Optimal atmospheric CO2 for dinosaurs and plants is harmful for humans; current concentration is higher than Homo sapiens have ever experienced

High CO2 was fine for the dinosaurs and high CO2 benefits plants today in greenhouses, so more CO2 can’t be bad for humans
Flawed reasoning: The fact that elevated atmospheric-CO2 benefited the dinosaurs and benefits plants today does not mean it also benefits humans. In fact, there are potential human health risks from prolonged exposure to the optimal CO2 levels for dinosaurs and plants, in addition to the multiple negative environmental impacts for human society resulting from elevated CO2 and the enhanced greenhouse effect.
Missing context: The optimal concentrations of CO2 for dinosaurs and plants would be far beyond the concentrations ever experienced by the human species naturally; they would dramatically change ecosystems. Even just the present level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already higher than it has been for millions of years, and Homo sapiens have only been around for 260-350 thousand years. The magnitude of change and the rate of change presents existential challenges for many species.
Elevated atmospheric-CO2 from human emissions enhances the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming and results in several other significant negative impacts on the ecosystems and natural processes on which humans depend. Plants and animals have different tolerances and responses to elevated CO2, and concentrations which are optimal for some species can be toxic for others. Human emissions have raised CO2 to levels never before experienced by our species, and not seen on Earth for millions of years.


CLAIM: Increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) is not bad for humans because it was much higher during the time of the dinosaurs and they were unaffected. High carbon dioxide also benefits plant growth, which is why CO2 is pumped into greenhouses to boost crop yields. Levels of CO2 are so low right now in comparison to the levels that were good for the dinosaurs and are good for plants, so an increase in CO2 can’t be bad for humans. CO2 is good for life and is not causing a climate crisis.

During Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, the atmosphere has undergone dramatic changes and only started to appear like it does today around 290 million years ago (mya). Today’s air is composed of several gasses with different concentrations, like nitrogen (78.08%), oxygen (20.95%), argon (0.93%), and carbon dioxide (0.04%). The air 600 mya, for example, had only about one-fifth of today’s oxygen level.

Plants first appeared as far back as 500 mya[1]. Reptiles first appeared about 320 mya, and the dinosaurs only existed approximately from 243 mya until 66 mya. Mammals appeared about 225 million years ago, but anatomically modern humans, or homo sapiens, are only 260-350 thousand years old. Humans, dinosaurs, and plants all respire air, although plants do it very differently than mammals and reptiles.

Considering these different evolutionary timelines under different atmospheric compositions, can we assume that animals, reptiles, and plants thrive breathing the same air? Is the optimal level of carbon dioxide for dinosaurs and plants also optimal, or at least feasible, for humans? Does all this mean anything for climate change?

Youtuber Jimmy Corsetti, who’s channel Bright Insight has 1.61 million subscribers, suggested on X and Instagram that because dinosaurs and plants thrive under very high CO2, increasing in CO2 is good for life on Earth and not bad for humans. This means, according to Corsetti, “CO2 is Not causing a Climate Crisis”. Here we explore the reasons why this claim is misleading because it lacks context and uses flawed reasoning.


Optimal carbon dioxide levels for dinosaurs and plants is toxic for humans over the long-term

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 during the time of the dinosaurs was much higher than it is today, which currently stands at 422 parts per million (ppm). The article Corsetti screenshotted shows Dr. Paul Olsen’s response to the following question submitted by a reader: “How did plants and animals survive around 200 million years ago when the carbon dioxide concentration went up to 6,000 parts per million?”. Olsen, a geologist and paleontologist at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explains that the CO2 concentrations during the time of the dinosaurs (the Mesozoic Era) was in the 2000 to 4000 ppm range and that humans could potentially survive, but only with the help of technological innovations and not because of physiological ability. To be clear, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 during the time of the dinosaurs was never near 6000 ppm as Figure 1 shows[2], and it has never come close to that in the 66 million years since the dinosaurs went extinct[3].

Figure 1 The rise and fall of atmospheric-CO2 (red trendline) over hundreds of millions of years (top x-axis), based on paleoclimatological reconstructions. Note the short timespan where Homo sapiens have existed, which has only featured low atmospheric-CO2 (right y-axis), especially compared to the Age of the Dinosaurs. Ice ages are indicated by blue shaded areas from the top x-axis. Based on reference [2], modified by Dr. Paul Olsen (source).


