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The dose makes the poison

Princeton physicist William Happer is still getting invited on television to say stupid things.

I keep hearing about the "pollutant CO2," or about "poisoning the atmosphere" with CO2, or about minimizing our "carbon footprint." This brings to mind another Orwellian pronouncement that is worth pondering: "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." CO2 is not a pollutant and it is not a poison and we should not corrupt the English language by depriving "pollutant" and "poison" of their original meaning….CO2 is absolutely essential for life on earth.

Did you know oxygen, while not a poison at standard concentrations, is highly reactive and will kill you at high concentration? Or that CO2 is vital for plants and is measured to regulate your breathing, but too much and you’ll suffocate?

What makes a substance poisonous is how much of it there is. Paracelsus figured this out in the 16th century. So Princeton physicists are unaware of developments and explanations that predate even Newton? That’s kind of amazing.

Maybe CNBC and other networks ought to take a lesson from the BBC on ginned up controversies and false dichotomies, and cut this bozo Happer from their invitation list.

Comments

  1. raven says

    CO2 is not a pollutant and it is not a poison …

    As PZ pointed out, Happer is wrong on the biology.

    Wikipedia CO2:

    In concentrations up to 1% (10,000 ppm), it will make some people feel drowsy.[83]

    Concentrations of 7% to 10% may cause suffocation, even in the presence of sufficient oxygen,

    manifesting as dizziness, headache, visual and hearing dysfunction, and unconsciousness within a few minutes to an hour.[85] The physiological effects of acute carbon dioxide exposure are grouped together under the term hypercapnia, a subset of asphyxiation.

    Even in the presence of enough oxygen, CO2 levels of 7% or greater, will kill you!!!

    If you can use Google and read Wikipedia, you are smarter than a Princeton physicist.

    Happer is old and emeritus and seems to have reached the age where he thinks he can just babble on without worrying about whether it makes any sense or not.

  2. Johnny Vector says

    I took quantum mechanics from him 30 years ago. He was one of the worst teachers I ever had. It’s no surprise to me that he is also a terrible learner.

  3. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Will Happer is proof that an idiot can get a PhD in physics–and tenure at Princeton.

  4. raven says

    Happer is murdering strawpeople here.

    We aren’t worried about rising CO2 per se.

    We are worried about the effects, global warming, climate change, and rising sea levels.

    Someone watching the sea flooding their neighborhood isn’t going to care about CO2 levels. They are going to care a lot about melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

  5. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Compared to the toxicity of carbon monoxide of as low as 667 ppm for lethality…that ain’t so bad.

    This guy isn’t also a homeopath, is he??

  6. moarscienceplz says

    The dose makes the poison.
    Your weekly dose of John Oliver.

    Are you trying to say something, PZ?

  7. monad says

    Almost 30 years ago, Lake Nyos released a cloud of carbon dioxide, and it killed 1700 people.

    That death toll has nothing to do with how it affects climate, any more than its necessity for plant life does, but I think it helps provide a very clear picture of how much people would try to brush that off by calling it life-giving or non-toxic care about facts.

  8. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Didn’t Feynman say something about listening to someone talk outside their field of expertise? This guy is a physicist, why would anything he say about biology or chemistry be taken as; words from an expert?!?
    And is he just writhing around the dictionary? That it is a mistake to label CO2 as a poison? That the defn of poison is a chemical that hurts you, no matter the dosage (if high enough dose, then kills you). That to label CO2 as “poison” diminishes our fear at “real” poisons? That CO2 is dangerous and should be dealt with appropriately, that all he is complaining about is linguistics. “Poison” is the wrong word; “bad stuff” is better label.
    … errrggh, don’t mean to give him absolution for the awful stuff he says. Ignore the previous paragraph I wrote. But answer my first question: did Feynman say that? What was the quote, verbatim?

  9. doublereed says

    William Happer then continued his babbling with a rant about flouride in the water supply.

  10. shouldbeworking says

    Why does a high school physics teacher know more science than a physics prof? Is this guy allowed to teach students?

  11. nomadiq says

    By William Happer’s argument, copper is not a poison.

