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Why Carbon Matters

The bulk of humanity’s energy needs are currently met through the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. About 60% of global electricity generation relies upon fossil fuels to generate the heat needed to power steam-driven turbines. Burning these fuels results in the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the primary heat-trapping, “greenhouse gas” responsible for global warming.

Over the past two centuries, mankind has increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from 280 to more than 380 parts per million volume, and it is growing faster every day. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has not been this high for at least the past 650,000 years. As the concentration of CO2 has risen, so has the average temperature of the planet. Over the past century, the average surface temperature of Earth has increased by more than 1.3°F (0.74°C). If we continue to emit carbon without restraint, temperatures are expected to rise by an additional 6°F (3.4°C) by the end of this century.

Climate change of that magnitude would likely have serious consequences for life on Earth. Sea level rise, droughts, floods, intense storms, forest fires, water scarcity, and cardiorespiratory and tropical diseases would be exacerbated. Agricultural systems would be stressed – possibly decimated in some parts of the world. A conservative estimate suggests that 30% of all species are at risk of extinction given current trends. It would be the greatest extinction of life on Earth since the K-T extinction event that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. No one can imagine, never mind predict, the ecological consequences of such a radical loss of life.

There is also the risk that continued warming will push the planet past critical thresholds or “tipping points” – like the large-scale melting of polar ice, the thawing of tundra or methane clathrates, the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, or the warming and acidification of the oceans – that will make further climate change inescapable and irreversible. The history of Earth suggests that such positive feedback loops in the climate system are powerful and often severe. If our greenhouse gas emissions succeed in pushing the climate past the point of no return, we are unlikely to realize it until it is too late to avoid the consequences.

Despite mounting evidence of the dangers posed by climate change, efforts to limit carbon emissions remain insufficient, ineffective, and, in most countries, non-existent. If the world is to avert the worst consequences of an altered climate, the status quo must change quickly. Given current trends and the best available scientific evidence, mankind probably needs to reduce total CO2 emissions by at least 80% by 2050. Yet each day emissions continue to grow.

In the absence of action on the part of governments, hundreds of millions of increasingly climate-conscious citizens can promote low-carbon alternatives by changing the ways they purchase, invest, vote, think, and live. All you need to act is timely, accurate, publicly-available information about the choices you face. It’s time to take matters into your own hands. And you can start with CARMA.