium.

Ryan goes on to explain that if the entire Earth atmosphere was represented by the 100,000 seat Dallas Cowboys Stadium, only 40 of those seats would be CO2.  Also, less than half of one of those seats could be attributed to human causes.  On top of that, there’s evidence that the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere has been considerably higher in the past.  Some have even proposed that the current levels are so small that plant life on the planet is literally suffocating, and represents only a shadow of the growth in past millenia.

Given all that, is it any surprise that climate scientists, whose funding depends on keeping alive a little hysteria, are in no hurry to correct this massive public misperception about CO2?  Try the trivia test for yourself.  The next time a co-worker or your own child talks to you about climate change, ask them the question about the percentage of CO2.  See what they say.  I have been unable to find any formal polling results that quantify public ignorance on this question.  It may be too technical for them to poll.  But my own experience supports Welch’s contention.  Most people I know believe it’s at least 10%.  So, ask the question.  When you tell them it’s only 0.04%, you might have a shot at opening their minds on the issue.  The fact that CO2 is a trace gas doesn’t prove or disprove anything, but it does establish the basis for a little healthy skepticism.

About GruntOfMonteCristo

Fearless and Devout Catholic Christian First, Loving Husband and Father Second, Pissed-Off Patriot Third, Rocket Engineer Dork Last.
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5 Responses to Climate Scientists Hope You Forgot This High School Science Fact, And Tragically, Most People Did Just That

  1. Hmmmmm. Kind of makes me think about Christ word then and what it’s become now!

  2. Ask anybody for the percentage of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, and you will likely get an answer that’s off by a factor of 10,000.

    Sorry to be a stickler, but I think you mean a factor of 1,000.

    0.035% * 1,000 = 35%

    0.035% * 10,000 = 350%

    The general concept is right, though… people who think that the amount of CO2 is in our atmosphere is somewhere between 30% and 70% are off by a factor of between 857 and 2000.

    • Absolutely, RP. Thanks for the correction! I owe you, Buddy!

      I was thinking 3 orders of magnitude, but I couldn’t print that, because most people don’t think in orders of magnitude, so I converted in my head and glitched it. I was thinking 10,000, but it’s only 10^3 = 1000. I’ll get that fixed.

  3. NeuroProf says:

    If your point is that lack of knowledge about atmospheric science is disappointing, I agree with you. But if your point is that trace levels of CO2 can’t have consequences, that’s a weak argument. Plants depend on CO2. If 0.04% CO2 is insignificant, one would be forced to conclude that plant life on earth is impossible.

    Clearly, this low percentage of CO2 can have effects on sustaining quadrillions (quintillions?) of photosynthetic organisms. Can an increase in this low percentage of CO2 have an effect on global climate? I don’t have any idea. My point isn’t to argue for a relationship between CO2 and temperature, my point is that, absent any other information, the low percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere isn’t an argument against that relationship either.

    • Yes it is. Not a conclusive one, but an argument nonetheless, and a strong one. Not only that, it’s an argument that everyone – scientist and layman alike – intuitively understands. If a gas, say Xenon, were to be blamed for catastrophic temperature change, it matters very much in the believability of the claim whether Xenon is a trace gas or not. It changes the burden of proof. If it exists in only trace amounts, then any legitimate scientific review process must recognize that a very strong level of evidence should therefore be required, given the higher level of skepticism that should be present. Such is not the case if Xenon existed in large quantities. This is true even though the processes involved are nonlinear and might possibly be driven by small effects.

      My point was that all people would, and should, be extremely skeptical of the temperature claims being made, if they were aware that CO2 was a trace gas. Apparently, they are not aware of it. I would also add that the demand for strong evidence has not been met. The data show that temperature has not risen proportionally as predicted with increasing CO2 levels.

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