“The Many Lives of Carbon” by Dag Olav Hessen was released originally late last year, but just this month had its English translation published. I was immediately drawn to the premise of the book, which was Hessen looking at the entire story behind carbon, the oft villainized molecule in energy and climate circles, through the lens of what the element has done for humanity and how and why the surplus of carbon dioxide (CO2) poses dangers to life as we know it.
Without succumbing to alarmist tones or preachiness, Hessen successfully paints a comprehensive picture of the ever-present carbon that allows for powerful discussion of the current state of the energy sector, the climate, and the globalized view of what needs to be accomplished in the coming decades to ensure preservation of the environment and our way of life. In the end, he advocates for responsible action, noting that “the question is how much of an alarmist you want to be, but it would be quite irresponsible for a doctor who, upon discovering a potentially fatal tumor, to fail to inform the patient.”
In this book, Hessen informs us of the science behind those tumors, the way to prevent future tumors, and what do do about the blemishes that are already appearing on the earth’s surface.
Keep reading for my summary of main takeaways and lessons learned from this book. If you’d rather jump ahead to my final ratings of this book, though, click here.
This book’s guided tour of carbon begins with an exploration of carbon’s importance across all sciences– chemistry, nuclear physics, and biology in addition to the expected geological and climatological sciences. While the amount of the book going in depth on these fundamental sciences might frustrate those looking to read explicitly about climate change and CO2 emissions in the energy industry, I found this format refreshing because it backed up an utter lack of an agenda other than Hessen’s yearning for the reader to truly understand the science, not to mention the technologies behind plastics, rubbers, diamonds, and more advanced breakthroughs in carbon dating, carbon fiber materials, and carbon’s future in revolutionizing data storage.
I do have to admit that, as I did not pursue chemistry as a field of study, some parts in this portion of the book that focused on the specifics of atomic carbon (how it behaves, why various bonds occur, etc.) caused my eyes to glaze over a bit. I charged through them, though, because I shared the author’s goal to truly understand carbon for the sake of the grander picture. This part of the book enables the base understanding that carbon is not an inherent evil, as someone who spends all of their time reading greenhouse gas emissions reports (or being forced to study organic chemistry in college) might feel. Rather as the main actor in this story, carbon “forms the springboard for more of the synthetics upon which modern life is based.”
History of carbon science
Hessen is himself a scientist, and not the type like me who reads and learns while sitting behind a computer screen at a desk; rather he collects data from the field and analyzes it himself. As such, Hessen details his investigations that find him in lakes collecting underwater carbon outputs and analyzing algae levels. With this level of personal involvement, Hessen takes the reader through the timeline of scientists and historical developments that got our collective understanding of CO2 and its climate impact to the point that it is today.
Any telling of the history of CO2 and climate science begins with Charles Keeling and the measurements of CO2 concentrations he took in the mountains of Hawaii in the mid-20th century, providing the first human records of the dramatic CO2 rise that eventually become the eponymous Keeling Curve.
Not only does Hessen provide fascinating insight into these breakthroughs at the advent of modern climate science, but he also goes out of his way to credit the scientists that laid the groundwork before that– from the ancient thinkers who connected fire and ‘combustion gas’ to the scientists of the Enlightenment who formed the basis of chemistry to understand carbon, and even the discovery of how CO2 related to fermentation of beer (with Johann Jacob Schweppe of Schweppe Soda fame being the earliest one to find a commercial use for controlling CO2).
The story even has some recognizable names, like the great Jean-Baptiste Fourier who realized that the earth must emit some sort of radiation that maintains a natural heat balance, making him the spiritual grandfather of the greenhouse theory.
The carbon cycle, the earth’s self regulation, and humanity’s impact
Scientists realized that the CO2 emissions from human activity were not increasing the atmospheric CO2 levels as much as they expected, once the numbers were crunched. This unexpected trend was because the earth’s natural ecosystems and the carbon cycle process were absorbing about half of the man-made emissions. A useful tool for thinking of the earth’s carbon cycle is called the Gaia hypothesis, put forth by James Lovelock, which describes how the earth can be thought of as a living organism with the ability to regulate its own temperature and other ‘vitals.’
Regarding CO2 specifically, this theory evokes the personification of a true Mother Earth that is actually inhaling and exhaling CO2 on a seasonal basis; breathing in CO2 for plant growth during the summer and releasing it back into the atmosphere in the winter. The original idea of the Gaia hypothesis was that these natural self-regulation measures of the earth meant that the natural mechanisms would be able to absorb the high levels of man-made CO2 without any serious consequence. Indeed, some groups of climate change skeptics point to these self-regulating mechanisms, found in oceans, forests, and more, as a reason that we need not be concerned with our increasing rate of CO2 emissions.
