Let's go glocal–where we look at global impact of local actions.
Carbon is a marvelous element and the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. Carbon is a simple, stable molecule that forms more compounds than any other element on Earth. As the perfect dance partner with so many other molecules, carbon forms the basis for organic compounds–the building blocks of life itself. Life on Earth depends on using carbon for both structure and nourishment.
Carbon is the second most common element in the human body (18.5%) after oxygen (65%). The carbon dioxide gas in our atmosphere is a major reason why Earth is a just right "Goldilocks" planet to sustain carbon-based life, neither too hot nor too cold. In short, the carbon in our atmosphere creates a planet where water exists in each of its three phases, as gas (vapor and clouds), liquid (oceans and rain), and solid (snow and ice), each contributing to the amazing diversity of life on Earth.
Yet, rising carbon gas in the atmosphere is a principal culprit in driving the temperature up at the Earth’s surface. The simple equation for what happens when we burn something–which humans have been doing at steeply accelerating rates recently–can be summarized as follows:
Fuel + Air --> Heat + Carbon Dioxide (CO2) + Water (H2O) + Nitrogen
The bad news is in the past year, we humans have accelerated the rate at which we are creating airborne carbon. A few facts stand out:
- The present concentration of airborne carbon dioxide–389.6 part per million–is the highest during at least the last 800,000 years.
- In 2010 atmospheric carbon grew by one of the largest rates in the past decade. This increase came from both burning fossil fuels and producing cement.
- A great deal of scientific research shows that carbon in excess of 350 parts per million will create irreversible trigger events such as ice cap melting that will disrupt our climate patterns in potentially catastrophic ways.
- The last time the Earth was this warm, 120,000 years ago, alligators swam in London’s River Thames and palm trees grew on Greenland.
- Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, we have accelerated the atmospheric carbon concentrations–and therefore the Earth's average surface temperate–an amount that previously took Mother Nature hundreds of thousands of years to achieve.
Diplomats from 194 nations conclude climate talks in Durban, South Africa today with little actual concrete or binding agreements on who will reduce how by much. Two nations hold the key as the world's biggest carbon emitters: the United States and China.
More of the carbon in the atmosphere belongs to the US from our present and past emissions than any other nation. China's annual emissions passed those of the US only in the past few years.
The Global Carbon Project's Carbon Budget 2010 has great information, as does the our federal government's Earth System Research Laboratory at NOAA. NOAA and Scripps Institution of Oceanography have tracked atmospheric carbon levels at Mauna Loa, Hawaii for decades.
Note: More background on this topic appears in Blockstein/Wiegman, Climate Solutions Consensus (2010), chapter 3, Human Carbon as the Smoking Gun.