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CO2 Rising

CO2 Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    CO2 Rising
    Book Description:

    The most colossal environmental disturbance in human history is under way. Ever-rising levels of the potent greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) are altering the cycles of matter and life and interfering with the Earth's natural cooling process. Melting Arctic ice and mountain glaciers are just the first relatively mild symptoms of what will result from this disruption of the planetary energy balance. In CO2 Rising, scientist Tyler Volk explains the process at the heart of global warming and climate change: the global carbon cycle. Vividly and concisely, Volk describes what happens when CO2 is released by the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), letting loose carbon atoms once trapped deep underground into the interwoven web of air, water, and soil. To demonstrate how the carbon cycle works, Volk traces the paths that carbon atoms take during their global circuits. Showing us the carbon cycle from a carbon atom's viewpoint, he follows one carbon atom into a leaf of barley and then into an alcohol molecule in a glass of beer, through the human bloodstream, and then back into the air. He also compares the fluxes of carbon brought into the biosphere naturally against those created by the combustion of fossil fuels and explains why the latter are responsible for rising temperatures. Knowledge about the global carbon cycle and the huge disturbances that human activity produces in it will equip us to consider the hard questions that Volk raises in the second half of CO2 Rising: projections of future levels of CO2; which energy systems and processes (solar, wind, nuclear, carbon sequestration?) will power civilization in the future; the relationships among the wealth of nations, energy use, and CO2 emissions; and global equity in per capita emissions. Answering these questions will indeed be our greatest environmental challenge.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28561-2
    Subjects: General Science, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. 1 Introducing the CO2 Molecule and Its Carbon Atom
    (pp. 1-14)

    My goal in writing this book is to provide essential information about what is surely the longest-term and most globally distributed environmental problem. I will aim for brevity, but I will lay out the essential inner workings of the global carbon cycle, concentrating on what I believe every global citizen should know.¹

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary reason to be concerned about global warming and its consequences. The world appears locked in a certain direction. As CO2is increasing, so is civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels, which creates ever-growing rates of CO2injection into the atmosphere. Climate effects will...

  6. 2 From a Molecule in Beer to the Great Cycle of Carbon in the Biosphere
    (pp. 15-26)

    So where is Dave? We can’t have him locked deep inside a rock, say in a bit of the organic content of a layer of dark gray shale half a mile under the surface of Arkansas, because then there would be no action to report—except, perhaps, to say “Come back in a few million years.” Surely Dave should be somewhere in the active biosphere, the roiling, interconnected surface zone that includes the atmosphere, all waters and ice, all soils, and, crucially, all living things.¹ The biosphere—only 1/400 of Earth’s radius—is somewhat like a nearly closed bottle in...

  7. 3 The Worldwide Increase of CO2
    (pp. 27-44)

    There are two reasons I have singled out Dave. First, in the beer in an alcohol molecule, he served as a simple yet illustrative example of a closed loop. Tracing him in time both back to when he was in atmospheric CO2and forward to when he will be in atmospheric CO2illustrated one small sub-cycle within the global carbon cycle of Earth’s biosphere. Second, an event in Dave’s past warrants that we honor him with a spot in the high echelon of carbon atoms. That event took place in the early 1960s.

    Being singled out is apparently no easy...

  8. 4 Fossil-Fuel Carbon Atoms Join the Biosphere
    (pp. 45-64)

    When faced with things that are too big to sense, we comprehend them by adding knowledge to the experience. The first appearance of a shining star in a darkening evening sky can take you out into the universe if you augment what you see with the twin facts that the star is merely one of the closest of the galaxy’s 200 billion stars and that its light began traveling decades ago. The smell of gasoline going into a car’s tank during a refueling stop, when combined with the datum that each day nearly a billion gallons of crude oil are...

  9. 5 Carbon’s Fluxes and Its Rate of Increase
    (pp. 65-84)

    The atmosphere is in constant exchange with plants, animals, and even the soil and the ocean. The CO2from each human breath spreads into the world’s growing green leaves and down into the coldest ocean depths. Dave the carbon atom, now in a molecule of alcohol in beer, soon will reenter the atmosphere as CO2from one of those breaths. Carbon can exit the biosphere entirely, as Coalleen, Oiliver, and Methaniel did millions of years ago, when their previous incarnations in the biosphere were terminated when they were buried and became part of the underground stores of coal, oil, and...

  10. 6 Time Capsules in Ice
    (pp. 85-104)

    When Dave the carbon atom commenced his current stint of circuiting within the biosphere, 32,000 years ago, many other carbon atoms that had been Dave’s close neighbors in rock did the same thing at virtually the same instant. For a reason soon to be revealed, we will call one of these new atoms Icille.

    Dave and Icille had been in adjacent molecules of calcium carbonate, together in crystalline imprisonment for millions of years. When rain in Paleolithic Southern France washed Dave in a molecule out of the cliff and into watery solution, it also freed Icille. For a while the...

  11. 7 Wealth, Energy, and CO2
    (pp. 105-132)

    Today the rising level of CO2is markedly higher than it was at any time than during the biosphere’s past half-million years. Natural cycles did occur in which the distribution of the biosphere’s carbon shifted, and these coincided with ice-age cycles. But those past shifts were slower than the rapid one that we are now in. More recently than these ice-age cycles, for the huge stretch of time during the past 12,000 years up until about the year 1850, the carbon cycle was very nearly in steady balance. Without doubt, humans have put the atmosphere into a new chemical state....

  12. 8 How High Will the CO2 Go?
    (pp. 133-156)

    If you are the kind of person who looks forward to each year’s being special, the CO2data give you that—each year, another world record! Furthermore, the data are in, and they are unequivocal. The rise is caused primarily by the gas wastes from the myriad ways we combust the triumvirate of fossil fuels, augmented by the flux of CO2from land-use changes. And as the gross world product heads toward nearly quadrupling in 2050 relative to the century’s early years, the world’s people will need more energy. Fossil fuels are currently the energy source of choice, which means...

  13. 9 Reining In the CO2 Increase
    (pp. 157-188)

    Theclimate sensitivity, standardly used in predicting the course of global warming, puts a number on how much the global average temperature will change for a doubling of carbon dioxide from its pre-industrial value. The climate sensitivity can be used to roughly set the level of anxiety or complacency, given a sense of what a given temperature change means for rainfall, the seasons, soil moisture, extreme weather events, and all other variables that affect our lives and the lives of other creatures in Earth’s various habitats.

    Other greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, are rising too. These should be...

  14. 10 The Ultimate Fates of Our Carbon Atoms
    (pp. 189-206)

    When Dave the carbon atom popped out of the ocean and back into the atmosphere in the year 3279, the earliest decades of concerns about the rising levels of CO2and about the supercharged greenhouse effect were even further back in the past to the people of the thirty-third century than the European Medieval Ages, with their soaring cathedrals, armored knights, Thomistic proofs of God, and feudal castles, were to people of the twenty-first. But how those concerns had been met—with care, dismissal, ignorance, ingenuity, or conflict—had a lot to do with the flourishing or not of life...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 207-218)
  16. Index
    (pp. 219-224)