Tony Abbott wins sans science comment of the month on CO2 emissions

Posted on 24/07/2011


Health warning: if you know anything about science and are eating or drinking whilst reading this, please swallow now as the following statement may cause you to choke on your cornflakes. 

Carbon dioxide structure

Carbon dioxide: invisible, odourless, and certainly not weightless. Image: Wikipedia Benji9072

Tony Abbott, opposition leader and potential future Prime Minister, answering a question about how CO2 emissions are calculated:

“It’s actually pretty hard to do this because carbon dioxide is invisible and it’s weightless and you can’t smell it.” – The Age

I think that might be the worst science I’ve heard an Aussie politician say in a while. Can you imagine measuring a gas by smell? I’m picturing someone with their nose over a smoke stack, sniffing and saying “40,000 parts per million” before passing out. I’ve never studied how they measure carbon dioxide emissions, and it might be tricky to quantify, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there we already have ways of measuring it that don’t involve smell or visibility.

I’m pretty sure people had discovered invisible gases long before Tony Abbott went to school (I’m picturing 1800s Victorian gas street lamps).

Methane is also an invisible, odourless gas that is a potent greenhouse gas. It’s the gas that runs your stove and gas heater, so I really hope someone at the gas company has a way of detecting it.

NASA CO2 satellite Orbiting Carbon Observatory

Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Image:

Obviously atmospheric carbon dioxide detection is going to be a bit more sophisticated than that. So I’ve quickly Googled it. Oh look, CSIRO was detecting atmospheric CO2 waaay back in 1972.  Fancy that!  [Malcolm Turnbull recently made the radical suggestion politicians should listen to CSIRO rather than Lord Monckton.] These days NASA even has fancy newfangled satellites that measure CO2 in the atmosphere.

And don’t even get me started on the idea that CO2 is weightless. Weightless! A high school chemistry/physics student should be able to refute that one. Weight is the name given to the force on an object due to gravity. However, if Tony Abbott doesn’t know the difference between weight and mass, and is using ‘weight’ colloquially to mean ‘mass’ – then the molar mass of CO2 is 44.01 grams per mole. He’s very wrong either way.

So is Tony Abbott obfuscating gravity and Newtonian physics, or basic chemistry? What next?

Thanks to ABC’s Annabel Crabb, where I saw this quote, here and here.

Update: The above quote I got came originally from The Age who said it came from Tony Abbott talking to group of workers in their lunch room at a South Dandenong engine factory. However, when I was checking the origins of this quote, someone talking about this issue referenced a radio transcript on the Liberal Party website with a quote that’s almost the same, so presumably he said a similar thing on two different occasions:


And imagine the administration costs of doing that? What’s the point of it if you take it away with one hand and give it back with the other?


Exactly right. Even if they were trying to give it all back to you, there would still be the deadweight costs, all the extra bureaucrats. See, one of the things that people haven’t quite twigged to is that carbon dioxide is invisible, it’s weightless and it’s odourless. How are we going to police these emissions…


I don’t know.


…I mean, how are we going to police these emissions? This carbon cop is going to be an extraordinarily intrusive instrumentality, running around trying to make sure that all these businesses aren’t actually emitting given that you can’t actually see, smell or touch what’s going on.

We can’t see, smell or touch those radio waves, but unfortunately we can still detect them…

Saying something like that once when put on the spot is silly (or for an outrageous suggestion, if you don’t know the answer to something scientific, say “I don’t know”), but accidents happen, and you go away and look up the correct answer to the question so you’re not caught out again. But saying it a second time!?!

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Posted in: politics, science