According to Jacobson et al.’s (2019) recent synthesis of scientific literature from different fields exploring the impacts on CO2 air concentrations on humans, potential health risks can occur with exposure as low as 1000 ppm[4]. While concentrations above 5000 ppm are known to be harmful in both the short and long-term, research indicates that even concentrations below 5000 ppm “poses direct risks to human health”, including inflammation, reduced higher-level cognitive abilities, bone demineralization, kidney calcification, oxidative stress and endothelial dysfunction. Another literature review found physiological changes occur at CO2 exposures levels between 500 and 5000 ppm, effects on cognitive performance begin at 1000 ppm during short-term exposure, and respiratory symptoms are detected in children exposed to indoor CO2 concentrations higher than 1000 ppm[5]. Azuma et al. (2018) concluded that atmospheric CO2 concentration needs to be urgently suppressed to be able to efficiently control indoor concentrations.

Most research on this topic is related to indoor environments, with humans under high exposure for limited time-frames corresponding to shift work in potentially hazardous workplace conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (United States Department of Labor) permissible exposure limit for CO2 is 5000 ppm over 8 hours. Concentrations above 40 000 ppm are considered immediately dangerous to life or health. There has been no research exploring prolonged human environmental exposure (weeks, months, years, lifespan) to elevated CO2 outdoors, especially for vulnerable demographics. Jacobson et al (2019) concluded that removing CO2 from the atmosphere will be necessary if emissions continue at current levels, based on their confirmation that “prolonged exposures as low as 1000 ppm CO2 affect human health and well-being”.

In addition, during the Cretaceous period (145-66 mya) which ended when the dinosaurs went extinct, the average temperature was about 5-10°C higher than today and sea levels were 100 meters higher or more[6]. For comparison, the most extreme global warming future scenario (representative concentration pathway (RCP)) under consideration by the IPCC for the year 2100, called RCP8.5 or the “business as usual” scenario, implies a likely temperature increase of 3.2-5.4°C[7]. Figure 2 shows that the fossil-fuel intensive shared socio-economic pathway (SSP), called the SSP5-8.5 scenario, will lead to atmospheric-CO2 concentrations that match or even exceed Eocene or mid-Cretaceous levels[8]. It also illustrates just how unprecedented even a return to even just 1000 ppm CO2 would be, which has not been seen for tens of millions of years.

Figure 2 Comparing paleoclimates (past) with future climate scenarios side-by-side from the year 2020, including both global mean temperature (left y-axis, °C, only for the past) and global atmospheric-CO2 concentration (right y-axis, ppm, logarithmic scale, for the past and the future). Trendlines are smoothed to show long-term trends, and temperature colors are scaled related to pre-industrial levels. The small global maps on the right indicate different shared socio-economic pathway (SSP) scenarios (source).


As for plants, Science Feedback has previously addressed flawed claims that because CO2 is used in greenhouses to promote plant growth, high CO2 in the atmosphere is good for the world’s plants and therefore not a concern for humans. Plants need more than just CO2 to photosynthesize and grow; they also need water, sunlight, and other plant nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. High CO2 in the atmosphere is directly linked to negative impacts on ecosystems through global warming which will constrain plant growth and limit any benefits from high CO2. For example, the increase in droughts in some regions or flooding in other regions are not beneficial for plants, regardless of high atmospheric CO2 (called the “CO2 fertilization effect”). Karin Kirk puts it simply with the title of her article for Yale Climate Connections: “More CO2 in the atmosphere hurts key plants and crops more than it helps”.

But even if we ignore this (and all other climate related concerns of high CO2), and we focus just on maximizing plant growth as we do in greenhouses as referenced by Corsetti, the optimal CO2 levels for plants are still in conflict with human well-being. All plants respond differently to increased CO2, but they all generally follow a downward parabola (upside down “U”), increasing yield with increasing CO2 until reaching an optimal point (vertex) after which yield decreases with increasing CO2 (Figure 3, right). Different plants have different optimums, but many greenhouse recommendations reference ideal concentrations at or surpassing 1000 ppm, assuming no other limiting factors exist. For example, Figure 3 (left) shows how increasing CO2 concentrations helps three species of grasses grow, with their ideal concentrations for biomass yield at 915, 1178, and 1386 ppm[9].

