What’s the deal with carbon?

Sometimes we hear people say things like “carbon is a big problem” or “we need to regulate and reduce carbon.” We might be asked to calculate our carbon footprint to see how big of a contribution we’re making to climate change and how we can reduce it. Well if that’s been confusing or if it makes you skeptical about climate change and those pushing for new green policies, this article is for you.

The first thing to know is that carbon is quite literally everywhere in our physical world. Because of its characteristics, it is the keystone for perhaps 95 percent of known compounds. As a matter of fact, as elements go, it’s believed to be the sixth most abundant element in the universe. At room temperature and atmospheric pressure, also known as standard conditions, it’s a solid. In its purest form carbon can take the form of diamond or soot. When it’s bonded with hydrogen and oxygen it can form tree and plant cellulose (C6H10O5)n, table sugar (C12H22O11), wheat flour (C6H10O5)n, charcoal (C7H4O), and more than 9 million other compounds that I won’t list here.

So as you can imagine, there’s nothing wrong with carbon per se. It’s when carbon is converted, typically by combustion to an oxygenated compound, that is the subject of all this attention. And it’s not like carbon dioxide is inherently bad either, we all learned in school that plants take in carbon to grow, feed wildlife, and make us food. It’s the rate it’s being added to the earth’s atmosphere. More specifically it’s how much is being added relative to how much is being taken back to solid form to cellulose, sugar, etc. by plants or absorbed into water.

So why the carbon confusion? You may not be aware that people have been discussing global warming and climate change in the public sphere in the United States since the late 1980s. Over those 30 years we have started to assume that folks understand the shorthand of referring to carbon instead of carbon dioxide. What we sometimes forget is that some people are very concerned about the impact an earnest national or global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would have on their investments, their careers, and their lifestyles and a few very wealthy such individuals and companies have been supporting an entire network tasked with undermining the message that climate change is a threat to human civilization as we know it. Those folks take every advantage of the shorthand and imperfect explanations of this complex phenomena to create doubt in us. It’s their mission to do just that.

Last month’s column was a primer on systems thinking using the iceberg as a model for understanding complexity because the earth’s climate is very complicated and, to be helpful, we need to explore what’s beneath that which is obvious. Next month’s column will be about the history and structures of climate change skepticism, doubt, and denial.

Beth Berglund is an opinion columnist and also serves on the Stillwaters Board of Directors.