We can quantify the amount of our Carbon emissions by talking in terms of metric tons. We put into the atmosphere annually about NINE BILLION metric tons of CO2. Mother Earth is able to absorb about FIVE BILLION metric tons. The math is obvious. If we continue as we are and do not change the rate of emissions, we add FOUR BILLION metric tonnes per year. In only 40 years, by mid-century, we will see an additional one HUNDRED SIXTY BILLION metric tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere. But to really understand what the impact is, we need another kind of measurement. It is 'parts per million' (air molecules) and in 2008 we were at the 385 parts per million level.
It is believed by atmospheric scientists that the level of carbon dioxide has not been this high for almost a million years. About one million years ago, the climate was very hot. This was the epoch when evolving humans probably took to the water along ocean shores to escape the heat. During that era, we became reliably hairless and our noses evolved in a more downward direction to enhance our ability to breathe while swimming. Our lung capacity increased to enhance our ability to dive for food and to escape shoreline predators. Whatever caused the high level of CO2 in the atmosphere during the Pleistocene period, it was certainly not those early ancestors of Homo Sapiens!
Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide are estimated to have been about 271 parts per million (ppm) of the atmospheric molecules. It is easier to measure a million tiny molecules than to measure the metric tonnage of the entire atmosphere. At least the numbers are more easily understood. Currently we are above the 2008 average of 385 ppm. The rate is increasing and the 'tub' is filling. Will it be full when we reach 450 ppm? What will the impacts be? After a certain level is reached we will see a runaway effect due to the melting of the permafrost? Even without that release of additional methane, we will reach the level of 450 ppm before 2050 if we continue doing business as usual. A few scientists think we need to somehow reduce the level back to 350 ppm to avoid serious climate change. But how do we drain the 'tub?'
Carbon dioxide causes warmth by absorbing heat reflected from the earth's surface and re-radiating it back to the surface. Humans produce emissions by burning fossil fuels and removing forests. We currently emit twice as much CO2 into the atmosphere as poor old Mother Earth can remove. About thirty percent is absorbed by plants (trees in the rain forest are important for this) and soils. Another twenty five percent is absorbed by oceans (making them more and more acidic), while an insignificant amount (less than one percent) is absorbed by rocks. The rest, forty five percent of what we emit, stays in the atmosphere.
Mathematicians can apply an exponential decure curve as a model for the earth's ability to remove CO2 from its atmosphere. If our goal is to achieve the previous level of 350 ppm, we observe that the plants, soils, and oceans will take about 900 years to accomplish the goal. Without we invent some way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere faster than we add it, the best we can do right now seems to be to stop the rise of CO2. Perhaps some group of brilliant scientists will invent a giant contracting mechanism to get us out of trouble. Meanwhile, we need to hold the level constant and stop the rise. Stopping the rise of the level of CO2 in our atmosphere will require huge sacrifices from every human on the planet. But perhaps 'sacrifice' is the wrong word. If we managed huge cuts in emissions from cars, trucks, power plants, and factories would the quality of your life necessarily decrease? It will for sure if the faucet stays on and the tub overflows.
Think about your credit cards. Do you accrue more card debt than you pay off each month? If you do, ever you will reach a point where your minimum payments are no longer affordable. If you equalize card expenses and card payments, will your debt load decrease? No. Why? Because of the exorbitant interest rates being charged. You have to pay off more than you spend each month just to stay even. Have you applied recently for a new card? Notice how they invoke your 'credit rating'. If it is not near perfect, they charge you a higher rate. So you are punished for past lapses and too much debt. But the higher rate keeps your debt level right up there. And the higher the amount owed, the more interest the card companies make. So you have placed yourself in a downward spiral which will require real sacrifice to overcome. Some good advice we are implementing is to pay off the higher interest rate cards first while making minimum payments on the rest. Stop using them altogether if possible. If you absolutely need one, make sure it is paid off each month. You can request a new lower limit on the card in use if that helps you to keep it paid off.
Think about your waistline. Do you consume more calories than you burn off? If you do, you gain inches around your waist. If you increase your exercise and burn as many calories as you consume, do you then lose weight? No. If you hold your exercise level constant and reduce the number of calories you consume, will you lose weight? Maybe. If you increase your exercise and reduce your caloric intake, will you lose weight? Probably. Almost everyone can increase their level of exercise. But do you have the knowledge that will enable you to reduce calories efficiently and comfortably? Probably not. Basically, if you pour more calories in than you pour out, you are in an unhealthy situation. To make matters more complicated, we have to deal with bovine growth hormones, poultry antibiotics, fish mercury, and the big bad four of genetically modified foods, corn, soy, cotton, and canola. All of these have been proved to be very unhealthy contaminants in most of our food causing imbalances in our system, making it very difficult to maintain health, much less a healthy weight.
Think about a bathtub which you are filling for your bath. If you close the drain and turn on the water the tub will fill. If you leave the bathroom and forget the tub, what happens? If you have used too much cold water, and need to adjust the temperature, what do you do? Probably you open the drain and slowly run the warm water to adjust the temperature while holding the level constant. But what would you do if the drain was plugged and the tub was nearly full? You could wait for some water to evaporate. You could wait for the water to warm up. You could wait for some water to slowly see down the plugged drain.
Now think about the earth's biosphere, her atmosphere, oceans, and land masses. We know carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already causing global warming. The rate of emissions is rising. If we slow the increase in the rate will emissions decrease? Remember the bathtub? If you were turning up the rate of flow and stop, leaving the faucet where it is, the tub fills faster! If we decrease the rate will emissions stop? If you turn down the faucet, will the tub stop filling up? Remember, the drain is plugged. We need to change our diet, consume less, and somehow create a new lower limit. But while all of that will help, we still need to invent a way to 'drain the tub!'