The carbon dioxide bathtub

Carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, global warming – hot topics and most would agree by now something needs to be done about carbon emissions.

But for many of us, it’s a bit like the “terrible situation in Africa” we do little about and have done little about for over a generation. The sun still comes up every morning, we can still jump in our cars and head down to Mickey D’s drive thru and sure, the weather has been a little screwy, but overall things are ok.

As for addressing global warming, some of the talk has been about leveling off greenhouse gas emissions, then reducing them over a period of time – it’s a long term plan and more palatable than abrupt change to our lifestyles.

Others have warned that’s just not enough and the longer we leave drastic, and I mean drastic, action, the more severe action we’ll need to take to avoid disaster to our economies and environment. And if we leave it for too long, there’ll be no turning back.

Think of a kitchen sponge that’s been soaked to capacity with water – whatever water you add will still run off, whether it’s a teaspoon or a gallon. That’s the sort of analogy some are drawing in relation to greenhouse gases. Our oceans are soaked with CO2, to the point of them becoming acidic; and plants aren’t able to process more than what they are.

If tomorrow it was announced that carbon dioxide levels were dropping, there would be cause for great celebration and perhaps enough for us to let up our guard and reduce effort.

Even if an incredible drop of 10 parts per million occurred overnight, which it won’t, that would not be anywhere near enough to prevent disaster, but only put it off for a few years.

The carbon dioxide we emit today doesn’t disappear tomorrow. A single molecule of CO2 has a lifespan in the atmosphere of from anywhere from 50 to 200 years. At current emission levels, we’ll max out past the 450ppm “red line” by 2035. Even if we just continued emissions at current levels, we still redline at 450ppm by 2043. 450 parts per million is the point that’s generally accepted as the level where “catastrophic” climate change will occur.

You can view a simulation of various emission scenarios here –  water in a bathtub is used to represent CO2 in the atmosphere.

Stopping concentrations reaching critical levels is a bit like trying to slow down a fully ladened freighter. These large ships, once under way take many miles to pull up – stopping the freighter isn’t like stopping your car as a traffic light – it has to be planned well in advance.

How much do we need to reduce? By a massive 80% by 2050. Each year we put off concerted action, each year that we don’t reduce emissions makes the goal so much harder to achieve. It’s all well and good to be increasing wind power for example, but if we continue with extracting oil from places like Alberta’s oil sands, we make a big dent in moving forward.

Even if you feel that the whole CO2 situation and global warming is somewhat of a crock, perhaps even a deliberate hoax; what do we have to lose by attacking the issue whole-heartedly? We’ll have a cleaner, greener world by taking appropriate action.

Sure, some jobs will be lost, but others will be gained – we’ve been through all this before recently in terms of the technology revolution. We survived that fine.

But what could we lose by ignoring the warnings?

The natural world and society as we currently know it.