(Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia / Flickr)Are you ready for the end of civilization as we know it? Or at least the evacuation of all the old Confederate states?
Researchers at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration report that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere underwent one of its largest single-year jumps ever in 2012. Between the end of 2011 and the beginning of this year, carbon dioxide levels increased by 2.67 parts per million, an increase only topped by the CO2 spike of 1998.
This drastic rise in CO2 levels makes it highly unlikely that global warming can be limited to the 2 degrees Celsius threshold that most scientists and researchers agree is the bare minimum needed to avoid complete climate catastrophe.
We’ve known for quite some time that, if we don’t meet this 2 degree threshold, large chunks of land across the globe will likely become uninhabitable for humans. And that includes the United States.
As one of the nation’s top climate scientists, NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, put it, “Climate change — human-made global warming — is happening. It is already having noticeable impacts…. If we stay on with business as usual, the southern U.S. will become almost uninhabitable.”
So where is all of this CO2 that’s pushing us to the edge of a climate change catastrophe coming from? It’s coming from our addiction to burning fossil fuels – like oil and coal – for energy. But where did this stuff come from that we’re burning and pouring into the air?
I lay it out in my book “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.” Fossil fuels – like oil, natural gas, and coal – are a captured form of “ancient sunlight” that’s been stored in the Earth for millions of years.
Around 400 million years ago, there was on era on this planet known as the Carboniferous Period. At the beginning of this period in Earth’s history, there were huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which is the greenhouse gas that holds the heat of the Sun against the Earth, and doesn’t let it escape.
During the Carboniferous period, there was so much carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere that the temperature of the planet was much higher than it is today. Too hot for any large animals like us; the world was populated by little things and lots and lots of plants. The high levels of carbon dioxide in the air during the Carboniferous period trapped sunlight energy as heat, and provided massive amounts of carbon for plants to use as raw material to make carbohydrates through sunlight-driven photosynthesis, building leaves and stems and roots out of all that carbon dioxide.
As a result, Pangaea, the huge continent that once covered a quarter of our planet, saw tremendous growth in plant life, and was covered in a dense mat of vegetation, mostly ferns – this was before even trees had evolved – that in many places rose hundreds of feet into the air. This vegetation created a thick ground-cover of rotting and dead plant matter that ultimately became hundreds to thousands of feet deep.
As the vegetation continued to grow, it trapped more and more carbon from the atmosphere. At the same time, the Earth’s oceans, which cover three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, were also experiencing an explosion of plant growth, in the form of algae and other microscopic plants. Like land plants, the algae and the other microscopic ocean plants captured the energy of the sun to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into plant-matter carbon, and then died and settled on the bottom of the ocean floor.
But, 300 million years ago, a massive disaster occurred, possibly from a collision with an asteroid that caused an explosion in tectonic activity that tore apart the continent of Pangaea and forever changed the planetary environment.
The Earth’s crust broke in many places, which caused volcanoes to erupt and the pieces of land to crumble and migrate. When these huge chunks of land collided with each other, millions of acres of Earth were covered by mountains or other land. The once thick mat of vegetation sunk deep within the ground.
Fifty million years later, dinosaurs began to roam the earth, and another period of stability began on Earth and on its two continents, which geologists today call Laurasia and Gonwanaland. The Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, known together as the Mesozoic Period, came to an end 65 million years ago, when a meteor or asteroid struck the Earth, causing the dinosaur extinction.
During the Mesozoic Period, the planet underwent another period of geological unrest, and the two continents broke into smaller pieces of land, to create the seven continents that exist today. At the same time, mountains were created as these continents drifted into each other, and plant matter than had been buried underground millions of year before was pushed farther into the ground, and subjected to great pressure. That pressure – and millions of years of time – converted all that now-underground plant-matter into oil, coal, and natural gas.
Which brings us to 900 years ago, when humans in Europe and Asia first discovered coal below the surface of the Earth and began to burn it. The coal they burned was the surface of the most ancient mats of vegetation that had been buried deep under the Earth’s surface millions of years ago.
There weren’t that many of us then, however – the world’s population was less than a half-billion – and we didn’t use much coal. But when Colonel Drake drilled the world’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1865, we began a whole new way of living.
While coal is mostly from the land plants, oil is from the dead plants that sank to the bottom of the ocean floor hundreds of millions of years ago. That marine plant matter was trapped underground and compressed into what we today call oil.
But enough of the scientific talk. Think about it like this. Every time you go to put gasoline in your car, you’re powering your car with little fossils made from plants that died so long ago that humans weren’t even on the planet yet. And every time a power plant burns coal, it’s similarly burning fossils of now-extinct plants that outdate the human race by hundreds of millions of years.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, we’ve based our entire economy, our livelihoods and our entire civilization on fossils.
Just think about that for a second. These preserved remains of animals and plants that lived and died hundreds of millions of years ago today run our country, from the cars we drive, to the electricity we use in our homes. They fuel our ships and planes. They drive our industry and our computers.
Most important, they’re made into fertilizers and pesticides, and they power the machines that plant, harvest, and transport our food. We’re literally living on – and even eating the product of – fossils. And that’s crazy.
We must move away from this absurdity. It’s crazy to rely on dead organic material and ancient sunlight – fossils from millions of years ago – to run our economy and society.
One way we can break our addiction to fossil fuels is to create a carbon tax, so clean energy forms that use modern sunlight energy – from wind to solar to waves – will replace our addiction to dirty fossil fuels.
All across the globe, from Australia to China to Europe, nations have made the decision to break their addiction to fossil fuels with a carbon tax.
It’s time America did the same thing. It’s time we stepped out of the Carboniferous and Mesozoic Periods, and stepped into the 21st century.