However Lovelock himself soon realized that there were limits to the earth’s self-regulative capacity. The concern, which was shared by the greater scientific community, was that the regular feedback loops that allow CO2 emissions to be tolerated by nature would eventually get pushed too far and cause a chain reaction leading to disaster. When life itself begins to be affected, a snowball effect of dramatic and unforeseen feedback could occur to cause the carbon cycle and the climate (along with other aspects of the environment) to run out of control.
Further, the uncertain and unknown aspects regarding those type of feedback loops are part of the inherent danger of a warming globe from climate change, as climate models remain notoriously uncertain when predicting just how much warmer or extreme things will get and how quickly it might occur. The carbon cycle is a topic so complicated and has enough uncertainty behind it that Hessen suggests the only response to someone claiming to thoroughly understand it is an ‘ironic smile,’ as not even the experts like himself can claim such complete knowledge.
But that is not to say we don’t know enough to recognize the real and present dangers; we know enough to say that when more CO2 is being released into the atmosphere than can be absorbed by the environment’s natural safety net that we’re in trouble.
Risks, dangers, and impacts
Regarding the dangers of relying entirely on the self-correcting measures of the earth, Hessen writes:
The critical question becomes whether these feedbacks will lock the planet into an irreversible, one-way process. The fact that gases in the atmosphere have remained reasonably stable for hundreds of thousands of years, despite their much shorter atmospheric lifespan, shows there must be mechanisms in place to help maintain this stability.
What he seems to be suggesting here is that humanity is fortunate the carbon cycle mechanisms have been able to absorb as much of our CO2 emissions as they have, but if we push the limit on that then we might find ourselves outside of the regulating loop and on the path towards unfixable impacts. Another useful metaphor Hessen give to think about this idea is of the type of bathtubs that have security drains near the top to prevent overflow.
The tap in the tub was designed such that the rate of water entering the tub would never exceed the rate that the security drain could remove the water to prevent overflow. Such function is akin to the earth and its natural carbon cycle mechanisms. The release of CO2 into the atmosphere is like the tap of the tub and the natural carbon absorption mechanisms are like the security drain, and for most of human existence that security drain has been enough to prevent overflow. But the past century of man-made CO2 emissions from rapidly increasing fossil fuel extraction and consumption is like adding a second tap to the tub.
Even though this second tap might be much smaller than the main one (such activity only contributes about 4% of the overall CO2 emissions to the earth’s atmosphere), the addition of a secondary source is enough to outpace the emergency drains of carbon absorption. The concern is that even a small continued addition to overall output will overflow the tub, i.e., set off the previously mentioned snowball effect of environmental and climate feedback loops.
What are some of these perilous feedback cycles that CO2 emissions might set off? One example is that an increasing global temperature contributes to shorter winters and further arctic ice melt that exposes land coverage (soil and rock), materials that absorb sunlight as opposed to the ice that reflects the light and heat away from the earth’s surface. As the ice melts, the pace of warming will increase and cause even more ice to melt and so on.
Another potential feedback rising CO2 levels could set off is that warming temperatures could result in a thawing of the treeless tundra that contain vast frozen methane stores (methane being a less common but more potent greenhouse gas of which carbon is a part). And even if we were to ignore or suggest we could adapt to the climate change, the increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere can be disastrous in their own respect, as many of the ill-effects found in the biodome experiments have come to symbolize.
While life on earth has rebounded and survived every extreme test over the past 4 billion years, albeit with the exact nature of that life changing and adapting over the course of those eons, will we be able to weather the turmoil if the emissions continue at their current pace? Hesson notes:
Our problem is that we are clever, but perhaps not clever enough. We recognize long-term consequences, but do not allow a long-term rationale to govern the short-term. We have evolved as problem-solvers and there is no reason our species will not still be here in one thousand, ten thousand, or even one hundred thousand years…[But] I will not finish by saying that all will certainly end well, because that is something we simply cannot know.
So that naturally begets the ending question that is the focus of the last portion of The Many Lives of Carbon: what is to be done?
What can be done?
With regard to the energy sector, current estimates say there are 900 billion tons of coal reserves underground, enough to last 128 years at current levels of consumption. Likewise Hessen notes there are over 50 years of oil reserves based on current consumption levels (which are expected to drop, meaning it would last even longer). While fossil fuel reserves are often expressed in how long we can make them last, Hessen suggests that perspective needs to be flipped to instead consider how much of those reserves should be extracted and burned.
