Carbon Facts

Dec. 9, 2016

Let’s talk about carbon. Carbon dioxide is an important gas in terms of photosynthetic organisms such as plants or protozoans. They take in the CO2 and along with sunlight, produce food and oxygen. This is a simple relationship. But the carbon cycle is much more complex than this. I have attached a diagram of the carbon cycle. I would like to focus on carbon in terms of climate change.

Reconstructions of carbon in the environment, from rock deposits, fossil examination, ice cores and other means, show that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have varied, ranging from as high as 7,000 ppm about 500 million years ago to as low as 180 ppm during the Quaternary ice ages in the last two million years. The global annual mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by more than 40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution, from 280 ppm, the level it had been for the last 10,000 years leading up to the mid-18th century, to 400 ppm as of 2016. Yes, carbon levels have been variable through natural cycles throughout geologic history, but trilobites were the dominant species when carbon levels were at the highest. Volcanic eruptions have often been the source of high concentrations of CO2 in the geologic past, but human activity is currently the largest source of CO2 emissions into the earth environment. Today, volcanoes release less than 10% of the over 30 billion tons that humans produce annually.

John Tyndall (1820-1893), was the first to experiment with greenhouse gases. He discovered that water vapor and carbon dioxide were good at trapping heat energy. Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) figured out that an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in a certain amount of warming. Arrhenius determined that if you halved the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the temperature of Europe could drop by as much as 4-5°C.

In 1931, American physicist E.O Hulburt ran calculations to determine the effect of doubling carbon dioxide and, including the added burden of water vapor, he came up with a figure of around 4°C of warming. Hulburt figured out it was the escape of infra-red radiation to Space (or the hindrance thereof) that was of key importance.

By the mid-1950s, scientists had the huge advantage of the calculating power of computers. This made it possible to work out how the atmosphere might absorb infra-red radiation. Physicist Gilbert Plass undertook the task and his work (published as a paper entitled The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change, in the journal Tellus in 1956) confirmed that more carbon dioxide would have a warming effect- that doubling levels of CO2 gas would result in a warming of 3-4°C. His work aligned with Hulburt’s figures.

By 1958, researcher Charles David Keeling improved the techniques for measuring CO2 in the atmosphere and began collecting carbon data atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. His first measurements recorded the CO2 levels at 310 ppm. The current amount, in 2016, is recorded at 400 ppm.

Although carbon dioxide is measured in parts per million in the atmosphere, that trace amount can have a profound effect. For example, 500 ppm of hydrogen sulphide in air can lead to asphyxia. As a metaphor, one could measure certain drugs such as heart medication, antibiotics or psychotropic drugs in even smaller amounts in the body, yet these small amounts of medication can have a profound effect on the body. Nearly doubling them could have a very negative effect on the body. Range is so important. For another similar example, if one nearly doubled the amount of fertilizer on a lawn, the grass would ‘burn out.’ Too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. Despite its relatively small concentration, CO2 is a potent greenhouse gas and plays a vital role in regulating Earth's surface temperature through radiative forcing and the greenhouse effect.

Some claim the additional CO2 in the atmosphere would be good for plant/crop growth. Experiments growing plants with extra CO2 shows improvement in the short-term, but smaller amounts of produce with less nutritional value in the long-term. In addition, extreme weather events, be that droughts, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes, can totally ruin crop production.

In 2014, all the world's nations combined pumped 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, according to new international calculations on global emissions published in the journal Nature Climate Change. It is difficult to conceive a ton of any gas, much less 38 BILLION TONS, year after year, decade after decade. There was a decline of carbon emissions of 0.6% in 2015- every little bit helps. But the overall trend is continued release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which ends up spreading throughout the earth environment, including the oceans. This carbon would naturally be bound in the crust for millions of years, yet burning it for energy has rapidly released too much, too fast, for earth systems and organisms to adapt.  

There is consensus in the scientific community concerning carbon in the environment and climate change and has been for many decades. Unfortunately, the science has become mired in political spin. Out and out lies have been told to the public so that status que is maintained and the petrol-chemical industry, coal companies and the utility industry can have continued profits.  Sustainable energy production and electric transportation are important steps in reducing carbon emissions, but the political will to encourage these trends is missing. We are voting the wrong people into office at the state and federal levels if we want political action on climate change. It’s time to vote out the climate change deniers. Let’s let the facts guide carbon and sustainable energy policies rather than lobbyists and ideologically-driven or uninformed politicians.