    It’s found naturally on earth, it’s a natural component of healthy food and is essential for the proper functioning of the human body. So… I see no reason why we should not dump copious amounts of it into our water ways.

    The additional sad thing is this guy is taking up a valuable spot as a professor while good, hard working students and postdocs have nowhere to go because science funding is contracting. I don’t care that he is a physicist and not a chemist or biologist. He shouldn’t be able to be this stupid and still call himself a scientist.

    But my leading theory is not that he is this stupid. Rather, he is being paid.

  12. colnago80 says

    Re #5

    In fairness, Hopper was a productive scientist at one time earlier in his career. Unfortunately, he has turned into a whackjob of late, much like Linus Pauling, William Shockley, and Luc Montagnier did in later life. Scientists, even the most prestigious are not immune from lunacy.

  13. blf says

    Did you know oxygen, while not a poison at standard concentrations, is highly reactive and will kill you at high concentration?

    High concentration under “normal” conditions, at least for a “limited” time.
    For instance, the Apollo (and, I think, Mercury and Gemini) space programmes used a 100% pure Oxygen atmosphere — but at only 5 psi (one-third of Standard Atmospheric Pressure). Whether or not the reduction in pressure was sufficient to avoid toxicity I don’t know, but considering the missions could last more than a week, I rather doubt the atmosphere was lethal (albeit the effects of breathing that level of Oxygen for a much longer time is also unknown to me).

    On the other hand, that 100% pure Oxygen atmosphere was one of the contributing factors to the tragic Apollo I fire.

  14. keiththompson says

    Yes, CO2 is a poison in sufficiently large concentrations (and not just because it displaces oxygen), but that’s not relevant to the concern about how much we’re putting into the atmosphere. CO2 concentrations that fall far short of toxic levels will have serious affects on the climate. William Happer is incorrect in saying that CO2 is not a poison, but he has a (very weak) valid point that its toxicity is not an issue.

    There’s a difference between pollutants like carbon monoxide and the various oxides of nitrogen that are directly toxic, and CO2 which has a more indirect effect.

    Happer pretends that climate scientists do not make that distinction. As far as I’ve seen, they make the distinction quite clearly, and do not typically refer to CO2 as a poison. Nobody is claiming that CO2 toxicity is relevant. He’s making a strawman argument.

    On the other hand, regulation of CO2 emissions might be implemented under the same existing rules that regulate other, more directly toxic, pollutants (since new legislation regulating CO2 is so difficult to pass in the current political climate). Whether such regulation will be successful depends, I suppose, on how broadly the existing rules are worded.

  15. numerobis says

    CO2 directly acidifies the oceans, and that leads to collapses in clam fisheries in the Pacific Northwest and BC (and, we expect, in other places in due time).

    But as you say, it’s besides the point. Ocean acidification is one problem, the effects of warming are another either one on its own would be a good reason to control CO2 emissions.

  16. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Happer is an excellent example of what I mean when I say someone is stupid. Stupidity is when intelligent people use their intelligence to fool themselves. He certainly has the ability and the background to understand climate science if he were to choose to do so. Instead he keeps doubling down on stupid.

  17. dmcclean says

    Also, this case is unusual, because the source also makes the poison.

    Carbon dioxide is essential to life, but the biosphere can cycle through the same carbon indefinitely. Prior to the development of civilization, carbon was sequestered from the atmosphere at a very slightly higher rate than it was introduced by geological processes. This is where fossil fuels came from.

    If I eat a tomato and breathe out carbon dioxide, next year’s tomato plant will breathe in some carbon dioxide and the amount in the atmosphere will have no net change. If instead I drive to the store, the carbon that was sequestered millions of years ago will be reintroduced to the atmosphere, increasing the net amount in the atmosphere and increasing the strength of the greenhouse effect.

    The dose does also make the poison, of course, but the thing that is stumping these people (the few who aren’t pretending) is the stock/flow thing.

  18. says

    I have to wonder, when someone with Happer’s credentials takes a stand in such stark contrast to most other competent and recognized authorities, who is paying for his research grants?

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    Paracelsus figured this out in the 16th century.

