More on John Boehner's Confusion of CO2 and CH4

By Chris Mooney | April 22, 2009 8:45 am

Responding to my “John Boehner’s War on Science” post, Chris Horner at National Review‘s Planet Gore seems to be trying to defend our minority leader. He links to Wikipedia, which helpfully informs us that flatulence is significantly composed of CO2, along with nitrogen, methane, and much else. This by way of rescuing Boehner’s statement–“Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide”–which I and many others have mocked.

Boehner may not be factually wrong, in the strictest sense, about the composition of cow farts. But that doesn’t make him any less confused. The issue with cows, from a greenhouse standpoint, is clearly their methane–not carbon dioxide–emissions. Let’s turn to EPA data for 2007:

Methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) were the primary greenhouse gases emitted by agricultural activities.  CH4 emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management represent about 24 percent and 8 percent of total CH4 emissions from anthropogenic activities, respectively.  Of all domestic animal types, beef and dairy cattle were by far the largest emitters of CH4.

Meanwhile, you can see here that such agricultural activities are not one of the main sources of CO2 emissions that anybody is worries about.

So does anyone seriously doubt that when Boehner brought up “carbon dioxide” in the context of discussing cows, he really meant “methane,” and either misspoke or just didn’t know the difference? I think it’s pretty obvious. But watch the tape yourself:

Comments (20)

  1. John Boehner needs to be put in a room full of people who exhale…CH4. Get a textbook, Sir. I also bet that Boehner does not know that the global heating potential of CH4 is 72 times that of CO2 over 20 years. More of the Republican war on basic intelligence I see.

  2. Jon Winsor

    It’s obvious that Boehner was confusing the bovine methane with CO2. NRO is simply doing what they do–lawyerly defense of GOP incompetence. They find one little nit that they can fix on, blow out of proportion, and manufacture partisan outrage. If they make enough noise, they think, everyone will ignore their boneheadedness.

    But these days, I think the sell-by date of that strategy has come and gone.

  3. I still can’t help giggling whenever I see John Boehner’s name. Heh, heh, Boner.

    And you know what? That’s what I like most about him. Luckily for us, he’s almost totally irrelevant.

  4. Jon Winsor

    Jay Rosen has a name for this tactic: “culture war theater.” It’s theater in the sense that it’s not good faith debate. It’s more a tactic to generate populist outrage.

  5. Carter

    Boehner is a silly, uninformed man, and his information issues seem to reflect on the same issues that much of the rest of the world shares with him — too much of the rest of the world for comfort. Cow farts may have CO2 and CH4, both major contributors to global warming. But another thing he misses is that these biological processes are technically renewable. CO2 and CH4 are not a terrible problem for Earth, when they come from appropriate renewable sources. There is little buildup of these chemicals in a ‘normal’ environmental situation because oceans and geologic formations tend to absorb an amount of these proportional to the atmospheric content; typical ecological systems simply can’t pump out enough of these gasses to overcome the sequestering power of rocks and water. We really run into trouble when humans start digging up these billions of tons of sequestered methane and other energy-giving carbon resources that burn to produce CO2. These take millions of years to sequester but our insane rate of consumption drives us to churn out far more CO2 than can be sequestered in the century or two we’ve been using fossil fuels. These practices are unsustainable unless we can manage to scrub emissions far better than we can today, or sequester emissions at an artificially rapid pace. But who knows what environmental effects that could have!

    Then, of course, drilling for these chemical energy sources also borks ecosystems. If two backpackers in the ANWR can’t even get out of the tent to pee because caribou are too skittish, why the bleep do oil companies think caribou will not mind giant noisy bad-smelling rigs in the middle of their calving grounds? Destroying caribou can tip the balance of the fragile tundra ecosystem, but that’s not all. Oil spills kill a far wider range of plants and animals and happen frequently, contaminating soils for years to come. Humans are intelligent, right? Supposedly. Does this make Boehner something else?

