News ID: 263348
Published: 0601 GMT December 23, 2019

Study shows how pollution, climate change could affect our cognitive abilities

Study shows how pollution, climate change could affect our cognitive abilities

By Bruce Y. Lee*

Will pollution create a downward spiral of stupidity?

If our society is being dumb for not taking more urgent action about human pollution and human pollution can make us dumber, will we get to a point to where we can’t even understand how stupid we are being?

In what has to be good news for cockroaches and whatever alien race eventually takes over our planet and enslaves us, a new research paper posted on EarthArXiv suggests that rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the air will damage our cognitive abilities. That means thinking abilities.

As a CBS News segment indicated, CO2 levels have increased much more rapidly over the past century, consistent with the thought that human activity such as fossil fuel use has been contributing to the rise.

For the paper, Kristopher Karnauskas and Shelly Miller from the University of Colorado and Anna Schapiro from the University of Pennsylvania found studies that showed the relationship between CO2 levels and thinking ability and created a predictive model of what might happen over time, giving current trends in fossil fuel pollution. They drew from studies that revealed what happened in settings where CO2 levels increased. In such school environments, student attention, vigilance, and memory decreased. In such work settings, decision-making, strategic, and crisis response abilities declined. In case you are wondering, these are not good things.

While these observations were associations, which don’t necessarily prove cause-and-effect, there are scientific explanations why higher CO2 levels may affect thinking. The alveoli in your lungs exchange oxygen that’s in the air you inhale with the carbon dioxide that’s in the blood. If the air that you breathe has more CO2 and less oxygen, then your blood won’t get the same amount of oxygen. Oxygen, in turn, helps your cells function, including all those cells that are inside that hard spherical casing that sits on top of your neck. If your brain cells aren’t getting the same level of oxygen, they may not function as well and more may even die. All of this could affect your cognitive function.

If your response is “rats” then you are right in more ways than one. The research paper also mentions a study of juvenile rats that tested what occurred when CO2 levels in the air that they breathed were raised. Levels of a neuroprotective growth factor went down, which in turn impaired brain development.

With all of these background studies and material, the researchers then used the data to create a mathematical model to forecast what would happen assuming that current trends in rising CO2 in the environment were maintained. The prediction? By 2100, there would be about a 25-percent reduction in basic human decision–making ability and a 50-percent drop in more complex human strategic thinking. That’s only 80 years away if you do the math.

To my knowledge, this paper hasn’t yet gone completely through scientific peer-review, and I haven’t checked all of the numbers or the model in detail. Therefore, take these specific findings with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, this study does highlight the fact that our environment can readily affect our thinking ability. It is foolish to think that our abilities are somehow separate from our surroundings, that we can accomplish the same things under any condition.

If you believe that your environment doesn’t affect your thinking ability, try turning the heat way up in your room or wearing a mask for long periods of time. See if you can still think and function at the same level.

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that human activity is contributing to global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. The figure that is often cited is 97 percent of climate scientists. You can quibble with the exact figure all that you want, but it is absurd to believe that continuing to spew huge amounts smoke into the sky won’t have an effect on the environment. That would be like thinking that burning chairs in a restaurant won’t ruin its ambience.

There can be a tendency among humans to not act until a disaster has occurred. The trouble is, in this case, will humans even know that a disaster has already occurred when the disaster itself may even affect the knowing?


* Bruce Y. Lee is a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York (CUNY) and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. This article was first published in Forbes magazine.




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