    Paracelsus himself inhaled, dermally absorbed, and probably swallowed prodigious amounts of mercury and other toxins in his alchemical researches, yet (apparently) died from a side effect of mere ethanol (falling down stairs, breaking neck).

    So all you chem lab people should just lighten up with all those Hg exposure limits!

  20. mykroft says

    Prior to the development of civilization, carbon was sequestered from the atmosphere at a very slightly higher rate than it was introduced by geological processes. This is where fossil fuels came from.

    As I understand it (thanks to Cosmos, and Dr. deGrasse-Tyson), the plants that grew during the Carboniferous period evolved lignin to use as part of the cellular scaffolding, providing strength and enabling them to grow higher. It took a long time for fungi/bacteria to develop metabolic processes that could break down lignin, so the non-decomposed dead plants piled up over the millennia. After being buried for a long, long time, the plants were converted into fossil fuels.

    As a result oxygen content in the atmosphere was much higher then, enabling huge arthropods to develop and survive. Not sure why Global cooling didn’t happen though.

  21. monad says

    @22 mykroft:
    In fact it did – there were ice ages toward the end of the Carboniferous.

  22. bcwebb says

    Recently the Times had an article on the man tasked with writing the section now applied to CO2.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/us/brothers-work-different-angles-in-taking-on-climate-change.html

    This inspired me to look up the relevant section:

    section III of the clean air act
    http://www.epa.gov/air/caa/title3.html
    subsection 303, Emergency powers:

    Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, the Administrator, upon receipt of evidence that a pollution source or combination of sources (including moving sources) is presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or welfare, or the environment, may bring suit on behalf of the United States in the appropriate United States district court to immediately restrain any person causing or contributing to the alleged pollution to stop the emission of air pollutants causing or contributing to such pollution or to take such other action as may be necessary.
    If it is not practicable to assure prompt protection of public health or welfare or the environment by commencement of such a civil action, the Administrator may issue such orders as may be necessary to protect public health or welfare or the environment. Prior to taking any action under this section, the Administrator shall consult with appropriate State and local authorities and attempt to confirm the accuracy of the information on which the action proposed to be taken is based…[remain part covers administrative details]

    Section I has the congressional findings as the intro
    (2) that the growth in the amount and complexity of air pollution brought about by urbanization, industrial development, and the increasing use of motor vehicles, has resulted in mounting dangers to the public health and welfare, including injury to agricultural crops and livestock, damage to and the deterioration of property, and hazards to air and ground transportation;

    Section I also covers Standards, Federal and State enforcement and that kind of stuff, all originating from the findings.

    So how is ” endangerment to public health or welfare” defined?
    section 302, definitions:
    (g) The term “air pollutant” means any air pollution agent or combination of such agents, including any physical, chemical, biological, radioactive (including source material, special nuclear material, and byproduct material) substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air. Such term includes any precursors to the formation of any air pollutant, to the extent the Administrator has identified such precursor or precursors for the particular purpose for which the term “air pollutant” is used.
    (h) All language referring to effects on welfare includes, but is not limited to, effects on soils, water, crops, vegetation, manmade materials, animals, wildlife, weather, visibility, and climate, damage to and deterioration of property, and hazards to transportation, as well as effects on economic values and on personal comfort and well-being, whether caused by transformation, conversion, or combination with other air pollutants.

    — On the Supreme Court case —
    If you look at the dissents (Roberts and Scalia separately) they do not challenge the law itself but rather argue with the science itself, claiming that that Massachusetts lacked standing because the connection between carbon dioxide and harm to Massachusetts was not established. So much for conservative justices not being activist, normally the supreme court is supposed to argue as to the meaning of laws not the factual findings behind a case. The lower courts found that the facts established a connection. Scalia also argued that because the Bush EPA had announced that there was no connection established between CO2 and harm that EPA determination meant that the States had no standing to challenge that assertion because the determination itself said that the State were not harmed.

    The Supreme court did not question the application of the clean air act to CO2 if harm from it were established.

  23. neverjaunty says

    This is bog-standard industry propaganda.

    1) The dose makes the poison.

