Global Climate Change--Our Carbon Footprint
Reduce your carbon footprint – the current slogan for fighting global climate change, up close and personal. But which carbon footprint? We humans participate at two levels in adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, now in carbon dioxide “overload”: one universal (and natural) to all life on earth, the second distinctively human.
Our natural contribution begins with you exhaling carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, joining with that being exhaled by the other estimated 5-10 million species of breathing organisms (including plants) on this Earth. However, the ultimate carbon contribution (about 50% of the total) comes when it’s “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” time, i.e. compost, made possible by a myriad array of mostly microorganisms called the decomposers. It is here carbon recycling really begins! This natural carbon footprint does not accumulate in the atmosphere, but moves into a cycle of life through the living bodies of the millions of species that make up the estimated 2000+ billion tons of living mantle (45-60% carbon) blanketing the Earth. This natural cycle is just one of several biogeochemical cycles - truly marvels of God’s Creation.
So what is the question to be asked: if carbon dioxide is part of a natural cycle, essential to the very maintenance of life on Earth both in content as well as global temperature, how can it possibly be considered a global air pollutant!? Of course, you know the answer – fossil fuel carbon dioxide from our distinctly human carbon footprint. But why a pollutant, if there is a fully operative biogeochemical cycle to incorporate carbon into the mantle of Earth’s life?!
Isn’t fossil fuel just old carbon from ancient biomass? Yes, it is ancient uncycled biomass, fossilized over 100s of millions of years during many of Earth’s cataclysmic episodes. It is estimated there is about 200 times more fossilized carbon relative to Earth’s living mantle with approximately 20% higher carbon content because of fossilization. The bad news is that we humans are short circuiting the composting stage characteristic of the natural cycle, and instead substituting direct combustion (think of it as “instant” composting!). We are overloading the carbon cycle with too much of a good thing, allowing much of the previously fossilized uncycled carbon to accumulate in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. However, if that be the case (as the evidence suggests), do we really want to test the hypothesis of initiating a global tropics completely disrupting our temperate food growing zones? I strongly suggest we do not!
However, we should not consider atmospheric carbon dioxide a pollutant. The element carbon is the chemical backbone for virtually all of the molecules necessary for life on Earth, and carbon dioxide is a major factor in determining Earth’s climate. The fact that there is too much of this amazing element is not Earth’s problem, it is clearly humanity’s problem. (Incidentally, Earth’s life will survive just fine without us – our departure may actually prove to be a blessing!) We appear to have made a Faustian bargain – unprecedented material pleasure now for unimaginable future misery. The accumulating scientific data is confirming two defining observations:
- Prior to the Industrial Revolution several hundred years ago, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration may have already been low, actually moving in that direction some 50-60 million years earlier. Sequestering all that carbon over the prior several 100 million years was continually lowering the overall climate temperature, albeit by “fits and starts”.
- With a massive extinction event of most species 65 million years ago there then occurred a virtual complete turnover of species during the next 50-60 million years. Today’s worldwide biodiversity is high corresponding to high ecosystem diversity, most likely associated with the dramatic natural climate changes over the past 50-60 million years.
Protecting the intimate relationship between climate and the species diversity involved in the biogeochemical cycles (not just carbon) should be humanity’s highest priority. But doing so must not only be ecologically sound, but bring to the task the same human innovative genius that has given us our fossil fuel driven lifestyle and economy. Those innovative talents must now devote their talents to the only really ecologically sound energy source – the SUN.
That’s the vision. Time is growing short - emerging consensus suggests 10-15 years before the unimaginable climate change consequences become irreversible. All the solar technology we need to get started is available now with much more already visible on the horizon. Where is the will to move ahead and to insure that our fossil fuel carbon footprint does not overwhelm Earth’s life sustaining carbon cycle as well as the other life sustaining biogeochemical cycles? Nature cannot be expected to correct this mess. Only we humans can do that. In retrospect we made a Faustian bargain – our human creature comfort now for Earth’s global discomfort (and ours) later?
So, WHAT NOW? We must not waste time and money on “clean coal” (an oxymoron), biofuels (overwhelmingly a bad idea), nuclear power (what’s new that’s good about it?) - all of these are more politically motivated than they are long-term solutions. There is clearly no short-term “magic bullet” but the long-term solution will be a totally solar economy. However, I believe that until each of us becomes personally part of the solar solution, however modest, nothing of significance will happen – so here goes!
- Efficiency, efficiency – we must reset our mindset for maximizing the efficiency of our fossil fuel use.
- We can heat our personal water supply with the sun – a relatively inexpensive, effective solar technology now “perfected” over a 40-year period. How about on over 100 million rooftops water being heated by the sun!
- We can personally grow food (organically, of course) where we live, support our local “farmer’s” market, and compost our kitchen and yard waste. It is estimated that during World War II, 40% of our food was grown in “Victory gardens”. Is not global climate change our 21st century “war” of survival?
- We can generate our own electricity with the sun – a relatively expensive, but very elegant, proven and expandable technology. Wind power (indirect solar) is also now a personal option.
- We can reduce, reuse, and recycle (the 3 R’s), particularly if our community has an infrastructure for proper collection and disposal of recyclables.
- We can eliminate much of the lawn. Maintaining a lawn requires as much fossil fuel per acre as corn; low energy use substitutes are available. Limit mowed grass areas only for recreational opportunities.
- And by all means, we can replace those incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs).
All of the above will reduce fossil fuel usage, some more than others. All will alter our mindset and make each of us part of the solution, not the problem. Will reducing our fossil fuel carbon footprint be a personal “inconvenient truth”? I suspect so, but at what point in our life does the greater good take precedence over our personal convenience?
Lou Laux (Emeritus – ‘91, Biology) 18 September 2008