The Past, Present, and Future of Carbon

The science of climate change is older than you might think.

Marc Tarpenning
Sep 24, 2020 · 6 min read
Image of Miami under water (screenshot via 1958 Bell Science Hour; video below)

Here’s a picture of the Martian landscape that descended on my neighborhood earlier this month, courtesy of Clarity co-founder David Lu:

As shocking as these unearthly landscapes may look, we shouldn’t be shocked. At least, this wouldn’t have surprised Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel in chemistry in 1903.

More than 100 years ago, chemist Svante Arrhenius knew that releasing gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere would change the Earth’s atmospheric gas composition enough to lead to global climate change — including this sort of surreal, apocalyptic “weather.”

Here’s a timeline that’ll show you how this science developed — and just how old it really is.

Mid-1700s: The Discovery of Gases

Our understanding of carbon’s effect on the climate started with Svante Arrhenius’ mid-18th-century predecessors: Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, among others. These chemists discovered that air was not a single substance, but consisted of different invisible elements in gaseous form mixed together.

They managed this discovery using their state-of-the-art instruments: bell jars, magnifying glasses, pieces of wood, unfortunate mice and guinea pigs, and careful observations. They had to invent the word “gas,” among other things, to describe what they were observing.

Late 1700s: The Discovery of CO2

Creative commons / Wikipedia

Through their work, the scientists noticed that animals seemed to need one of those gases, later named oxygen, to stay alive. They also observed that it was somehow produced by plants.

About this same time, Joseph Black, using more jars and unlucky furry critters, isolated carbon dioxide (CO2). Later, Priestly figured out you could use it to artificially carbonate water to make tasty soda drinks. It just goes to show that some profound discoveries bring playful applications long before any philosophical revolutions.

Late 1700s: Understanding How Plants Use CO2

By carefully weighing all the inputs, by the end of the 18th century, it was understood that plants don’t get their mass from the soil, as had been believed since ancient times. Rather, they literally pull it out of thin air with the help of sunlight and water.

This is counter-intuitive enough that if you ask people today where the mass of a tree comes from, many will still tell you it comes from the soil. It’s only after they think about it for a moment, remembering some long-forgotten science class, or their own experience rooting cuttings in a jar full of water that becomes overgrown on the kitchen counter, that they realize it must come from the air — specifically, the CO2 in the air.

Early and Mid-1800s: Understanding the Greenhouse Effect

Joseph Fourier, of Fourier Transform fame, figured out that the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth isn’t enough to keep it warm: some of that heat must be trapped and prevented from radiating back out into space by gases in the atmosphere.

In the mid-1800s, Irish physicist John Tyndall quantified the contributions of various greenhouse gases, including CO2, in keeping the planet warm by trapping that heat. He was able to do that thanks to Eunice Foote, a rare women scientist of the day, who had presented the general idea first a few years before.

Early 1900s: Scientists Realize Releasing All This CO2 Would Change the Climate

Now, it becomes obvious that despite what many people may think, human-caused climate change isn’t a new idea.

Building on the science that came before him, in the early 1900s, Svante Arrhenius and others became concerned that releasing gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels would change the Earth’s atmospheric gas composition enough to lead to global climate change.

1958: The Risk of Sea Level Rise Featured on Bell Science Hour

There’s even a marvelous 1958 Bell Science Hour on weather (directed by Frank Capra no less) that spends a couple of minutes explaining the impact of burning oil and coal on the atmosphere, and ends with an animation of glass-bottom boats full of tourists sailing over the sunken city of Miami.

The point is, we’ve known, for a long time, what we were doing.

2020: Forest Fires

A typical tree spends its 40 year life happily building its body and feeding itself, along with other forest creatures, by taking the carbon from the CO2 in the air and releasing the waste oxygen, thank you very much. A mature tree will have removed about a ton of CO2 by constructing its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Some species a lot more. If that tree ends up as 2x4s in your house, the carbon remains sequestered for as long as the house stands. If the tree falls in the forest and decomposes, most of the carbon will be released back over decades, although some will remain permanently to enrich the soil.

(Photo used by permission of the USDA Forest Service.) / CC (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

However, if the tree is burnt, a lifetime worth of carbon is returned to the atmosphere in an instant. The immediate impact of wildfires on global warming is complex due to the many other things that happen during a fire: aerosol release, albedo changes, cloud formation, windblown soot among others — but the long term effects of the carbon are clear. The California Air Resource Board (CARB) (ref) estimates that for the type of forest we have in California, every 1 million acres burned releases about 27 million metric tons of CO2.

Although not good, compared to the 32 thousand million metric tons of CO2 released by human activity each year, our bad fire season doesn’t move the needle much.

2021 and Beyond

For many generations, science has been revealing the hidden truths of the way the world really is — even when it involves invisible gases keeping us warm and multi-ton structures hundreds of feet tall building themselves out of seeming nothing. It shows us how burning fossil fuels captures extra heat that is warming the oceans, and how that warming water lengthens and intensifies the wildfire seasons in the West and makes the hurricanes in the Gulf stronger and more frequent. And, of course, that the impacts are global.

This is established, long-held knowledge; it’s only the recent, bombastic consequences that look radical.

Hey, entrepreneurs:

If you’re a tech entrepreneur working on these problems, the world needs you! Get in touch with me at marc@spero.vc and tell me what you’re building.

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