    2) Therefore, X is not inherently ‘poisonous’ or bad, because just like water or aspirin or coffee, it’s only dangerous if you take too much of it. (Doesn’t matter if X is lead, organophosphate pesticides sprayed on farmworkers, asbestos, benzene, etc. etc. No such thing as a poison!)

    3) Besides, whatever amount of X we’re pumping into the atmosphere/dumping in the water supply/spraying on low-wage workers is not an unsafe dose.

    (If an industry has managed to keep government from issuing rules about a safe dose, that will be evidence that there is no known unsafe dose. If industry has finally lost the ability to stall regulation, they’ll claim X can’t be that bad because it isn’t banned. If it is banned, that’s just the nanny state at work.)

    I assume Happer is getting money from energy companies to say this stuff?

  24. doublereed says

    The Young Turks covered this story (although a different aspect of it).

    To answer @neverjaunty, they go over the fact that Happer is the chairman of an organization that gets huge donations from ExxonMobil. So yea, he’s a paid shill.

  25. numerobis says

    http://www.desmogblog.com/william-happer

    George C. Marshall Institute — Chairman of the Board of Directors.
    Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) — Member of “Academic Advisory Council.”
    Department of Energy — Director of Energy Research (1991-1993)
    MITRE — Listed on Board of Trustees.
    Richard Lounsbery Foundation* — Vice President and member of the Board of Directors.
    *The Richard Loundsbery Foundation has funded (PDF) Fred Singer’s Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) and the Marshall Institute’s Environmental Literacy Council.

  26. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Happer pretends that climate scientists do not make that distinction. As far as I’ve seen, they make the distinction quite clearly, and do not typically refer to CO2 as a poison. Nobody is claiming that CO2 toxicity is relevant. He’s making a strawman argument.

    “Enthalpy poisoning?”

  27. HolyPinkUnicorn says

    @blf #15:

    Phil Plait wrote an article in 2007 on the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. He said the 100% O2 atmosphere was used so they could have lower pressure and therefore a lighter capsule. Unfortunately, at lower pressures, a nitrogen-oxygen mix will cause the bends, so they stuck with pure O2. With the space shuttle, they introduced a nitrogen-oxygen mix at close to earth pressure, so it was considerably safer (separate from all the hazards inherent in the shuttle’s design).

    Additionally, Apollo 1 had little in the way of fire-retardant gear–again, to help save weight–and when they were testing on the ground in earth’s atmosphere, the overly complex, inwardly-opening hatch was basically impossible to open.

  28. raven says

    Looks like people got it. By following the money as usual.

    Happer has given up working on his scientific reputation or CV. And started working on his bank account.

  29. cplcam says

    Water may be the most essential element for life. This guy should chug about five gallons of it. Maybe he’ll “macro”-evolve into a camel and shut the IDiots up for us too…

  30. WhiteHatLurker says

    I agree with @keiththompson – the toxicity of CO_2 is irrelevant to the discussion around global warming.

    I point out that PZ’s comment re “but too much and you’ll suffocate” is also irrelevant, as suffocation doesn’t reflect toxicity.

  31. says

    I actually agree with what BBC is saying. It is like Dawkins saying he will no longer debate creationists, because as long as someone is giving them attention they take it as a validity of their “cough” science.

    I am however surprised no one takes the opportunity to ask them about Venus. The only difference between Earth and Venus is how much CO2 is in the atmosphere and the temperature on the surface there is hot enough to melt lead.

    And given that winters where I live are way shorter on average now compared to when I was younger, I will agree that climate is definitely changing. What really confuses me is how rare it is to find all electric or natural gas vehicles, unless you have money to buy new. The forklifts at my workplace can go on battery power for 8-12 hours non-stop before needing a recharge. Oh and their heavy little buggers 4.5-5.5 tons for just the lift itself.

  32. alwayscurious says

    I point out that PZ’s comment re “but too much and you’ll suffocate” is also irrelevant, as suffocation doesn’t reflect toxicity.

    So you’d agree that suffocation by carbon monoxide also doesn’t reflect toxicity?

  33. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Well no, Venus and Earth have quite a few differences. Venus has a year shorter than ours and has an orbit of about 0.7au rather than 1. This does make it a bit closer to the sun and since we’re on the inner edge of the goldilocks zone ourselves and Venus only occasionally passes into it, the greenhouse gases on Venus made a bad situation a lot worse.

