6 November, 2018

The shift in the carbon cycle - How responsible are we?

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With the subject of climate change becoming increasingly prevalent, and calls to address it growing by the day, it can sometimes be a little difficult to understand why we’ve yet to do so.


There are a number of reasons as to why meaningful progress has been slow, ranging from the economic to the political, however ultimately they all rely on the same justification; it’s not been proven, with 100% certainty, that climate change is a direct result of human induced carbon emissions (though 97% of the scientific evidence agrees that it is).


What’s interesting to note (and is often misunderstood) is that the crux of this argument is not about whether or not the climate is changing; global temperatures have been accurately measured and tracked with thermometers since the end of the 19th century, and show conclusively that the global average has increased by around 0.8˚C. It’s also not about the level of carbon in the atmosphere; this has also been accurately monitored and tracked, and is known for a fact to be increasing.


The key point, and the main issue as far as sceptics are concerned, is how much we as a species are responsible for it…



The natural carbon cycle vs Man made carbon emissions


The Earth’s temperature is always changing. It’s been changing for millions of years, sometimes increasing, sometimes decreasing. Likewise, the levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere have also varied greatly.


This natural variation is the reason sceptics argue that humanity is not entirely responsible for the changes we’ve observed in recent times. The stance commonly put forward is that the climate was going to change anyway, and while mankind may have potentially ‘contributed’ to it the majority of the variation is simply a continuation of the Earth’s natural cycle. In addition, as a natural part of a planet’s lifecycle climate change is actually important and beneficial; it helps drive evolution and diversity of species, and prevents stagnation.


Considering this, should we be concerned?


Unfortunately, yes. While natural climate change does indeed play an important role in keeping our planet healthy, one factor which we need to be critically aware of is ‘time’. In order for natural, progressive adaptations to take place in our planet’s plant and wildlife, the shift in climate needs to be gradual. Historically, when the climate has changed too quickly species have been unable to adapt fast enough and it has led to extinction level events.


This is the point at which man made carbon emissions become a concern.


Even if hypothetically humanity’s contributions to the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are minimal compared to those which may have occurred naturally, they’re not negligible, and as they continue to build up cumulatively over the years they begin to have more and more of an impact.


One way to think of it is like a bathtub, 90% full, with the tap on but the plug out. Water is flowing in, and it’s also flowing out at the same rate. When we add another tap however, even one that’s merely dripping compared to the first, we put the cycle out of balance. The amount of water being added to the bathtub hasn’t increased by much, but it’s no longer equal to that which is flowing out. As a result, the overall water level keeps going up until finally the bathtub overflows and floods the bathroom.



As a global community, we’ve reached a point where we need to acknowledge the effect we can have on our climate. Although climate change is a natural phenomenon we’re knocking it out of balance, and if we don’t take meaningful, significant action soon to reduce our carbon emissions the consequences could be dire.


Our future is in our hands, and it’s up to us to make sure it’s clean, natural, and healthy.