There are a few reasons why a No Impact reader might care a whole lot about the fact that a writer named Eric Roston has just published his excellent book The Carbon Age.
One reason might be that, with so much talk about carbon dioxide this and carbon dioxide that, no one, until now, has given us a volume that really explains the science of carbon itself.
Carbon is both the the atom at the center of our DNA--of life--and of almost all of the human-activity-related global warming gases. The carbon dioxide, methane, and halocarbon molecules are all based on carbon.
Another reason might be because Eric reported for Time on climate and energy issues for six years. Yet another might be because he is a senior fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
But my own personal reason is because he has become a friend.
First as a frequent commenter here on the No Impact blog. Then by telephone (he's helped me more than once to understand the various climate solutions rattling around Washington). And finally, tonight, we met because he's here in New York on his book tour.
In a recent interview with Cocktail Party Physics, he eloquently explained the build up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, this way:
The geological time span that dates from 359 to 299 million years ago is called the Carboniferous Period. They call it that because the Earth saw a catastrophic drop in the partial pressure atmospheric carbon (dioxide) -- a 90% drop.
Here's part of the story, and as global carbon cycle scientists tell it, not even the most important part. In this period, woody plants populated bogs around the Earth's then-supercontinent. They lived their leafy lives, collapsed, perhaps one into another, face-planted in the muck, and over a couple of hundred million years became coal.
So, by extracting coal and burning it into atmospheric gas, we are reversing the photosynthesis that first captured solar energy (and atmospheric carbon) in living tissue 350 million years ago, in the Carboniferous. Except, we are doing it several orders of magnitude faster than it took to bury all that carbon to begin with.
Big problem, by the way, if you are used to the stable climates in places humans have built settlements and cities for the past 10,000 years. (Oil and gas are more "recent" geological phenomena. Most of the oil came "only" in the last 70 million years or so.) On the face of it, it's not illogical that atmospheric composition should change dramatically and acutely if you decided to pack it with 100 million years' worth of gasified sediment.