Carbon dioxide in the air, cancer and death

Professor Mark Z Jacobson of Stanford University, California has an impressive series of qualifications. He is a civil engineer, holds qualifications in economics and in environmental engineering (he holds the post of Professor of Environmental Engineering at Stanford). He is an expert on atmospheric science.He tries to understand physical, chemical, and dynamical processes in the atmosphere and he has an equally impressive number of peer reviewed papers and well received text books for someone who got his first degree in 1988.

I learnt of Professor Jacobson’s recent paper in which he looked at the effect of carbon dioxide on air pollution mortality. He wondered if there was a link between increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and human deaths. I have wondered about this but he is qualified to study it, and I am not.

He is well qualified to study this because in 1994 he developed the first gas-aerosol-radiative air-pollution model with interactive feedback to weather. In 2001, he invented the nested global-through-urban air-pollution-weather-climate model. In 2000, he discovered that black carbon, the main component of soot particles, may be the second-leading cause of global warming after carbon dioxide. He has also studied the relative effects of greenhouse gases on global climate, the effects of aerosols on ultraviolet radiation, the effects of aerosol mixing state on atmospheric heating, the effects of biomass burning on climate, the effect of hydrogen fuel cells on air pollution and the ozone layer, the effects of aerosols on winds and precipitation, the effects of ethanol and diesel vehicles on air quality as well as the effects of agriculture on air pollution.

In December 2007 Professor Jacobson published his findings which draw on many scientific sources as well as his own original research. He finds that (by modeling) increases in fossil fuel sourced carbon dioxide also increase the ozone levels on the surface of the planet. Ozone is a molecule that consists of there atoms of oxygen; high in the upper atmosphere it shields us from harmful ultraviolet light but at the surface of the earth it is generally thought to be  very harmful to human respiratory systems because it harms your breathing apparatus.

He also found that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel increases the volume of carcinogens that we are likely to meet. Burning fossil fuel also (as we know) increases particulates. All this leads to more cancers, more deaths and more people ill in hospitals. In addition if you pump more carbon dioxide in the air, the air becomes more stable, making a better home for particulates which damage health. 

He extrapolates that deaths increase with increased carbon dioxide levels and higher temperatures. It is difficult to be precise (and any headline figure will inevitably be misleading) but the effects of the carbon dioxide that we are pumping into the atmosphere are causing deaths which would not have been caused otherwise, quite apart from the deaths that are being caused by extreme climate events caused by increased temperatures. Those deaths are significant enough (every death is of course significant) in number to measure. 

Professor Jacobson also has found that carbon dioxide decreases column ozone over the United States (and I guess over other countries too) because it increases water vapour in the upper atmosphere, so we can presumably look forward to more skin cancers and cataracts. It is generally thought that some crops like rice and important food chain plankton will all decline if ozone does not filter out the ultraviolet light as effectively as it has done in the past.  

Well, if you needed another reason to stop burning fossil fuel you can find it in Professor Jacobson’s work.