You’ve likely heard a lot about carbon dioxide and the climate – but do you know what makes it such a major climate change contributor?
Carbon dioxide has been in the atmosphere for millennia, but its changing levels allow us to measure modern climate change. CO2 has become a sort of thermometer by which scientists can gauge the effects of human-induced pollution on the Earth. However, in addition to being a measure of climate issues, rising CO2 levels are also a cause.
In this complete guide to carbon dioxide and climate change, we’ll show you exactly what the connection is. Keep reading to learn more about CO2 and the environment!
What is Carbon Dioxide?
The carbon dioxide definition is far more simple than its environmental implications would have you think. Carbon dioxide is a perfectly natural molecule that commonly occurs on Earth. It’s also known as CO2 because it takes two atoms of oxygen and one of carbon to make carbon dioxide.
In most normal situations, CO2 comes in the form of a gas. This odorless, colorless gas is a natural part of the planet’s atmosphere. It plays a critical role in the Earth’s carbon cycle.
Chances are good that you learned a little bit about carbon dioxide in a middle school science class once upon a time. This is the gas that humans and animals breathe out when they exhale. Then, it’s absorbed by trees and other plants. CO2 is an important part of a plant’s photosynthesis process – without it, plants can’t grow.
Carbon dioxide is also commonly known as a “greenhouse gas.” As part of the atmosphere, it keeps some of the energy from the sun inside, making the Earth’s temperature bearable for life as we know it.
Carbon Dioxide and the Environment
It should already be easy to see the relationship between CO2 and the environment. Combine more humans and human activities with a reduction in forests and other plant life, and you get rising CO2 levels without enough plants to absorb it. This results in more sunlight getting trapped by the atmosphere than is needed.
This climate instability explains why climate change is related to extreme weather patterns, rising temperatures, and other well-known environmental issues.
CO2 Levels Throughout History
In addition to being part of the atmosphere, carbon is also part of the ocean or hydrosphere, and the ground or geosphere. Carbon is present in every living creature on Earth, too.
In the air, carbon combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. Plants, as well as algae and some kinds of bacteria, break down the CO2. They use the carbon in order to grow and release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, humans and other animals breathe in oxygen, as well as consume carbon-containing animals and plants. We derive our energy from meat and plants and breathe out carbon dioxide.
When dead plants and animals break down into the soil and millions of years pass, those buried remains can become highly pressurized under tons of rock and form heavily concentrated carbons and hydrocarbons. These concentrated carbons are the fossil fuels that humans have been using for centuries, including oil, coal, and gas.
Scientists know that since the end of the most recent Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago), the CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been fairly steady. For the vast majority of that time, they’ve stayed below 280 parts per million (ppm).
However, in the past 200 years, human innovation and activities have caused massive amounts of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels contributes a lot to this effect, as well as burning large swaths of vegetation and trees.
This has thrown off the planet’s carbon cycle significantly. Scientists believe that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels might have been even higher in prehistoric times than they are now, such as when the dinosaurs were alive. However, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere today are the highest they’ve been in 350,000 years.
The consequences of these carbon dioxide emissions are serious. Global warming is the most often-talked-about effect of climate change. But what does global warming mean, really? Let’s take a look at some of the effects of rising CO2 emissions on our way of life.
Reduced water supply
Research has shown that CO2 released into the atmosphere will stay there for up to 200 years. This means the CO2 emissions we release now have far-reaching effects. One of the most serious effects is that the demand for water will go up, while the supply will go down.
We’ve already seen a number of severe droughts affecting populous regions like Los Angeles. The reduction in water supply does more than just deprive people of the water they want and need. Water is also used in many manufacturing processes and is needed to grow food and produce energy.
The changing climate will cause higher rainfall in some places. This can result in more pollutants washing into the water supply. Meanwhile, as melting polar ice makes sea levels rise, salt water will enter some freshwater reserves. That water will then need to be treated before it is drinkable.
Severe weather patterns
Global warming also causes more tropical storms, wildfires, and other severe weather issues, in addition to droughts. The recent increase in devastating typhoons and hurricanes is no coincidence. It’s only going to get worse as CO2 levels rise.
These storms and other disasters can cause damage to local communities that take decades to recover from, even with the help of international aid groups. When local infrastructure is destroyed, other problems pose bigger threats. For example, many diseases are spread by broken sewer and water systems. Worst of all, these storms take countless lives in the communities they hit.
Rising carbon dioxide levels mean the food supply gets reduced, too. As temperatures rise and precipitation levels change, the conditions needed to grow crops can no longer be relied on in many areas.
This will result in lower crop yields, which means higher prices for those crops around the world.
Climate change affects the lives of animals, too. The animals that are usually hunted by some cultures may migrate to more suitable climates as temperatures change.
Seemingly tiny changes in the Earth’s temperature can have massive effects on the globe.
When the last Ice Age ended, global temperatures were only about 5 to 9 degrees cooler than they are today. However, many parts of the U.S. were coated with sheets of ice back then.
The changes will be just as drastic as temperatures rise. Sea levels will go up, flooding densely populated areas along the coasts. Scientists are doing their best to predict the effects of rising temperatures. Still, no doubt there will be some unpleasant surprises along the way, too.
Carbon Dioxide Poisoning
CO2 isn’t just dangerous to the environment in certain quantities. High carbon dioxide levels can also be directly toxic to humans.
Of course, we’re all normally exposed to low levels of CO2 and are fine with this naturally occurring gas in limited quantities. However, we can’t breathe carbon dioxide gas on its own or at high levels. It’s an asphyxiant gas and will cut off the supply of breathable oxygen.
When people are exposed to CO2 in concentrations of 10 percent or above, convulsions, unconsciousness, and even death can be the result. Even at lower concentrations, the gas can cause damage. It can result in hyperventilation, lung congestion, breathing issues, vision problems, nervous system issues, muscle contractions, high blood pressure.
Symptoms of carbon dioxide poisoning include:
- Tingling and numbness in the extremities
- Memory loss
- Ringing ears
- Burns on the skin and eyes
People who work with certain materials run the risk of carbon dioxide exposure and have to be careful to avoid poisoning. Those who work with chemicals, refrigeration, metalworking, food processing, and certain types of manufacturing all have a higher risk of exposure.
However, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, someday these risks might become a part of everyday life. Taking steps to reduce atmospheric CO2 is no longer an option. It’s a necessity if we want to keep the planet livable for the foreseeable future.
What Can You Do to Reduce Carbon Dioxide?
There are many ways individuals can reduce their “carbon footprints.” Many of these have become secondhand knowledge among any casual environmentalist. Drive your car less. Get a bike. Install energy-efficient appliances. Eat less red meat.
These individual efforts to help the environment are important. However, with massive companies still pumping carbon dioxide into the air, the pressure can’t be all on individuals to make these changes. Ultimately, it may come down to political regulations to get carbon emissions under control. The way we vote, live, and spend our money all have an effect on the future of our planet.
What steps are you taking to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere? Leave a comment and let us know!