SAN FRANCISCO—Kris Karnauskas, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of Colorado, has started walking around campus with a pocket-size carbon-dioxide detector. He’s not doing it to measure the amount of carbon pollution in the atmosphere. He’s interested in the amount of CO₂ in each room.
“I did this at home, just having fun with it, and in a bedroom overnight it can get over 1,000 parts per million very quickly,” he told me. Even here, he added—gesturing at the city-block-size basement of the Moscone Convention Center, filled with thousands of earth scientists milling about their discipline’s giant annual science fair—the CO₂ probably exceeds 500 parts per million.
The indoor concentration of carbon dioxide concerns him—and not only for the usual reason. Karnauskas is worried that indoor CO₂ levels are getting so high that they are starting to impair human cognition. In other words: Carbon dioxide, the same odorless and invisible gas that causes global warming, may be making us dumber.
“This is a hidden impact of climate change … that could actually impact our ability to solve the problem itself,” he said.
He proposed the idea last week at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting, the largest annual gathering of earth and space scientists in the world. He also previewed it in an online paper written with Shelly Miller, a mechanical-engineering professor at the University of Colorado, and Anna Schapiro, a neuroscience professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The paper, while not yet peer-reviewed, was uploaded to a website where academics can discuss early-stage or provocative research.