  34. Alex says

    To put it another way – its not very difficult to estimate the temperatures on earth and venus if there were no greenhouse effect. I’ve read them somewhere…

  35. numerobis says

    Wes Aron @33: “no one takes the opportunity to ask them about Venus” — who is no one?

    Pointing out the difference between Venus and Earth gets the reply “Venus is closer to the sun, see, it’s all about the sun” — then you point them to calculations of how hot it would be without an atmosphere and they claim it’s all lies by big green industry and Al Gore. Pointing out the difference between Venus and Mercury, you get *the same answer*. Logic is not involved here.

    As for natural gas vehicles, natural gas is trickier to deal with than gasoline, so it took longer to develop good technology to use it in motor vehicles. It’s also no help for short-term (~100 years) global warming avoidance: you get a bit more energy per CO2 released, but you also leak CH4 at every stage between the gas well and the gas tank, which cancels out the benefit. So I don’t see much reason to switch the whole already-built gasoline-based system to natural gas in North America. In places where the old system needed a lot of expansion as the country got richer, Thailand for instance, there’s a lot more LNG.

    And for electric vehicles: notice how your forklift weighs several tonnes? That’s good for a forklift, which needs to counterbalance a load, but it’s bad for a car in town which needs to accelerate constantly. Battery technology is just getting good enough and cheap enough now. And they still kind of suck, as in what for my 15-year-old car is an uneventful 3-hour drive on a single tank of gas, for my uncle’s 6-month-old electric car it’s a 10-hour ride with two long stops to recharge, an epic worthy of a blog post. If he were made of money he’d have bought a Tesla and had it be as easy as my ride, but he’s not so he got a car with about 100 km range.

    It’ll be a few years yet before electric cars really hit the mainstream for new cars, and a few years after that before they leak onto the used market in any numbers. That said, my in-laws bought a used Volt the other day — but that’s a rarity still (I kind of fear it was a lemon).

  36. says

    Didn’t Feynman say something about listening to someone talk outside their field of expertise? This guy is a physicist, why would anything he say about biology or chemistry be taken as; words from an expert?!?

    This is not a case of the issue being outside his field of expertise. A physicist should have no difficulty understanding the greenhouse effect; if anything, less difficultly than a biologist or a chemist, but they should have no difficulty either.

    What we’re talking about here is readily understood by the average 3rd grader, at least at a basic level. His credentials or lack thereof aren’t at issue, he’s simply being an idiot.

  37. Ed Seedhouse says

    “I am however surprised no one takes the opportunity to ask them about Venus. The only difference between Earth and Venus is how much CO2 is in the atmosphere and the temperature on the surface there is hot enough to melt lead.”

    Not the *only* difference. It’s closer to the sun, at 0.74 A.U. That means it gets 1.8 times as much heat from the sun for equal areas, reasonably close to twice as much. That’s got to have some effect. And it lacks plate tectonics as well, though I don’t know how relevant that is.

  38. Ed Seedhouse says

    But just to be clear, the CO2 in the atmosphere is certainly the main reason why Venus is so hot.

  39. says

    It’ll be a few years yet before electric cars really hit the mainstream for new cars, and a few years after that before they leak onto the used market in any numbers.

    …and even if they do, there won’t be a lot of advantage if much of the required electrical energy for recharging them continues to be generated using fossil fuels.

  40. says

    Even in the presence of enough oxygen, CO2 levels of 7% or greater, will kill you!!!

    Yes, but as others have pointed out, this isn’t relevant. Happer’s sin isn’t misunderstanding CO2 toxicity, it’s slaying a giant strawman and ignoring the actual issue. No one thinks that the problem with CO2 emissions is acute toxicity. The problem is an enhanced greenhouse effect. Small children know this.