Even natural gas, often touted as the cleaner burning fossil fuel (less than half of the CO2 emissions of coal and oil for the same amount of energy) that can serve as the bridge to get us to a cleaner economy while renewable technologies develop, has its own set of issues. Among these issues is the the recent development that leaking in extraction and shipping might actually mean we’re currently under-reporting emissions from natural gas by as much as 50%. With underground reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas totaling about 2,520 billion tons of CO2-equivalent were they to be burned, in order to avoid disaster less than a third of those reserves can actually be used for energy.
The necessity to leave these oil and gas reserves in the ground is made even more complicated by the fact that you’re up against the influence and drive of an industry that has investments to the tune of $27 trillion in infrastructure in place for the continued extraction, processing, and shipping of these fossil fuel reserves.
On a technological basis, it’s important to continue investing time and money into potential disruptors, such as blue-green algae that can capture CO2 or other carbon-negative technologies to remove CO2 that’s already been released by human activity, helping to enhance the earth’s natural carbon absorption mechanisms. The process is not easy, and even worse we are running a race against time. Using the accepted remaining capacity for CO2 in the atmosphere of 800 Gigatons, we would only need to reduce our rate of emissions by 2% per year if we started today, but that would jump to 35% per year if we waited until 2040.
In the realm of personal accountability, Hessen suggests ways to recognize the effect on the world’s carbon balance sheet of your own actions. Go out of your way to learn about how demand for palm oil, soy, timber, and steak are resulting in the loss of rainforests and reducing the natural safety net for carbon absorption that the earth was provided before humanity came along. When looking at the carbon footprint of your own activities, take personal stock and include the CO2 emissions as at least a part in your decisions: are you traveling via car or, worse, plane for a meeting that can be conducted via video conference? Are you eating steak every night in lieu of the regular ‘meatless Monday?’
None of this is intended to impart guilt for your everyday activities, but rather to provide a broader and global perspective. An imperative goal in advocacy for climate action should be not to just ‘tsk tsk’ at activities that might be overly carbon-emissive, but also to show that you can reduce your footprint without sacrificing your lifestyle. Telsa has set a great example for how the sustainable alternative can be cool and progressive.
The changes to our climate, environment, and homes if action is not taken is undoubtedly one of the most serious challenges facing humanity. As Hessen puts it:
Carbon’s many pathways will decide our collective fate for the foreseeable future. With these words, I am discounting good-sized meteorites, gamma ray bursts, a blowout in the pressure chamber beneath Yellowstone and other things of that nature, given that it makes the most sense to concentrate on what you can actually do something about.
We may not understand the carbon cycle completely, and we likely won’t ever be 100% certain of how all the feedback loops work, but the only fact known for sure at this point is we can mitigate these threats by cutting emissions and cutting them now.
- Content- 4/5: In the end, what you get in The Many Lives of Carbon is a book steeped in hard science and thus not motivated by emotion, alarmism, or the taking of sides. Hessen provides the type of insight that only a pure scientists can provide. If the story of carbon were the Star Wars saga (last unnecessary metaphor, I promise), the first 2/3 of this book are like the prequels where we find out where the supposed ‘bad guy’ (carbon/Anakin Skywalker) comes from and what makes them who they are. While we all know the main story of CO2 emissions/Darth Vader, the backgrounds behind that story cannot be ignored because they allow us to really know and understand that which has become the ‘enemy,’ and through that understanding we can see the pathway for the light side to shine through in the end.
- Readability- 3/5: If you’re looking for the quick pop-science read on climate change and its impact, then this is not the book for you. Hessen is an accomplished academic and scientist and he writes like one, with many of the more detailed and thorough sections looking more like they come straight from a scientific journal. The Many Lives of Carbon is a challenging book at times, but a worthwhile endeavor in the end.
- Authority- 4/5: That being said, while this is not the book I recommend you pick up as a starting point so you can talk about climate change casually at a cocktail party, it is one I would highly recommend for a deep dive into the nitty gritty of carbon in various fields of science.
- FINAL RATING- 3.7/5: I’ve provided a book report type overview here of some of the key points and facts Hessen provides, but obviously I cannot do justice in this space what Hessen achieves over the 200+ pages, so I’ve had to leave out some of the most insightful and informative aspects of the story. Again, this book is a challenging read at times with regard to the hard science, but if you feel you’ve already got a thorough understanding of the basics of climate change and its causes, as well as the impacts and potential solutions, then this book is a great next read to dive deeper into the weeds.
If you’re interested in following what else I’m reading, even outside of energy-related topics, feel free to follow me on Goodreads and see my page of other energy-related book recommendations. Should this review compel you to pick up The Many Lives of Carbon by Dag Olav Hessen, please consider buying on Amazon.