Stuckness: CO2 Emissions

CO2 Emissions by the United States

Three powerful industries - Coal, Petroleum, and Natural Gas - have long provided the lion's share of America's energy. These industries extract hydrocarbons from the ground, convert them into fuel, and deliver them to customers - including us - so that we may generate our electricity, heat our buildings, propel our vehicles, and power our industries. 

The more hydrocarbons we burn, the more hydrocarbon exhaust we create.  Oxidized hydrogen (water).  And oxidized carbon (carbon dioxide). Then what happens?

The water stays in the atmosphere for just a few days.  Not a problem.  Some of the carbon dioxide ends up being absorbed by plants, bushes, and trees. Not a problem. And some of the carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the ocean, where it changes the ocean chemistry, making it more acidic. Serious problem.  And the rest of the carbon dioxide - about half - becomes a permanent part of the atmosphere.  Also a serious problem.

We live in a world of cause-and-effect systems. Our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels has become a "Cause" that's altering the chemistry of the atmosphere, the temperature of the Earth, and the behavior of the Earth's climate.  This same dependence has become a "Cause" that's also altering the chemistry of the ocean and the fate of countless marine species.

Carbon dioxide in the right amounts is essential to life and to warmth. Were there no carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, as the astronomer Carl Sagan regularly observed, the average temperature of the Earth would be well below freezing. An Earth with no carbon dioxide would be unlivably cold. Its moderate presence in the atmosphere has long altered the operation of the Earth's natural cooling system just enough to keep the Earth comfortably warm but not too hot.

But now we have three major industries whose economic livelihood depends on us. Can they convince us to keep buying and burning their fuels? No matter how damaging the larger Cause-and-Effect outcomes? 

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These industries and their friends are therefore engaged in a gigantic and well-funded campaign of "Let's Pretend." Let's pretend that their paid propagandists know more than the world's scientists. Let's pretend that fossil fuels are indispensable and irreplaceable. In other words, "We're stuck. We LIKE being stuck. Let's STAY stuck." 

And so our stuckness becomes pervasive on yet another front where it damages our future.

So here's what you need to know when you look at this chart. It shows fifty-five hundred million metric tons of carbon dioxide being emitted by the United States every year.  Shall we simplify?  Instead of saying "fifty-five hundred million," let's say "five and a half billion." The United States energy infrastructure pumps five and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere year. 

Roughly half of this becomes a permanent addition to the atmosphere.  

The world as a whole generates about thirty-five billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. A portion of the whole get absorbed by plants, bushes, and trees. A portion gets absorbed by the world's oceans. And the remainder, about half, ends up in the atmosphere.  Not just for a few days.  But for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Scientists who measure atmospheric carbon dioxide take their measurements in Parts Per Million. So, when one reads about this issue, one will learn that CO2 in the world's pre-industrial atmosphere typically averaged 280 Parts Per Million. Ice core samples from Greenland and Antarctica have repeatedly confirmed this finding.

Confusing, isn't it? We measure CO2 emissions in gigatons, in billions of tonnes of CO2.  But we measure CO2 in the atmosphere in Parts Per Millions. How are we to relate these two numbers?

Here's the conversion ratio. It takes 7.77 gigatons of new carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to raise the PPM concentration by 1. It takes 15.54 gigatons of new carbon dioxide to raise atmospheric CO2 by two PPM.  

So the story of this chart is largely this. The United States over ten years has emitted 56 gigatons of carbon dioxide.  Of this, about half has become a permanent part of the atmosphere - a rise of 3.6 PPM directly caused by the U.S. No nation has put more CO2 in the atmosphere over the last century than the U.S. 

Here's the long-run story. In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution had taken hold, atmospheric carbon dioxide held steady at 280 Parts Per Million. And the average temperature of the Earth held fairly steady, and the Earth's climate held steady.

In 1958, scientists set up a CO2 measuring project, at an atmospheric observatory in Hawaii.  Carbon dioxide concentrations were already higher than the pre-Industrial norm - 314 Parts Per Million instead of 280.  Today, that same measuring station reports 406 Parts Per Million.  In 1958, atmospheric CO2 was only twelve percent higher than its pre-industrial norm. Today it's forty-five percent higher than its pre-industrial norm. 

The rate of climb? Eight percentage points per decade! In seven more decades, if current rates hold, there will be twice as much CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere than was present at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  And the total will still be climbing. And climbing.

Yes, America is a big part of the problem. But the reality is that almost everyone on Earth is part of the problem, because almost everyone depends on fossil fuels in one form or another.  

There is only one permanent solution. All the technologies that require fossil fuels have to be pulled from service. They have to be replaced with new technologies, climate-safe technologies, so that none of our needs have to be met with coal or petroleum or natural gas.  

The nation that gets to zero first will become the world's Clean Energy Leader.  The world's leading Clean Energy Job Creator.  

There are some people who don't want the United States to be the world's Clean Energy Leader, the world's leading Clean Energy Job Creator. 

So we're not there yet.  Too much denial. A badly broken Code of Honor.  

And so America quivers in fear. We won't acknowledge our Dirty Energy bad judgment, and we won't step up to our Clean Energy Opportunity. We continue to squirm, continue to pretend that dirty energy doesn't matter. We are still . . . . what's the word . . . STUCK!