The Carbon Trap

Awake – a little tired after a night’s carousing after a full day at Words by the Water. Mid-week wine takes its due. Maybe I am no longer the party girl of my imagined youth. However, yesterday was stimulating, and I met some good people. I chaired two sessions on geology and climate related issues and find my head is ringing – not so much with the effects of the mid-week wine, but with the issues we discussed, something that is called rather benignly – ‘climate change’. The effect of so many of one particularly high-maintenance species – the pervasive and reproductively successful ‘wise men’ – Homo sapiens. We have outgrown our wiggle room, and are not being ‘wise’ about it. Carbon emissions are not just a guide to eco-living or some kind of a ‘green index’ but are a fundamental to the planet’s climate feedback mechanisms. All oxygen-breathing animals exhale carbon dioxide, but humans are behaving – in terms of our exhalations – as if we are each hundreds of animals. I have not done the calculations, but each of us ‘exhales’ enough carbon dioxide for perhaps a community of humans who do not use fossil fuel. More than that, we are not simply taking carbon from the available stock being circulated in our planetary biosphere; fossil fuel is in effect a carbon trap, sequestering carbon from the planetary inventory. That carbon was ‘taken out’ millions of years ago. Add that back into our modern climate system in such a rapid fashion is the quick road to climate instability.  We have unbalanced the feedback mechanisms that have kept us comfortable for the time it has taken for hominids to become ‘sapient’ – a short tenure in geological terms. Our climate is flickering into the danger zone on the dial. Yet we blunder forward, blinkered, bemused by the desire to maintain our comfortable lives and economic problems that arise from the need to maintain a market-driven economy. We ignore the planetary check engine light of rising carbon dioxide concentrations and drive on into the future, prepared to risk all for a bit more speed now. This basic indicator for planetary warming  is a simple and established scientific fact. Of course the bigger picture is complicated and there are many unanswered questions, and possible outcomes, but the stakes are high. We have the technology to reduce energy consumption dramatically in many areas but need the will to do it. To be duped into thinking windmills and nuclear power stations are ‘the answer’ is flawed and encourages us to ignore the immediate requirement to do something about the fundamental causes of our predicament – the use of harmful technologies and squandering of energy and resources.

I commend to you three books featured at yesterday’s session:

The Planet in a Pebble – A journey into Earth’s deep history Jan Zalasiewicz

The Goldilocks Planet – The 4 billion year history of earth’s climate – Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams

Waking the Giant – How a changing cimate triggers eathquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes – Bill Mc Guire


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