    That’s my rant, and we could all go on with this tangent forever but not enough people might take notice. To conclude, I just hope I make it to the moon base they want to build before it gets so hot that on a sunny day the flowers in my back yard spontaneously combust, further adding to CO2 levels in the atmosphere. We shouldn’t have the same problems on the moon if we begin farming and energy extraction there; we can just blow off the gasses into space. Though we might need an advanced propulsion system to stop the moon from spinning off into another celestial body. Like the fiery, hellish Earth that will likely exist by that time. I get a kick out of these guys when they don’t just make me depressed. I hope I’m wrong.

  6. Brian M

    Wow, I could never guess your political affiliation from these postings. You guys act like anyone who makes a mistake or is misinformed must be a Republican and all Dems are brilliant. That assertion in itself brands you as equally deficient mentally as Boehner, if not more so.
    BTW, the Scientific Committe on Antarctic Research out of Australia reported that there has been no significant losses in ice thickness in Antarctica and that, in fact, it has thickened over the past ten years. Other findings have indicated that global temperatures have in fact cooled over the last ten years. Funny how neither of these reports appeared in this august journal — just the continued liberal party line that global warming will destroy the world and it’s all our fault.
    And you accuse conservatives of being closed minded and stupid. Get a clue.

  7. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    There’s an even bigger flaw with Horner’s argument: the real problem is coming out of cows’ front ends, not the back. This relevant info is right there in the same Wikipedia article he cites: “While livestock account for around 20% of global methane emissions, 90-95% of that is released by exhaling or burping. Only 1–2% of global methane emissions come from livestock flatus.” (DISCOVER has also covered this several times.)

    So the fact that there’s plenty of CO2 in cow flatulence is irrelevant: methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, and it’s coming out of cows primarily in their burps.

  8. Carter

    Granted, I exaggerated my post for the sake of rhetorical illustration. But I do not consider myself a Democrat and certainly do not consider all Democrats brilliant. Politics is politics but science is science. Granted, again, I have not seen this report but I take your word for it. What if global warming is the least of our concerns because of rising CO2 emissions and atmospheric levels? Our planet has not seen CO2 levels as high as they are now since before the ice at the deepest of our ice cores was taken. That’s a good 500,000 years if my memory serves me correctly, and while it would be a fair assertion that this is a geologic instant, it is certainly not a biological/ecological instant. Global climate change does not necessitate warming but does necessitate great ecological change, like increasing acidity of rain worldwide, altering the way world ecological systems (as we know them) work. Dramatic and dangerous changes may not even be likely to occur within our lifetime, but as a species we are able to look to the future so as to preserve our genes. Working to prevent such possibilities is by definition conservative – a wish to keep things the way they are/should be.

    As for Antarctica’s ice, let’s remember that in the 1970s there was a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, and though I have done no measurements myself, it may be possible that this affected ice levels. Antarctica is an interesting continent, surrounded by an ocean current that circles it, limiting climate change there where elsewhere it may be seen more vividly. Yet despite this current, recently a massive ice bridge collapsed and sent a chunk of ice off into the ocean to be melted. This chunk is large (did they say the size of Conn.? I can’t remember) and though it represents a drop in the ocean it may show that more of these events are likely to happen. When it melts completely, the albedo of our planet will decrease slightly and therefore absorb more heat, contributing to climate change.

    Need I explain deforestation, aridation of presently sub-arid lands, and visible, documented, photographed loss of glacial mass in numerous regions of the world? (For the last one, people rely on glacial melt in some of these areas for drinking water. They sure are getting lots of drinking water — for now…) Even if all these signs are quirks of nature, they are worth studying, as well as taking preventative measures, just to be sure. But the evidence indicating anthropogenic climate change is ubiquitous and seems to just overwhelm the possibility that Earth is just carrying on as it ‘should’ be.

