Carbon Dioxide Is Not Good for Us: And Other Carbon Truths
Opinions about the merits of fossil fuels and the importance of exhausting those resources seem to be infiltrating mainstream media lately. It is an effort to push back against the environmental and climate change activists that are becoming ever more vocal about why and how we need to phase out fossil fuels. “Climate denial” as it is called, seems to be an effort to discredit scientifically-backed warnings of climate change disaster, harmful health effects linked to pollution, and the evaporation of our world’s resources, animal species, and viable natural habitats. Al Gore was perhaps a little too optimistic when he titled his 2006 Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It is inconvenient when your car won’t start. Climate change: intensifying storms, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, heat waves, droughts, and destruction of the earth’s natural ecosystems, isn’t inconvenient; it’s completely ruinous.
It is unfortunate that there is an audience for claims that environmental degradation and climate change are alarmist farces. I can understand why, however. It is easier to pretend a problem does not exist than to muster the strength to solve it. I would love to ignore any negative consequences of my energy use and fuel consumption. It would be great if materials like discarded plastics and hazardous waste would just disappear without any ill effects on the environment. (Luckily, this guy is here to put things in perspective).
Since climate change is a problem that will challenge us for generations, we need to get some things straight:
1 – THE WORLD’S CURRENT RATE OF CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT NATURAL.
Yes, the earth’s climate is constantly in flux. The temperature and carbon content of Earth’s atmosphere can be studied dating back hundreds of thousands of years, and results show that the earth’s climate vacillates between periods of warming and cooling, along with differing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Graph illustrating both annual and five year average earth surface temperature since 1880.
Graph illustrating annual global CO2 emissions in gigatons per year since 1850.
These graphs from NASA illustrate that trends in both average global temperature and carbon dioxide emissions have been rising for over a century. This period also coincides with the explosive growth of industry around the world, when humans began burning enormous amounts of coal and oil to fuel economic progress and innovation.
The climbing temperature trend corresponds almost perfectly with the charted explosion in CO2 emissions, particularly in the last fifty years. The relationship between atmospheric CO2 and global temperature is clear, and a host of studies support CO2 emissions as a direct contributor to rising temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationprojects even more extreme warming trends to come if action is not taken to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
2 – CLIMATE CHANGE IN NOT JUST AN ENVIRONMENTALIST ISSUE.
Unless you do not live on this planet, climate change is your issue too. Environmentalists are certainly some of the most outspoken supporters of climate change mitigation, but a shifting climate is important to every living creature on this earth. A radically changing climate is not going to destroy the planet, but it has strong potential to destroy the majority of life on the planet (that includes us).
The chance that humanity can survive a world of superstorms, rising sea levels, droughts, coastal flooding, extreme temperatures, a new ice age, and a collapsed economy is very bleak. While the planet will adjust to the changing climate, and possibly even regenerate new life, as it has done before in mass extinction events, humans will surely lose the battle for survival.
By taking action to limit the greenhouse gases we pour into our atmosphere, we are protecting our own livelihood.
3 – MORE CARBON DIOXIDE IS NOT GOING TO MAKE OUR PLANTS GROW BIGGER.
This statement isn’t entirely false, but the idea that CO2 pollution from power plants and other sources will spur plant growth is purely a myth. Such a fabrication is particularly damaging because instead of simply ignoring the deleterious effects of greenhouse gases to our climate, it actually indicates that CO2 is good for the atmosphere.
While CO2 must be in our air in order for plant life to thrive and continue to produce oxygen through photosynthesis, the CO2 that fuels those chemical reactions is not the same CO2 that comes from the smokestacks of your neighborhood power plant.
The carbon dioxide humans emit through burning fossil fuels rises high into the atmosphere where it gets trapped and creates a layer of gas that warms the earth.
The CO2 and other greenhouse gases function like a literal greenhouse. They allow the heat of the sun to penetrate the atmosphere, and then trap the heat where it warms the earth’s temperature. This process is similar to what happens to a parked car left in the sun too long. The sunlight’s heat enters the car easily, but is then trapped inside.
Laboratory experiments have shown some evidence that plant growth benefits from an increased amount of CO2 in the air, but these conditions only exist in artificial laboratory settings.
One last surprising, but important, truth about climate change is that fossil fuels are not necessarily the “bad guys.” It is the way humans have used these fuels without considering the social and environmental costs of the pollution we create by burning them. There is no reason fossil fuels cannot continue to help us generate the energy we depend on, but we need to use them responsibly. Several technologies like carbon capture and clean coal have emerged as ways to clean up our fossil fuels, but energy efficiency is the most effective (and cheapest) way to limit our carbon footprint. Fighting climate change really can be as simple as paying close attention to the way you use (and conserve) energy.
Jessica has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo, and a master’s degree in Physical Geography & Environmental Systems from SUNY at Buffalo. She writes on environmental issues,smart grid developments, clean energy, demand response, and climate change. Jessica is on Twitter, Google+ and See complete profile
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