    Funny enough, long before CO2 built up to toxic levels in the atmosphere, we’d all be poached. Concentrations would have to reach 50,000 ppm or so to be toxic, where as pre-industrial levels were around 270 ppm and today it’s at 400 ppm. Levels as high as 50,000 ppm imply roughly 7 doublings of CO2, and with a climate sensitivity of around 3, that means 21C or 37.8F of warming. That would render just about everywhere but Antarctica uninhabitable, and maybe that too depending on other effects. No doubt our denialist friends would find a way to spin that as a good thing.

  41. monad says

    @40 Ed Seedhouse:
    Twice as much radiation may fall on Venus, but the whole planet is covered in white clouds. Its albedo is actually more than twice Earth’s, so it actualy ends up absorbing less.

    @43 Area Man:
    Agreed that it’s a strawman. It’s just kind of funny he’s so dishonest that even his attack on the strawman gets the facts wrong.

  42. numerobis says

    Paul @42: A modern gas-powered plant is much more efficient than a modern car engine: it converts over 60% of the chemical potential energy of the CH4 into electric power, whereas a car engine is only about 30% efficient going from gasoline to useful power. Elon Musk claims that if you work it out completely (taking into account transmission losses, the mass of the battery, etc), you end up in favour of electric cars when it comes to carbon intensity per mile — even from natural gas electricity. And of course, from nuclear and renewables, it’s a huge win. Coal isn’t a win (unless you have CCS fairies).

    So, as long as coal is not too large a fraction of your local electricity supply, electric is lower carbon emissions than gasoline. Worldwide today, 40% is coal according to IEA. I’m not sure if that’s a win right now if you live worldwide (might be, I haven’t done the numbers), but in many places you have much less than 40% coal so electric cars are a win immediately.

    Side benefit: electric cars don’t emit any fumes except at the power plant. Again, a win as long as you aren’t burning coal.

  43. Amphiox says

    Side benefit: electric cars don’t emit any fumes except at the power plant. Again, a win as long as you aren’t burning coal.

    It is also quite a bit easier technically to reduce emissions from a single source, the power plant, than it would be to retrofit/replace a few hundred thousand individual cars….

  44. Amphiox says

    Water may be the most essential element for life. This guy should chug about five gallons of it. Maybe he’ll “macro”-evolve into a camel and shut the IDiots up for us too…

    Dihydrogen monoxide. Lethally toxic when inhaled. Direct unprotected exposure can potentially kill within 5 minutes….

  45. numerobis says

    Amphiox@47: With big fixed plants that last 40+ years, you need to legislate retrofits, which can take a few years and involve lawsuits. With cars that last on average 10 years, you just legislate that new cars have the better equipment, and bingo, problem solved in ten years. So it’s not clear either way.

    On the flip side, a car that burns gasoline will burn gasoline until it dies. One that uses electricity can get an increasing fraction of its power from renewables over its lifetime if the grid changes its mix.

  46. twas brillig (stevem) says

    electric cars don’t emit any fumes except at the power plant. Again, a win as long as you aren’t burning coal.

    EXACTLY! That’s the reason that selling Teslas to China will not make any difference to their “carbon footprint”. The car produces no carbon emissions, but to charge it; all the electricity comes from coal fired power plants. Power plants could be more efficient but China ain’t there yet. China’s efficient power plants power the city, but all the wealthy shun the city; and only the wealthy can afford the expensive Teslas.. The power for rural areas, where the wealthy live and recharde their Teslas, are typically coal burners. But China is just one place, not the only place for Teslas to be. Just illustrating that electric cars are not a panacea to the carbon problem.

  47. Amphiox says

    With cars that last on average 10 years, you just legislate that new cars have the better equipment, and bingo, problem solved in ten years.

    10 years seems rather optimistic. Lots of people keep using their cars longer than 10 years, or sell them as used cars, which then continue to be operated for longer than 10 years. A single legislative change to a power plant, though, instantly improves the effective emissions of everything that uses its electricity, including all the hypothetical electric cars.

  48. Amphiox says

    I think it likely that the Chinese are DESPERATE for affording energy alternatives to coal. Their cities are choking out from smog right now.

    Whatever nation/company gets there first with the technology will eat the Chinese market whole. The next world-bestriding megacorp may well be the outfit that first sells solar power to the Chinese.

    And the Americans have basically boxed themselves right out of this conversation.

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