Figure 3 Left: The impact of elevated CO2 concentrations (x-axis) on above ground biomass (a), below ground biomass (b), and total biomass (c) of three species of perennial grasses as quantified in Zheng et al. (2018). Right: Generalized relationship between CO2 level and plant growth rate. Note that a CO2 concentration of 300 ppm was considered “Normal Air” at the time this illustration was first sketched by Roger H. Thayer (see here for an early version), which has been reproduced over the years despite the global average now being 422 ppm (e.g., like the figure above provided by the Oklahoma State University Extension).


As mentioned above, these elevated levels of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would be potentially harmful for humans when inhaled indefinitely without respite (every hour of every day), especially for vulnerable demographics. So not only does high CO2 raise new challenges for plant growth (such as drought and flooding) and ecosystem stability, the optimum CO2 level for plants is incompatible with human physiology over the long-term. The high CO2 enjoyed by dinosaurs and plants is just not relevant for human well-being, making Corsetti’s suggestions misleading.


Because of human activities, carbon dioxide is now higher than our species have ever experienced

CO2 is considered the most important greenhouse gas because it has such a long residence time in the atmosphere, it is by far the most abundant, and it contributes the most to global warming and climate change. The direct and indirect environmental impacts of high anthropogenic-CO2 emissions are not just related to temperature increases, but also other changes across different components of the Earth system. Aside from air temperature increase, climate change has been observed with the oceans getting warmer, ice sheets shrinking, glaciers retreating, snow cover decreasing, sea level rising, arctic sea ice decreasing, and extreme weather events increasing in frequency (see here for evidence provided by NASA).

Relative to global concentrations in the year 1750, atmospheric CO2 has increased by more than 47% because of human activities[10]. As indicated in Figures 1 and 2, the current level of atmospheric-CO2 (422 ppm) is now higher than the human species has ever experienced. Air trapped in ancient ice cores has demonstrated that CO2 has not been this high for at least the past 800 000 thousand years (ice record limit). NOAA stated in 2022 that CO2 levels are now comparable to the Pliocene Climatic Optimum, between 4.1 and 4.5 million years ago. As a reminder, Homo sapiens have only been around for 260-350 thousand years.

Rather than the steep reduction in CO2 emissions needed to meet climate goals and limit global warming, 2023 saw another slight increase compared to year before (+1.1%), increasing 1.5% since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and representing a 10-year plateau of sustained high emissions and no significant reductions[11]. Humans have emitted 40.7 gigatons of CO2 in 2022, with a similar amount estimated for 2023. Increasing anthropogenic CO2 emissions like this raises concerns for human cognition and well-being outside just like it does indoors[12].

Of course, not all regions of Earth have exactly the same CO2 concentration at all times, some can exceed others due to geographical factors. In dense urban areas, especially large cities in low-lying basins, CO2 can build up. And with CO2 concentration increasing by about 2.4 ppm in 2023 worldwide[11], geographically constrained urban areas with high populations like Mexico City and Athens could see local concentrations reaching harmful levels for humans by the end of the century[13].

Finally, claims that elevated CO2 concentrations are not bad for humans as Corsetti suggested in his post generally ignore one more critical aspect: the rate of change. The current rate of increase is estimated to be occurring 10 times faster than any other change of similar magnitude over the past 65 million years[14]. As this is much faster than plants, animals, and humans can evolve and adapt to (other than migration), and faster than ecosystems can sufficiently respond to, the risk of extinction is enormous in the coming decades (up to 29% of land plants and animals at risk of being wiped out with 3°C of warming; we are currently at 1.1°C of warming)[15]. CO2 by itself is not causing a climate crisis; elevated CO2 emissions from human activities are.



The claim that because high CO2 was fine for the dinosaurs and high CO2 benefits plants today in greenhouses, high CO2 can’t be bad for humans is misleading. Firstly, the optimal carbon dioxide levels for dinosaurs and plants is, in fact, harmful for humans over the long-term. The age of the dinosaurs (the Mesozoic Era) had atmospheric-CO2 in the 2000 to 4000 ppm range, and plants typically grow best at 1000 ppm of CO2 or greater (like in greenhouses). Humans, on the other hand, can suffer mild health effects from CO2 as low as 1000 ppm even in the short-term, and the effects of permanent exposure to elevated CO2 levels are unknown. This is especially relevant for vulnerable populations, and anyone living in low-lying, densely populated urban areas. Humans as a species have never before experienced the high level of CO2 currently in the atmosphere, which is higher than it has been for as long as ice records can tell us (800 000 years). CO2 by itself is not causing a climate crisis; elevated CO2 emissions from human activities are.




Published on: 13 Feb 2024 | Editor:

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