    And the human population is still growing. Besides climate change, as I mentioned previously, we have development and pollution of aesthetically pleasing ‘wilderness’ areas to deal with. I’ll be ticked off if my grandkids have no place to canoe and swim 100 years from now. I just wish all these warnings were false, but there’s too much evidence. Say it ain’t so, Doc.

  9. Dark tent

    Chris says “So does anyone seriously doubt that when Boehner brought up “carbon dioxide” in the context of discussing cows, he really meant “methane,” and either misspoke or just didn’t know the difference? I think it’s pretty obvious.”

    It’s not at all clear to me that it’s a a matter of misspeaking or not knowing the difference with Boehner.

    In fact, I’d say the immediately preceding Boehner comment is telling in that regard:

    BOEHNER: George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical.

    Say what??? Who ordered that?

    Certainly not STEPHANOPOULOS, whose question Boehner was supposedly answering

    So what is the responsible way? That’s my question. What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?

    So Stephanopoulos (phew!) asks about plans to deal with carbon emissions and Boehner answers with a total non sequitur.

    If Boehner actually believes a major scientific organization (or even some Republican somewhere) has suggested that CO2 causes cancer as an argument for the need to address climate change, then I am even more concerned for our country than if he is actually being purposefully misleading.

    But I somehow doubt that even Boehner is capable of believing his won suggestion.

  10. Jon Winsor

    Wow, I could never guess your political affiliation from these postings.

    Well, he did write a book called *The Republican War on Science.*

    Chris has criticized Democrats on science, but he doesn’t see there the epidemic that you’ve had with the Republicans. I think there are demonstrable reasons for this that have to do with their constituencies, their institutions in Washington, and their leadership in recent years. There are Republicans that are beginning to face up to this–David Frum, David Brooks, and Sam Tanenhaus, for instance.

  11. The Carbon Tax on Everything is not about content, it s about process. First World Civilization must be ended. God must establish His dominion of poverty, hunger, disease, filth, death, and silk-clad priests with whips. Anybody who disagrees is thereby proven unqualified to comment.

    Carbon Credit indulgences buy a stairway to heaven, guarded by arbitrageur-priests like Al Gore. Can God make a collection plate so vast that even He cannot fill it? Sure! ALL OF THEM.

  12. Joseph Soler

    Speaking of “Culture War Theater”.. anyone ever see one of those slick American Petroleum Institute debaters? I once attended a Justice Talking “debate” about Bush’s (Mis-)Use of Science between an API talking head and the Cornell Physicist head of the Union of Concerned Scientists. ( I regret not knowing his name at the moment) What is sad is that too many scientists simply don’t have the rhetorical skills to debate these people despite being profoundly more knowledgeable. Science might be science and politics politics, but sadly, as we know, scientific fact and theory are premised on very different principles from politics. Politics is more often guided by the perception of “truth” than any realistic standard for truth, and the Boehner remark is a perfect example of this. It was Ronald Reagan who first famously made the cow remark and Republicans have been repeating it ever since. As others have said, the fact that Republicans flagellate science does not vindicate Democrats and their own use and abuse, but nonetheless, we must single out the party whose Primary nominees for president mostly declaimed Evolution in favor of Creationism and two of whose leading voices at the moment, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee both argue that Evolution is a “myth” while Creation is a valid “theory.”

  13. In The Republican War on Science, I think Chris struck upon a fundamental reasons why conservatives are more likely to be reluctant to embrace sound science; it’s simply because conservatism by tradition believes in stasis and the preservation of traditional institutions and ideas while science by tradition believes in challenging and changing the status quo. It’s not that Democrats don’t like traditional ideas, but Republicans by definition are more likely to be wedded to them, that’s all.

  14. Jon Winsor

    I’d say there’s more to it, Ashutosh. There’s also the business community. Sam Tanenhaus and others talked about this. I don’t think traditionalism and hard-line economic libertarianism mix that well. At one point there were actually Republicans who used to debate these issues. No matter how much they pine for 1980, 2008 is a very different time…

  15. You are quite right, but I also don’t think that Republicans really practice economic libertarianism, although they amply profess to. Consider all the subsidies, earmarks and kowtowing to special interest industrial lobbies. That’s not exactly free market economics.

