Why our Carbon Footprint is Critically Important
That may have been true before the Industrial Revolution, back then we could ruin our own backyard but probably not have a major impact on the globe itself. Today, everything has changed as human population has exploded to over 7 Billion people. By itself that would be very harmful to the planet, but not deadly. The deadly part is our total slavish devotion to consumerism and growth.
Our highly successful capitalist economic system requires continual growth for it to function—a stagnant economy is a dying economy. Up till now it’s worked wonderfully well, but today we’re learning that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is a pipe-dream, a ridiculous impossibility. If we were willing to be content with meeting only our basic needs, everything might be fine, but instead the most advanced countries insist on living lives of total luxury surrounded by every possible toy they can get. We have an insatiable craving for newer, better and more stuff. For the majority of us, our lives are consumed with getting it.
By itself that’s really bad, but far worse is that now the less developed countries want their share of bounty from the planet. The planet can barely cope with Americans, Asians and Europeans raping her, but now the developing middle class in India and China promise to vastly increase the number of humans demanding lives of luxury surrounded by ever more “stuff.”
Sadly, we’re finding that our infinite lust for “more” can’t be satiated forever because the earth has a fixed, limited amount of finite resources—especially in light of our tremendously increasing population and developing third-world economies.
The Runaway Greenhouse Affect leading to Global Warming
Environmental disaster is coming because extracting the resources and then making and transporting all our “stuff’ requires the burning of huge amounts of fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal primarily) and the end result of burning them is that gigantic quantities of carbon are pumped into the air. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire you’ve seen black smoke coming out of it, that’s carbon. Or, if you’ve ever put a cooking pot on a fire, you know it comes out with a black soot; that also is carbon. Because camp fires don’t burn very hot, the combustion isn’t complete and the carbon is easy to see as particulates, but when you turn your car on, or get electricity from a coal, oil or gas fired generating plant, they’re also pumping out carbon, it just burns so much hotter inside them that the black particulates are burned and disappear–but the carbon is still there. All combustion of fossil fuels creates carbon. Somehow we’ve deluded ourselves into saying, “I can’t see it, so it isn’t real.” Unfortunately, it is.
There are now so many of us, burning so much fossil fuel around the world that we’re pumping incomprehensible amounts of carbon into the air—and I do mean incomprehensible. In 2014 we pumped 35 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, but what does that number mean? Technically it’s 35 Billion metric tons or about 38 Billion US tons. But even that doesn’t help us. We can’t really wrap our minds around those numbers (which is why it’s so easy for us to ignore them) but let me make one comparison that might help.
It’s a popular misconception that volcanoes are the real cause of global warming, because they eject so much carbon into the air. But according to the USGS that is totally untrue. Volcanologists estimate that volcanoes discharge less than 1 % as much carbon as human activity. http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/archive/2007/07_02_15.html
Gas studies at volcanoes worldwide have helped volcanologists tally up a global volcanic CO2 budget in the same way that nations around the globe have cooperated to determine how much CO2 is released by human activity through the burning of fossil fuels. Our studies show that globally, volcanoes on land and under the sea release a total of about 200 million tonnes of CO2annually.
This seems like a huge amount of CO2, but a visit to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) website (http://cdiac.ornl.gov/) helps anyone armed with a handheld calculator and a high school chemistry text put the volcanic CO2 tally into perspective. Because while 200 million tonnes of CO2 is large, the global fossil fuel CO2emissions for 2003 tipped the scales at 26.8 billion tonnes. Thus, not only does volcanic CO2 not dwarf that of human activity, it actually comprises less than 1 percent of that value.
While it’s true the total natural sources of carbon in the atmosphere are much larger than the human caused amount, what’s important isn’t the amount, but the suddenness of how fast we are pumping it into the air.
Up till now, if something suddenly happened which caused a super-fast temperature swing (like extraordinary volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes or more or less heat from the sun) there was usually a Mass Extinction Event but the planet slowly reacted and over a very long period of time it would eventually bring the temperature back to an ideal point for life, never allowing it to pass the threshold where life died out.
Today, human caused carbon in the atmosphere is the cause of the Mass Extinction Event. This graphic from the EPA is helpful to demonstrate it. You can see that the main natural sources of carbon are in a basic balance, a certain amount of carbon is produced from the earth and a roughly equal amount is taken back in so that a harmony is maintained. But suddenly another 30 gigatonnes are added an the earth can’t cope with it.
In the last 200 years humans got involved in producing large amounts of carbon and there are not enough natural methods in the carbon cycle to remove them as fast as we are pumping them into the air. Man-made carbon from fossil fuels are the proverbial feather that breaks the camels back.