  16. MadScientist

    Uh … better get your facts straight. Cows don’t fart that much at all – ask any cowpoke. “Eructation” is the word for people who think “burping” is too vulgar, although it’s not quite like burping either so maybe we should stick to ‘eructation’. You get both methane and carbon dioxide but in field experiments it is far easier to estimate methane emissions than CO2 emissions; after all, a cow doesn’t expel methane from its lungs (well, except for what little methane entered its lungs) but a cow does expel CO2; CO2 from eructation is probably very small overall compared to a cow’s breathing and I don’t know if anyone has tried to attribute CO2 to breathing vs. burping or even if anyone thinks there is any value in making such a distinction.

  17. Given that the few emissions schemes that even attempt to control agriculture convert everything to “CO2 equivalent”, why does it matter what the actual gas is?

  18. I’ll second the notion that Boehner’s red herring about CO2 not being a “carcinogen” is more revealing than his mentioning cows as a source of CO2. Technically, it’s true that cow “eructation” can include some CO2, but the video clip makes it clear Boehner was trying to defect George’s question of whether climate change is a serious problem by tossing up the meme that CO2 is natural (yes) – implying that it can’t then be harmful (no!) – that’s the point of Mass. v. EPA and the new Finding of Risk: spiking GHG concentrations pose large environmental risks from drought, severe weather events, sea level rise and ocean acidification; these not based on any claim of toxicity of CO2, and Boehner ought to know that. He’s just playing a rhetorical card – one that I’m sure plays well for his base.

    When it comes to cows, a key point missed in many of these superficial debates is that the US population of cattle is around 100 million – one cow per every three Americans – and we fatten them on subsidized ADM corn in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), not on grass. This is entirely unnatural for cattle; corn is much harder for cattle to digest than the grasses on which they are naturally adapted to ruminate. This causes them to “eructate” a lot more methane than cows grazed on grass. Here’s a recent article on cows and GHGs:
    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-greenhouse-hamburger
    Fattening cattle on corn instead of grass also gives them acid indigestion, promoting growth of dangerous e-coli, requiring lots of antibiotics not needed for grass-fed cows, greatly increasing the risk of antibiotic resistant strains. Some of these really nasty e-coli find their way into our food supply, leading to food poisonings and mass recalls. This is documented in detail in the compelling bestseller _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_ by Michael Pollan – highly recommended reading!
    But getting back to climate change, methane is indeed the #2 greenhouse gas (pardon the expression) after CO2. Concentrated feedlots can’t recycle the volumes of manure they yield, so it stews in manure “ponds” (devastating if they spill into waterways, as seen recently) where it ferments into yet more methane.
    Rice farming, landfill garbage, and leaks from natural gas pipelines are other significant human sources of excess methane; wetlands and peat bogs are natural sources. Thawing of permafrost in the tundra is expected to add lots more methane as the climate warms (a big temperature-to-greenhouse-effect positive feedback.)
    One methane molecule has some 21 times the greenhouse warming effect of one CO2 molecule; it takes around eight to ten years for methane in the atmosphere to oxidize into CO2 (adding yet one more CO2 molecule that will persist for on average 100 years).
    Methane concentrations today are almost triple their pre-industrial levels. While those in denial about climate used to crow about a recent “plateau” in this very elevated level, there is recent evidence of levels starting to rise again, such as here:
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/view.php?id=35856

    Anyway, it’s clear that Boehner did not want to answer George’s persistent questions (props to George for focusing on the real issue). Boehner kept jumping ahead to “we shouldn’t act if China won’t” – which completely fails to answer the question about CO2!
    I believe this illustrates the problem we are up against: many conservatives have already decided that capping CO2 will be too costly, will push jobs overseas, etc. From that point, they work backwards to choose talking points that cast doubt on the science.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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