Some people focus on the fact that it’s a feather without being able to see that the planet is always at a very delicate balancing point and any unexpected changes can throw the climate into an abrupt, dramatic change–just as it has many times in the ancient past. Carbon from burning fossil fuels is the source of the current sudden change.
The bottom line is, that humans are now having a bigger impact on our planetary processes than normal, natural processes because they were in a delicate balance, and we’ve thrown it off. We know that because the isotopes found in the carbon from burned fossil fuels is different than that from other natural sources of carbon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_in_Earth%27s_atmosphere:
While CO2 absorption and release is always happening as a result of natural processes, the recent rise in CO2levels in the atmosphere is known to be mainly due to human activity. Researchers know this both by calculating the amount released based on various national statistics, and by examining the ratio of various carbon isotopes in the atmosphere, as the burning of long-buried fossil fuels releases CO2 containing carbon of different isotopic ratios to those of living plants, enabling them to distinguish between natural and human-caused contributions to CO2concentration.
Why is Carbon so Damaging? The Greenhouse Effect
Back in the 1700s we invented the steam engine and ever since then we have perpetually increased our use of fossil fuels until it reached the earth-changing proportions it’s at today. In the early 1800s scientists became aware that carbon is the main component in the planets self-regulating climate system because it hold heat into the atmosphere. They also learned that burning any organic matter, including fossil fuels produced carbon.
As we learned more, eventually it came to be called the Greenhouse Effect because greenhouse gases on the atmosphere act like glass in a greenhouse. It allows the suns heat in unhindered, but then holds the heat in once it’s inside. Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the inventor of the telephone) was one of the very first to use the phrase. He predicted in 1917 that if we didn’t find another source of fuel we would see a significant rise in the earth’s temperature, and even suggested we switch to solar power—he was a pretty smart guy!
An excellent explanation of the Greenhouse Effect from: http://www.wohlforth.net/whaleandsupercomputer/co2impacts.html
The relationship between temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide has been understood since the nineteenth century and is conceptually simple. The sun’s energy, which powers the weather and virtually all life, arrives at our planet in short wavelengths, such as visible light, that pass through the atmosphere relatively easily. But when that energy reflects off the earth and bounces back toward space, much of it has become radiated heat, or long-wavelength infrared energy.
Certain gases in the atmosphere that are transparent to sort wavelengths–including water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane–instead absorb long wavelengths. The sun’s energy bouncing up from the earth heats those gasses instead of escaping to the stratosphere or out to space. This warms the earth and the lower atmosphere, called the troposphere, and cools the stratosphere. The phenomenon is called the greenhouse effect because glass in a greenhouse works essentially the same way: it lets energy come in as light but won’t let it go out as heat.
It’s incredibly simple, the more carbon there is in the atmosphere, the hotter it gets, the less carbon, the colder it gets. We can express our current Global Warming problem in this simple, logical equation:
- Burning X amount of fossil fuel = Y amount of carbon put into the atmosphere.
- Adding Y amount of carbon in the atmosphere = Z degrees of temperature rise.
The Greenhouse Effect and the role of carbon in it is long established scientific “fact” that is not up to debate or questioning. It’s as nearly universally accepted in the scientific community as any theory ever has been. It’s not hocus-pocus, or political, or for-profit, it’s the result of centuries of scientific research and study. Al Gore had nothing to do with these equations, in fact, if you’re going to hate and curse anyone for it, curse Alexander Graham Bell. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_effect
The existence of the greenhouse effect was argued for by Joseph Fourier in 1824. The argument and the evidence was further strengthened by Claude Pouillet in 1827 and 1838, and reasoned from experimental observations by John Tyndall in 1859. The effect was more fully quantified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. However, the term “greenhouse” wasn’t used to describe the effect by any of these scientists; the term was first used in this way by Nils Gustaf Ekholm in 1901.
In 1917 Alexander Graham Bell wrote “[The unchecked burning of fossil fuels] would have a sort of greenhouse effect”, and “The net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.” Bell went on to also advocate the use of alternate energy sources, such assolar energy.
As we pour 35 gigatons of carbon a year into the atmosphere, it’s a certainty that the temperature will rise! What’s not certain is exactly how fast. Surprisingly, up till now the models have been remarkably accurate; the main discrepancy is that the damaging changes have generally come faster than expected.
I know I covered a lot of ground here, but the bottom line is that each of us must drastically reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we burn and carbon we produce while there is still a chance to reduce the devastation that is coming. We owe it to our children’s, children to leave them a healthy, habitable world. What kind of monsters would we be if we refused to do that? That makes reducing our carbon footprint the single most important and moral thing any of us can do.
In my next post I’ll show you how being a vandweller can cut your carbon footprint in half or less.